A largely unremarkable open-world title saved by a few unique gameplay mechanics.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is perhaps the most enjoyable open world title I have played in recent memory, but only if you count the game's second half. The problem is that it takes a while to get to the point where it was a blast to play. The first half of the game is largely unremarkable while the second half makes it feel almost like an entirely new experience. This is main due to late game mechanics that fully flesh out the game's unique nemesis system.

Shadow of Mordor combines the flowing combat style of the Batman Arkham titles with the free running, wall climbing mechanics of the Assassin's Creed titles. Shadow of Mordor actually outperforms its source inspirations at their own mechanics in many areas. The combat can become hectic with a flurry of attacks, counters, and dodges as you potentially face off against over 20 foes at a time. Though curiously, Talion seemed to dodge only when he felt like it and not the moment I pressed the button like the case was with every other combat ability. This did result in taking a few hits that I tried very hard to avoid. The non-combat roaming aspects are also fluid, featuring simplified climbing mechanics that are easy to master almost immediately. Unfortuantely, there is an issue where some world geometry will cause you to come to a complete stop. It is not a game breaking issue but it happens enough that it became an annoyance.


What a great introduction to some of the game's basic mechanics

Sadly, the combat takes a while to really ramp up to the point where it is more than just tapping one button repeatedly. New skills and abilities are slow to be unlocked, requiring fair bit of playing through the optional side missions to gain experience and money to purchase new abilities or earn combat modifier runes. At least some of the side missions are enjoyable, even if many others (looking at you slave rescue missions) are incredibly repetitive. Naturally, everything done in this game counts towards your overall completion percentage, which also includes finding artifacts, finding Ithildin, and completing a variety of hunting and survival challenges. It would not be much of an open world title without a multitude of things to collect or do. At the very least, each artifact contains its own history and a brief bit of exposition between the undead Talion and his Wraith companion, Celebrimbor.

The story is about Talion, a Ranger of Gondor, seeking revenge against the Black Hand of Sauron after he took the life of Talion, his wife, and his son. A secondary story will find the duo uncovering the secrets of Celebrimbor's history. Fun fact, Celebrimbor was the artisan that made the Rings of Power. Missions seem to jump all over the place, though they do introduce new and interesting characters along the way. Every role is wonderfully acted thanks largely to some of the very high profile talent brought on for this game including Troy Baker, Nolan North, Laura Bailey, Jennifer Hale, Phil LaMarr, and Steve Blum among others.


The second area looks much better than the first, though that's not saying much

The story plays out through a series of disjointed missions over two main maps. The first map is largely unremarkable, featuring plenty of brown, grey, and red landscapes that are almost indistinguishable from one another. The second area at least looks a fair bit better with plenty of lush greenery to run through. Sadly, this area also features next to no remarkable landmarks and again suffers from the issue of every location looking the same as the last. The PC version of the game offers up a multitude of graphical options, including the much-discussed Ultra textures that reportedly require a video card with 6GB of VRAM. Unfortunately, even with those bells and whistles, there really is not much to write home about as far as the overall graphics are concerned. The only time I felt impressed by the on screen visuals were when it rained and hailed. Plus, despite the options presented, there still isn't any in-game AA for players to make use of. Even more curious is the fact that motion blur is completely broken in the PC release. At the time of this review, this issue has not yet been fixed.

The missions themselves are fairly diverse, though most do involve getting in the middle of the Uruk hierarchy. Over time, Talion games the system a bit by defeating Captains and Warchiefs that stand in the way of him getting his revenge. Thus, the new nemesis system comes into play. The nemesis system can be your best friend or your worst enemy. Defeating low level Captains will reward Talion with a new weapon rune that provides a bit of a buff to one of his three weapons. The death of a Captain or Warchief also creates a void in the hierarchy. Over time, new, randomly generated Uruk take up those vacant spots. Low level soldiers that kill Talion are promoted to Captains. Captains that defeat other Captains will often grow in power. Powerful Captains are then brought on as bodyguards for the Warchiefs. The system becomes even more complex when you realize that your actions or inactions can directly affect which Uruk get promoted. Promotions and power struggles also occur even without your direct intervention in an ever-changing hierarchy of Captains and Warchiefs.


The nemesis system at work

Sadly, there isn't too much you can really do to influence the course of events in the first half of the game. Sure, you can kill Captains to create vacant spots to be filled later, but that's about it. The first ten or so missions serve as an extended introduction to the nemesis system prior to discovering its full potential thanks to the Brand ability. Branding enemies essentially means that they now work for you. This applies to the low-level soldiers and extends all the way up the chain of command to the Warchiefs themselves. Do you want to tackle a Warchief that is not yet under your control? It is not a problem with the Brand ability. Gather a bit of intelligence to see who serves as a bodyguard for that Warchief and then hunt that bodyguard down in the open world environment. Bend them to your will and you are all set. When the time comes to summon the Warchief, his bodyguard will be under your control. Wake your sleeper agent and watch as he begins to attack the Uruk he was supposed to be protecting. There will come a point where almost everybody in power is under your control and that is a fantastic feeling. The second half of the game truly feels like an entirely new experience thanks to the Brand ability.


Tons of upgrades and abilities to unlock

The game will take most gamers around 15 hours to complete. This includes a blend of main story and some, but not all, of the side missions. If you want to get 100% completion in the game, it will probably take between 20 to 25 hours. The game does pack in a lot of content but most of it are the optional side missions that most players probably won't care too much about. There is no doubt in my mind that without the nemesis system and the ability to assume control over your powerful foes, this game would not even be a blip on the radar. In fact, the first half of the game is quite the repetitive slog and if it wasn't for the stellar second half, the game would be nothing more than a two out of five, at best. The fun and enjoyment that the second half delivers saves the day here. I wouldn't mind seeing more in this franchise at some point in the future. Just be sure to give me the awesome Brand ability from the start, that's really all I ask.


Negatives
- Main story seems a bit too disjointed at times
- Early combat is far too easy and may put off some players (1)
- Will sometimes come to a complete stop (get stuck) on terrain and geometry while moving (2)
- First half of the game starts to feel like a drag
- Repetitive missions and gameplay
- Boring, repetitive, and unremarkable environments
- Uninspired boss fight designs
- No in-game AA options and motion blur does not (at present) work on PC (3)
Related Information
Title: Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 3 (November 18), Xbox 360 (November 18) (Reviewed on PC)
Website: https://www.shadowofmordor.com/
ESRB Rating: M for Mature 17+ for blood, gore, and intense violence