Review: Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor

About this Game

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

Publisher

Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

Developer

Monolith Productions

Release Date

September 30, 2014

Console

PlayStation 4

Time to Plat

20-30h

Platinum Difficulty

Easy

Online Trophies?

Yes

Difficulty Trophies?

No

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A STRONG MECHANIC WEAKLY PEPPERED WITH A POPULAR FRANCHISE

As some readers may have expertly deduced from the name, Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is a game set in the Lord of the Rings universe originally created by the well-known writer “J.R.R Tolkein”, who also wrote “The Hobbit” (originally created to be a bedtime story for his nephew) and “The Silmarillion” which are also set in Middle-earth.

In this game players are in control of a hero by the name of Talion, who has a face like it was made solely to demonstrate what the “Uncanny Valley” is, but I’ll come back to that. Early into the game Talion, his wife Ioreth and son Dirhael find themselves face to face with Sauron’s “Black Captains” who promptly dispatch the whole lot of them, bringing the game to a quick end…

Or so you thought! Turns out, Talion’s only bloody gone and fused with Celebrimbor himself!

For those not that familiar with the lore of The Lord of the Rings, Celebrimbor is the Elven master smith who originally forged the three rings of power which were gifted to the Elfs (the LotR books I read as a kid insisted Tolkein would prefer it be spelled this way, but Elves seems so much more correct – doesn’t it?) but most importantly, The One Ring (to rule them all), so yeah, he’s a pretty big deal.

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Celebrimbor, the elven wraith

Within the game he appears as a wraith, and you can freely switch between Celebrimbor within the misty “wraith world” or Talion by simply tapping PS4 R1 button icon. A large portion of the game consists of understanding what this fusion of the two characters means for them, and hunting down relics (with the occasional help of another familiar character – Gollum) through which Celebrimbor can recall the past, conveniently allowing Talion – and the player – to relive these moments from history too, thus plot develops.

Other than that, you’re tasked with taking on the Orc armies of Mordor with the help of a novel and (at the time) unique system known as the “Nemesis System” (more on that later). The end goal, of course, being to put an end to whatever cruel and evil plans Sauron has.

As stated before, Gollum features in this game albeit sadly not very much. Ol’ Smeagol pops up around 3 or 4 times in the game to lead you to a plot-riddled artefact of importance before slinking off into insignificance never to be seen again.

In time you come to meet a few more characters, none of whom I’ve heard of before and if they are actually from the Lord of the Rings lore, Warner Bros Games must have been digging pretty deep into the Silmarillion to pull these ones out of the hat.

One of these characters is a leader of a resistance of human slaves who want to fight back against Sauron’s army and win their freedom. His name is “Hirgon” and through him, the player will get to play some very same-y and repetitive main-story missions in aid of the resistance, eventually leading to a fight with the “Hammer of Sauron” one of the head-honcho “Black Captains” after which a second area of the game opens up and we meet “Lithariel”, daughter of the uninspiringly-named “Queen Marwen” who is facing a very familiar-looking illness which fans of LotR will recognise immediately.

After a little convincing she sends you out into the new area in search of an artefact she reckons will be of good use, where we meet the only other character worth mentioning, Torvin, a dwarven hunter who teaches you various tricks necessary for getting one of the easier trophies.

Playing the Game

Hands down, the best thing about this game is the Nemesis system. Each orc is led by a Captain and each Captain has their own pseudo-randomly generated name (which is even voice-acted!), appearance, strengths and weaknesses.

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The “Sauron’s Army” section lets you monitor the living “Nemesis System”

Throughout the game you can gain intel by interrogating other Orcs to uncover information about their captains. Certain orcs known as “Worms” can give you more in-depth information about a Captain’s strengths and weaknesses, which you can then access and use to your advantage when the time comes to face off against a Captain.

As well as the Captains, the nemesis system also features up to 5 “Warchiefs”. These guys are beefier Captains but essentially work the same. You find out information about them, locate them, and kill or brand them. Unlike Captains, however, you can’t just rock up to a warchief and give him a good flogging. Instead you must complete something of a side-quest wherein you perform actions ranging from killing the warchief’s favourite Orc to stealth-killing his archers which will bring them out of the woodwork ripe for the murdering.

