Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor Impressions

1280Mordor4I briefly touched on the fact that Shadow is a fun, compelling game. There are bugs and flaws, but he total experience rises so far above them that they seem inconsequential. The game realizes its goal of making you feel part of an epic adventure and tied in to the saga of the rings.

So what kind of game is it? It’s an open world action adventure with stealth and army building components. That sounds a bit dry. Essentially, you’re on a vengeance quest. You and your family have been sacrificed in an arcane magic ritual. Somehow this ritual has gone wrong and trapped your body and soul and tied them to the spirit of some long dead elf. This makes you an undying wraith, but also places you at the center of a power struggle for control of Mordor.

Most descriptions have it as an Assassin’s Creed game set in Middle Earth using Batman (Arkham) combat with a healthy dose of magical powers. That’s true as far as it goes, but the game is more than that. It’s a RPG with steadily building powers. Later in the game it clearly becomes a power struggle where you can change the course of events. There’s also a bit of hunting and wildlife simulator going on in there. It’s like movie magic that continually convinces you that this artificial world is real and alive.

The best trick may be your sense of mortality. Sure, you’re an undying wraith, but if you’re not careful, you’ll spend an awful lot of time dying. Obviously, dying is not an end state, but it does change the game world. Whoever killed you, assuming it’s not an animal, grows stronger and more prestigious. In short, the difficulty increases as a punishment to careless play. It’s a good motivation to learn the game systems and play to your strengths.

Some enemies are just tough. If you don’t exploit their weaknesses, they might kill you faster than you can kill them. Higher level enemies might only be vulnerable to one type of attack. If they’re invulnerable to ranged and stealth attacks, you have to fight them head on. If they have rapid attacks and poisoned weapons, you might need to lure them out of their stronghold, so you can narrow the odds before you fight them. Maybe you lure some hostile wildlife in to occupy some defenders. You’re never short of tactical possibilities.

That’s where the RPG progression comes in. While you can get a little tougher and stronger, most of your upgrades open up new options. I don’t want to spoil the fun of tactical exploration, but by the time you’re nearing the end of the skill tree, you feel pretty powerful dashing between attacks, stealth kills, stuns and dominations. You still have to be careful that you don’t leave too many ranged attackers or get surrounded by shield bearers. The game can get unfair, but only if you let it. Sometimes a temporary withdrawal is the smartest move. After all, if they don’t know where you are, you can go back to stealth attacks.

The game creates a good sense of momentum moving the individual fight to the tactical assault to the struggle for power within Mordor. While killing an individual orc won’t change much, it can open a path to your mission objective or assassination target. Setting off an alarm will have consequences. If it occurs in a stronghold, you will be met with escalating and eventually overwhelming force. That might be what you want if you need to draw out a warchief. In fact, the requirements to draw out certain warchiefs are some of the most interesting challenges in the game.

I suppose it’s a technicality that this is a game based off the movie series. A ton of effort went into trying to square the game story with the existing lore of Middle Earth. You can go all comic book geek on the power and type of magic in Middle Earth, but the game is consistent with the movies. Most of the background to the story is either stated or implied in the original works. If you’re willing to accept the premise at the start of the story, everything works and builds from there. Some of the characters may remind others from the movies, but that’s a hallmark of Tolkien as well. Overall, the story is most memorable for the themes it explores, evil, corruption, love, vengeance and redemption.

Shadow of Mordor exceeded my expectations on many levels. It has everything you want in an open world game. It has a good stealth system. I enjoyed the story far more than I expected. The combat systems are meaty, interlocking and satisfying.  Mostly, there’s always something interesting to do around the next corner (or over the next bluff).  Highly recommended.

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