The best thing about playing Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is that it makes me feel over-the-top powerful without sacrificing the fear of defeat. It’s got great free-flowing combat and a good-sized, good-looking open world full of Lord of the Rings lore to find, but what makes it special is what’s going on in the background: an intriguing hierarchy of enemies that gives every victory and defeat extra meaning.
A brief and shocking opening scene sets a dark and brutal tone as Talion, a former Ranger of Gondor, is ritually executed along with his family. Talion’s spirit is then bound to an amnesiac elf ghost and returned to Middle-earth for vengeance against Sauron’s forces. It’s a story that doesn’t make total sense for hardcore Tolkien scholars, but it’s well-acted. It makes decent use of Gollum, and there are a couple of memorable new characters - particularly Ratbag the comic-relief uruk, who guides you through the process of infiltrating the enemy army.
My interest in the plot dwindled toward the end, but it does a fair job of explaining why Talion has such sweet supernatural powers with his sword, dagger, and bow. Much like in the Batman: Arkham games, you can choose to stealthily pick off enemies one at a time, or dive head-first into a brawl with dozens of opponents and beat the crap out of them with a smoothly animated series of attacks and counters. Unlike Batman, of course, Mordor’s involve great, gory decapitation and stabbing animations, and outside of the scripted story missions, there are few distinctly separated stealth and combat areas. It’s enticingly freeform.
Sword combat feels pretty much just as good here as brawling does in Batman - which is to say it’s amazing. Mordor’s take on building up hit streaks to power up lethal takedowns is a bit more forgiving, in that you’re almost never locked into an animation. If you push the counter button, Talion will drop what he’s doing and counter instantly. It’s extremely responsive. A time-slowing power makes scoring a couple of headshots with the bow easy, whether in stealth or in the heat of battle, though it’s kept in check by ammo constraints and a limited (but upgradable) supply of time-slowing juice. And even though stealth gameplay is pretty basic, it’s great to have the option to thin the herd a bit before they know you’re there.
What really sets the feel of Mordor’s combat apart from the Batman games is that it’s really easy to get into trouble, especially early on. If you let the uruks raise the alarm in one of their strongholds, or just happen across a few large wandering groups on the densely populated map, you can quickly become overwhelmed by more enemies than you can hope to handle. Picking out the shield bearers and ax-wielding berserkers who are immune to frontal attacks and killing them first becomes tough to do when you’re completely surrounded, and it goes downhill from there. Health doesn’t recharge much on its own, and until you can upgrade your health pool, you may find yourself succumbing to death by a thousand pinpricks if you don’t retreat.
Things got a lot easier a few hours in when I’d leveled up and unlocked more of Talion’s skill tree so that I could build up combos quicker, execute two enemies for the price of one, and even fight mounted on a huge, rancor-like graug who pops uruks into his mouth like jellybeans. It feels powerful, but I still don’t feel invincible even with everything nearly maxed out.
And what’s really cool about Mordor is that whether you win or lose a fight, something interesting happens. If you kill an uruk captain, he drops a rune that can be slotted into one of your weapons for bonuses. Some of them changed the way I played, like the legendary rune that extended the amount of time I have to score another hit before my combo count resets by 10 seconds, and one that made me immune to poison attacks. If any uruk kills you, even if he’s a random grunt, he levels up and earns new abilities and some cooler armor. Maybe he gets promoted up the chain of command. You’ll definitely run into him again later to settle the score, and he’ll have a new introduction taunt about his victory when you meet. It makes each death feel meaningful.
Most uruk captains do tend to die too quickly to really become memorable, but some definitely did. For that reason, and to identify the arrival of a significant threat, I never really got tired of the action-pausing cut scenes that play when a captain shows up. There are enough different voices and multiple possible lines that I rarely saw repeats, and the uruk faces are surprisingly well animated and expressive.
Even though the hierarchy is a pretty simple system when you understand what it’s doing, and realize that these uruk captains aren’t actually roaming the map in real time, it’s great to play with. Uruks have an internal power struggle for rank, and you can interrupt their duels, feasts, hunts, and more to pick fights and kill off Uruk captains and ultimately the powerful Warchiefs. Each captain has his own randomized strengths and vulnerabilities, so every fight is at least a little different. I ran into a couple of guys who seemed invulnerable to almost everything, which was a little annoying - one fight took me about 15 minutes of repeatedly chasing down a captain who was invulnerable to my sword and dagger and filling him with arrows trying to damage him faster than his health regenerated. Eventually, though, they all went down.
In the second act, you transition from the bleak, brown map to a refreshingly greener-looking area of Mordor. There, Talion and his elf-ghost buddy suddenly realize he can mind-control uruks and turn them against each other. That’s even more fun, because the ability to “brand” an enemy gives you the choice of either killing a captain for a rune reward or controlling him and siccing him on one of his former allies. Taking an uruk alive can be trickier than lopping off his head, though, so it’s more challenging to accomplish the new goal of mind-controlling five Warchiefs. I love how you have the option to mind-control a Warchief’s lieutenants, then kill the Warchief, to watch your minion become the new Warchief.
Charging through the decent but less-exciting story missions would probably take around 12 hours, but the goal of killing or dominating the Warchiefs is much more time-consuming and interesting. I spent around 25 hours to reach the end, and there’s still a lot of challenging side missions based around testing sword, bow, and dagger skills left to do. And, of course, lots of collectables and wildlife-hunting challenges.
On the PC side Mordor also compares to the Batman games, in that it’s of good quality. There are even some enhanced graphics settings, including an ultra-high texture setting that requires a full 6GB of video memory. My only issue with it is some awkward menu controls, but most of those are customizable and those that aren’t too inconvenient to get used to.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor stands out from other open-world action games by putting a great new layer on top of the trail that Batman blazed. I was surprised at how well it integrates its excellent combat with rewarding feedback and progression not just for me, but also for my enemies. I’ve had many more memorable and unpredictable battles with its randomized Warchiefs and captains than I did in the scripted campaign missions, and I expect those to keep on coming.