Warchiefs will appear with their bodyguards in tow. Usually they will have around 2 or 3 captains with them naturally, but they can have up to 5 – though I never witnessed this myself without giving them a little nudge to make it happen.

There is a lot of fun to be had with the Nemesis system, as some Orcs will retreat, or get away, or even kill you and then remember you upon your next meeting with them. Complete with wounds from their previous fight, such as burns if the player manages to ignite their foe.

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“Dominating” a Branded Uruk gives you access to command options.

The real fun begins about halfway into the game though, when you receive the ability to “Brand” orcs. This essentially means you can make them fight for you, and strategically plant your own Orc captains throughout the nemesis system. With control over an orc captain you can have them sign up as a warchief’s bodyguard meaning they will be in the prime position to turn on the warchief and fight with you in a battle against them. Or you can have your warchiefs perform actions such as sending a death threat to another captain on your behalf (which can yield higher rewards), betraying their warchief directly without you instigating, or simply going into battle with another Captain.

Usually, requesting that your Captain perform any of these actions will result in a side-quest appearing on the map within which you can aid your Captain ensuring they are successful in carrying out your orders. Although if you prefer, you can bypass it by forwarding time at one of Celebrimbor’s wraith-world towers and the game will roll a die to determine whether your Captain was successful or not.

The aforementioned Towers are essentially sync points from the Assassin’s Creed games. You can use them to uncover the map or fast travel and they’re not the only thing Assassin’s Creed(AC) has inspired in Shadow of Mordor.

There is a very AC-inspired climbing mechanic present in the game, complete with all the frustrations that come with that. Precise movements are near impossible and you’ll often find yourself trying to clamber through a window while Orcs throw all manner of projectiles at you but Talion insists on grabbing just about every grabbable ledge in the area except the one you’re going for. Something players of early AC games will be all-too familiar with.

The combat in Shadow of Mordor is also reminiscent of old AC games, a simple two-button system of attacking with Ps4 Square button icon and countering with PS4 triangle button icon, although to be fair Warner Bros also made the Arkham series of Batman games, the combat for which is much closer to what you’ll find in Shadow of Mordor.

The combat does consist of a little more than just mindlessly pushing Ps4 Square button icon, then PS4 triangle button icon, then Ps4 Square button icon a few more times. For one, there is a bow, some sort of magical wraith-bow provided by Celebrimbor, which when drawn will slow time (until your focus bar runs out) allowing you to take your time picking off Orcs with headshots one-by-one with incredible and almost stupid ease. Their feeble attempt at combating this nuke of a weapon is to limit the number of arrows you can fire, until you pick up some more magical wraith-arrows which just so happen to be spattered about the map, or drain/brand an enemy by holding circle when facing a relatively-close orc.

Other bow actions the bow can unlock include the ability to explode campfires or grog barrels and teleporting to the enemy you’re aiming at, immediately killing or stunning them and “Shadow Mounting” a Caragor or Graug, which is essentially just teleporting onto them and skipping the usual long-winded taming process. This then means that creature is “branded” and will follow you and fight for you even when dismounted. Which is nice.

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The dark and disappointing “Wraith World” vision

You can get a good idea of how many orcs are in an area by entering into “Wraith Mode” and switching to Celebrimbor, who can see all enemies, beasts, creatures, and interactables through walls and other such vision-impeding obstacles. They will be seen fully highlighted and glowing in bright colour. Which is all well and good except you can’t see more than 3 feet in front of Celebrimbor when you’re in this state. Warner Bros’ attempt at recreating the very wispy and fog-engulfed Wraith world as seen in the franchise’s mainline films results in the player being swallowed by a thick black fog which impedes your ability to see your surroundings. This doesn’t have much of a negative effect on gameplay, but is simply disappointing to see given how great the wraith world visuals were in the movies, and still are today.

Lastly, there are various hit-streak actions you can perform. Once your hit-streak reaches 8 hits (or 5 after a bit of upgrading) Talion’s sword will begin to glow signifying you that you can perform one of the four (unlockable) combos:

  • PS4 triangle button icon + PS4 Circle Button icon Combat Execution – Instantly kills one enemy, usually by beheading.
  • PS4 X button icon + PS4 Circle Button icon Combat Drain/Combat Brand – Grabs one enemy and drains them to refill your arrow supply. Once upgraded to Combat Brand it also turns the Orc so that they fight alongside you, great for end-game fun.
  • PS4 X button icon + Ps4 Square button icon Wraith Flash – Talion punches the ground, sending out a burning white shockwave which will stun and ever-so-slightly damage those within an area around him.
  • Ps4 Square button icon + PS4 triangle button icon Wraith burn – Similar to Wraith Flash except it instantly kills all downed enemies, whom you’d usually need to kill with a downed execution (R”+Square).

