What do we want from a game that takes place in a universe of which we are already familiar, even if it is generally a universe from another medium? Do we want a retelling of a story we already know or do we want something new and different which will broaden and deepen our familiarity with an unfamiliar land?
I tend to think that one of the reasons that movie tie-in games tend to be less than satisfactory is that they are comfortable with the most basic retelling of an already familiar story. It is two strikes against them at the outset, and if they don’t deliver amazing gameplay, they’re quickly at strike three.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor doesn’t fall into that trap. It is an open-world, ever-evolving title, one which may not have the deepest of RPG elements, but as it does things in a different and unexpected way keeps you coming back.
Rather than being considered a movie tie-in, Shadow of Mordor may be best thought of as an Arkham title from the current Batman game franchise, but transposed to Middle-Earth. It is sort of minimalistic Skyrim meets Arkham City and it is fantastic.
Shadow of Mordor does not have a huge branching tree of abilities to be gained. You do select different powers that are made available as you progress, but gaining them all doesn’t take an exceptional amount of effort, just tons of hours.
While weapons do gain abilities as well via killing various characters and are therefore customizable, there are not a ton of weapon choices. You have a sword, a dagger, and a bow. You do not get other swords, nor other daggers, nor other bows. You just slightly modify abilities the weapons grant.
Combat is incredibly fluid, offering the ability to score a 50 strike combo with, if not ease, regularity. There aren’t a ton of different strikes either, it is basic strike, parry, jump, and dodge kind of stuff.
What is brilliant about the game is that it feels as though that’s enough. The hordes of Uruks you have to take down present a challenge, and as you level up, baddies do as well.
The various missions you have to go on also present a challenge. And, just when the game seems to get stuck in a rut, things are changed up ever so slightly so that there is a familiarity with what came before, but it is still different.
What is lacking here—and which Skyrim and the Arkham games do better—is a great story. It isn’t that there is a lack of tale here, it is just that it gets so buried in your attempts to destroy Sauron’s ever-replenishing army of Uruks that whenever it does crop up because, for whatever foolish reason, you’ve chosen to do a main quest instead of a side quest, it has become wholly unimportant.
As it goes, the story has to do with a Ranger seeking revenge in Mordor for the death of his wife and child. And his death too. Talion (you) have been resurrected by this kind of mysterious (initially) spirit who has granted him the power to return from the dead as much as Talion may need. Boy do the Uruks find that confusing.
If you’re looking to situate the story within the Middle-Earth tales you know, it takes place upon Sauron’s return to Mordor. It is after the events of The Hobbit, but before The Lord of the Rings. You will, naturally, see Gollum wandering about because, let’s face it, everybody loves Gollum.
The truth however is as simple as this – Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor looks stunning, plays brilliantly, and is never anything less than completely compelling.
There have been good videogame trips to Middle-Earth and there have been bad videogame trips to Middle-Earth. This may be the first truly great one.
Beginning to end, and with all of Sauron’s Captains and War Chiefs lying dead at your feet in between, Shadow of Mordor is spectacularly fun. Better than that, it doesn’t require a deep love or knowledge of Middle-Earth to make it enjoyable. It can, and does, stand all by itself.
It is the best game this reviewer has played in a long time.
As an aside, there is a free iPad app that can sync with the title which shows you everything you need to know about your character, what you have done thus far, what is available, and where you are in the realm. It is not quite a perfect creation, but it can provide valuable information in your journey.
Available now or in the near future on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, and PC, Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is rated M for Mature.
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