Occasionally you will also be faced with a QTE button prompt in order to finish off a warchief or counter a Caragor.

Caragors are one of the three beasts in the game. Large hairless wolf-like creatures which you’d expect to be Wargs, alas Wargs aren’t present in the game and enemies don’t mount Caragors like the player can. Which is a shame as it’d likely be quite cool to have Caragor-jousting matches with enemy warchiefs.

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Talion mounting a branded Caragor

The other two beasts are Graugs (which are like Cave Trolls except they’re not) and Ghûls. Graugs can be found around cave-mouths and taking one out is a long and tricky process… Until you get the shadow-mount ability, that is, which lets you just teleport on it’s head and then you’ve nothing to worry about. There is also a “Dire Graug” enemy type which is a bit trickier to beat but ultimately no problem with the shadow mount ability.

Ghûls on the other hand are small, bipedal and irritatingly weak enemies which attack in large groups and are utterly useless. Despite their number you can easily bat them away as you stride through their territory and they do so little damage you wouldn’t even notice they were attacking you. There are also Spitter Ghûls which are slightly more of a problem. As their name suggests, they spit a greenish bile at you which can stagger Talion causing a bit of a nuisance but they’re ultimately not too hard to take down.

It’s their mothers you want to worry about. Larger Ghûls called Ghul Matrons with the cajones to stand up straight when they’re talking to you, these guys put up a much better fight and prove quite challenging, even giving the normal Ghûls chance to do some decent damage on you.

The Beasts of Shadow of Mordor essentially serve 3 purposes. There are 10 hunting challenges (challenge being a slight exaggeration) which ask that you go and hunt 10 different creatures such as rats and bats and then beasts such as Caragors and Graugs. As well as this, some Captains and Warlords are afraid of certain beasts, if you can get that beast to show up during battle you’ll have an upper hand against that enemy. And lastly, transport. Getting around on a Caragor is much quicker than getting around on foot.

Now, the part you’ve I’ve been waiting for. The visuals.

This game is ugly.

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Talion’s ugly mug

I don’t know how or why they decided to f*** up the faces of pretty much every character in the game but it is really quite bad. The orcs all look great but, to be fair, they’re supposed to be ugly so WB couldn’t really mess that one up, could they?

The main character, sadly, the one you’ll be looking at for most of the game is so poorly modeled, every feature on his face looks like it was pulled out too far horizontally, and like I said before, fits squarely in the uncanny valley (this expression refers to the unsettling feeling we experience when something resembles a human closely, but not closely enough, which when charted is in the shape of a valley).

When I discovered there were skins which you could equip to change your character’s appearance I was extremely excited to stop having to look at Talion. Unfortunately, they’re all just as ugly, except (by a small margin) Lithariel, who looks mostly normal until she grimaces during a face-off with a Captain. So, naturally I switched to Lithariel…

Only to find that nobody acknowledges the fact that you’re now a completely different person, not even the game. She still speaks with Talions voice, enemies refer to you as “he” or “him” and Talion makes a reappearance during all cutscenes anyway, making it completely pointless to change skin as Talion’s utterly unsettling visage will continue to haunt you throughout the game.

Outside of character models, the game’s environments are very well constructed. You really feel like you’re traipsing around Mordor through mud and blood looking for action…

But it’s not fun. The environment is the same exact thing multiple times over save for the odd stronghold. Eventually you get tired of looking at cold stone, black metal, filth, and rust. Thankfully though, just as you’re about to switch off the game because you want to see grass again, it throws grass at you!

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The second area – Sea of Núrnen

The second area is a grassy plain filled with towers, broken walls, cold stone… black metal… filth… and rust. Just about the only difference is the addition of the colour green, and even that becomes so desaturated in the foggy, damp air that you will quickly forget it was new at all. I don’t deny that the developers did an okay job of making it seem true to the concepts established by the popular movie franchise, but it’s not diverse in the slightest and that is what really disappoints me the most. It’s a Lord of the Rings game. Of all the visual elements they could have taken from the well-established and diverse world of Middle-Earth… They chose dark and gloomy.

Platting the Game

On to the real reason why I even installed this game, let’s be honest. The shadow of mordor is a fairly easy plat except for a couple of real tricksy hobbitses trophies. You can easily get the trophy in one playthrough and won’t even have to play any of the extra modes that WB packed into the game. Although if you enjoy the Nemesis system as much as I did when I first played it at release on my old PC, you’ll likely want to check those other game modes out.

My approach was simply to just go through the segmented map one segment at a time, clearing all Sword, Dagger and Bow missions, collecting all artefacts and the “Ithildin” collectibles.

Ithildin are essentially just symbols on walls. You can see them on the map so there is no challenge to finding them other than the fact you need to be in wraith mode to see and interact with them, but it’s the same for the artefacts. Makes you wonder why they didn’t just double the number of artefacts in the game instead, but I suppose adding that many models would have been too much work for WB Games.

Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor | Ithildin
Ithildin are glowing symbols found on walls throughout Mordor

Once I’d cleared everything I could, I would proceed with main story missions until more side-quests became available to me. This way, by the time I’d moved on to the second area I had all of the collectibles and had completed all of the missions except for one or two weapon-based missions which I needed certain skills for. I would come back for these at the end of the game.

All of this took me around 18-20 hours to do and I’d completed a lot of the Nemesis-System-related trophies in that time, leaving only a few trophies left. I spend the next couple of hours mopping up the last of the Survival missions (essentially just ran around picking flowers for half an hour) and Hunting missions (killing specific creatures in order) for the trophies associated with them.

Here are the trophies which really took some doing;

The White Rider

Liberate 30 slaves in 180 seconds while riding a Caragor

This one was real rough, essentially I had 3 minutes to find a group of slaves and kill the orc (or orcs) keeping them there, then quickly move on to another group. Eventually, I found a good area to patrol, the western edge of the second area has quite a lot of these groups dotted around during the day. So I teleported to the western-most tower, from where I could see a Caragor in the swamp to shadow-mount almost immediately.

I then simply ran around western-most area looking for slave groups for around 15 minutes until the trophy popped. I must have freed somewhere around 100 slaves but would keep hitting a drought where no slave groups would be present and the timer would be reset.

Liberator

Complete all Outcast Rescue Missions

When freeing a slave group as mentioned in the previous trophy, this would unlock an Outcast mission. Now, this isn’t a difficult trophy by any means, simply free slaves, unlock a mission, complete the mission and repeat. There are 12 missions per area and there’s no way to check how many you’d done in each area and you can only unlock missions for the area you’re in. So that’s where I had a problem.

I’d somehow skipped over this trophy and not seen it for the majority of my time hunting. All those Outcast missions I’d mindlessly done without keeping track meant that I had no idea how many I needed from each area. Sometimes freeing slaves wouldn’t spawn a mission, so I’d assume I was done with that area only to become confused later when the same happened in the other area and I was nowhere near completing all 24.

Just one to look out for I suppose.

No Power in Numbers

Help a Captain survive a Recruitment Power Struggle, and then kill him and all his new recruits

The easiest way I found to do this is to brand a Captain and then order him to attempt to become a bodyguard for one of the warchiefs. This begins a recruitment power struggle wherein your Captain attempts to recruit new followers. You can join in the fray to help him out ensuring his victory.

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The “No Power in Numbers” trophy popping

There is a skill in the game which allows you to kill all nearby branded allies by simply holding PS4 d-pad down icon. So, if you’re successful in recruiting new allies for your Captain, they also become branded and all you need to do is complete the power struggle then hold the PS4 d-pad down icon button…

Unless you’re too good.

I was appearing on the scene and immediately dispatching all marked enemies with a quick string of headshots. “And that’s bad?” you ask? Well, it turns out that doing this causes all Orcs in the area to panic and flee, even though they’re now recruits of your Captain and thus are branded. So, when I was holding the down button to kill all nearby branded recruits, I wasn’t killing the ones who had fled the scene and therefore not fulfilling the trophy requirements.

I did this 3 times before I realised what I was doing wrong…

Stinking Rebels

Brand 5 Bodyguards of a Warchief, turning them against him in combat

You may recall when I said that Warchiefs don’t typically have 5 bodyguards unless you give them a little nudge in the right direction. This is where that nudge becomes necessity.

To start off I found a warchief with 3 bodyguards and branded them all. Easy enough. By the time I’d gone to brand a fourth Captain so I could instruct him to attempt to become a bodyguard too, one of my bodyguards had died and another had promoted himself to warchief. So I was left needing to gather and promote 4 more orcs to bodyguard.

Eventually after a tremendously long time I was able to have one of his 5 new bodyguards betray him, so I turned up at the betrayal and reaped what I’d sown.

It’s not a  technically difficult trophy but it requires some time be put in.

A Mighty Doom

Acquire a level 25 Rune

This was the last trophy I completed and took some time to set up, however I got lucky, as I could have had a much harder time.

The level of a Rune is dictated by the level of the Warchief or Captain who drops it, so to get a level 25 rune you just need to kill a level 25 captain, right?

Wrong.

The level cap for enemies is 20 and you must fulfil certain conditions to up the level of a rune to 25. Not only that but you need to cross your fingers and hope that you don’t get an epic (gold) rune, because epic runes don’t have a level, only common (white) or rare (blue) runes can have a level. Luckily RNG didn’t screw me here and I got my level 25 rune first try. Here’s how;

First I found a captain who was bodyguard to a warchief and let him kill me. This made him a revenge target in the nemesis system, which adds 1 level to the rune already. He was level 17 after killing me so I had to help him out a little. I went to all of his side-missions where I’d usually want to kill or weaken him, but instead helped him achieve his goal and therefore level up. Three of these side-missions later he was level 20.

I then hunted down the warchief he was a bodyguard for and killed him. This meant our level 20 captain was promoted to warchief. That’s another 2 levels tacked on, bringing our total to 23.

Lastly, before killing him, I found a worm and interrogated them for information on our warchief, most chiefly, his weaknesses. Knowing a warchief’s weaknesses adds another level to our rune and now all I needed was to exploit a weakness. This particular warchief was afraid of caragors and vulnerable to explosions. I decided to exploit the Caragor weakness as it’d be less tricky to pull off.

When arriving at his stronghold I used Celebrimbor to find a nearby caged caragor and kept it’s location in mind, upon completing the constraints to get the warchief to appear, I baited him over to the caragor cage and released it, finally bringing the rune level total up to 25. I quickly dispatched him with my fingers and toes crossed and was delighted to receive a level 25 common sword rune.

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The Platinum trophy pops as the rune level is still being tallied in the top right

In Summary…

While I am certainly a fan of Lord of the Rings and playing this game rekindled my love for all things LotR, this game is a poor representation of the LotR franchise and WB Games almost shockingly underutilised the world which was handed to them. This game’s only saving grace is the Nemesis system which isn’t really excuse enough to make a LotR game since the system would have worked regardless of the setting. They simply came up with a great mechanic and then grabbed the nearest available popular Intellectual Property and lightly rubbed it on.

Aside from my disappointment at this being a LotR game, I also can’t quite get over just how ugly the character models are, I really wish this game would have been more of a testament to Lord of the Rings and felt more like it fit snugly within the canon of the franchise. Instead, it feels like a poorly-illustrated fanfiction by a writer so ashamed of what they’re doing that they’re afraid to use any elements of their subject matter.

Verdict

Plat

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Plat it! It’s not a great game and definitely falls short at a lot of hurdles, but the platinum is easy enough and it gives you a good enough excuse to play around with the fun nemesis system, so why not?

Pros

  • The Nemesis System is complex and interesting to experiment with
  • The bow’s many OP skills are fun to use
  • The platinum trophy is easy

Cons

  • Under-utilisation of the Lord of the Rings setting
  • Ugly character models
  • Grim and uninteresting environments
  • Almost jarringly short for what it is
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Silver Trophy

If it weren’t for the intuitive Nemesis system and the easy plat, I’d have no problem giving this game a Bronze trophy, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy some aspects of it.

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About the Author

More fond of single-player experiences and story-driven games than anything else, TheDblTap has a keen eye for secrets and collectables, a skill which serves him well as a Trophy Hunter. However, with little patience and poor timing, he can struggle where MrZhangetsu would succeed.

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