A few internet lurkers have described Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor as the only decent movie based video game that we’ve seen in a long time. First off, lets knock that right on the head, not because Middle Earth is bad - it’s not - but because it’s not based on a movie. I hope it comes as a surprise to nobody out there that The Lord of the Rings was a series of books before it was a series of Oscar slaying, overly long moody epics. Middle Earth is very much based on the books, and it takes place between the events of The Hobbit and The Fellowship of The Ring, giving you free reign to explore a Mordor which is not quite a barren wasteland but is mostly consists of dull greys and browns anyway.
You play Talion, a ranger of Gondor whose family are slayed by Orcs. You come back from beyond the grave after being cursed by Sauron’s chief mischief maker, The Black Hand. You are now sharing your body with an old, moody and bad ass Wraith and in the process you have gained some amazing magical powers. As if being a ranger didn’t make you bad ass enough. Now it’s on you to cripple Sauron’s forces before they can truly amass, find out the secret behind the Wraith and the curse, and avenge your family. All that, and be home in time for dinner.
Middle Earth was released across both current gen and previous gen, with promises that there would be only minor changes between the two. The much talked about ‘Nemesis’ system would be toned down to some degree for previous gen consoles, while PC, Xbox One and PS4 would get the whole gamut of features. I hate to nit-pick (only joking, I love to) but to me this seems like another instance of splitting development between two generations causing damage to the quality of the finished game. Middle Earth is a great game, with its systems providing an excellent blend of the Assassin’s Creed series’ feeling of exploration and stealth, and the Arkham series of Batman titles by Rocksteady’s excellent combat systems. The problem here is that Middle Earth feels like little more than a cannibalisation of a few old ideas, with the occasional new trick. Mind you, the old ideas are used well, but these are all systems we’ve seen in use for the last five years at least, and in a leap to next gen we want to see something new.
The game has obvious production values, and a desire to represent the Lord of the Rings universe in a unique way, and it does. It’s definitely the best Lord of the Rings game we’ve ever seen, unless you’re a fan of that old 1982 text adventure, The Hobbit. Mordor in the game is a grimly dark, as fitting with the location and the subject matter, and the nemesis system seems unique and exciting at first. Essentially leading Orcs in Sauron’s army can be tracked down and hunted across Mordor. You can free prisoners or interrogate captains to learn weaknesses, and then exploit these either in an assassination attempt or in open combat. Each Orc has their own name, appearance and personality, at least at first, and as you hunt them down you’ll see them satisfyingly out of action on the Sauron’s Army page. But, if you fall to one of the Orcs in battle, they will go up in rank and gain power. Orcs also dynamically attack each other, vying for power, and they have feasts, hunts, and executions that you can interrupt to swing the power struggle in your favour.
Later in the game you can use your Wraith powers to ‘Brand’ Orcs to join your cause. It’s a unique system that means there is always someone to hunt and kill in the game world. The problem is that eventually you realise that there will always be more and more Orcs to take down and your efforts are essentially fruitless. Then you realise that the Orcs are all interchangeable, the differences between them tend to be negligible and despite their weaknesses and strengths, for the most part if you’re skill enough at combat you can face them head on and take them down, and their forty-plus strong entourage, all by yourself. Then you can rinse and repeat this process as many times as you like. This will inevitably be the first handful of times until you realise that this is the meat and bones of the game.
There are collectibles to grab, side challenges to get extra loot and abilities, and a hefty dose of Tolkien lore for true fans to sift through, but beyond that the game unfolds itself pretty swiftly and then doesn’t really bother to offer too much new. The opening sequence when we see Talion meet a grisly end with his family and then bind with the Wraith is excellently intercut with a tutorial teaching you the basics of fighting and sneaking, flashing back and forward between the past and present. The game is set up excellently to combine a great revenge plot with some excellent gameplay, but things quickly change from there. After one or two story missions you realise that these encounters are little more than excuses to teach you the nuances of the ‘Nemesis’ system and other gameplay bits and bobs, rather than any real attempt at stringing together an engaging plot. A few encounters with Gollum tease that there might be something more to the story, but it never really goes anywhere.
The combat and the stealth mechanics are polished and fantastic, as to be expected. As I said before, the combat pretty much rips everything from the Batman games, except everything is a little bit more ultra-violent. The sneaking and assassination mechanics are fantastic too, and the Orcs are just the right level of stupid and blind to make sneaking fun rather than a chore. There is rarely a moment in the game where you have to remain unseen, and it tends to be relegated to a bonus objective rather than a pre-requisite, which is fantastic. There is no faster way to render stealth completely infuriating than to force it. The game toes the excellent line found in the Batman and Creed games by making stealth an option but making the loud and proud approach pretty bloody fun too. Some of the later skills you unlock allow for quite a bit of variety in combat, being able to pin Orcs in place with arrows, tame and ride Carragors, and perform brutalise assassinations, which scare all of the Orcs in the vicinity, causing them to flee.
The graphics are decent at best, not much of a leap forward but no big step back either. The environments are bland and repetitive and the game steals the Creed method of climbing to the top of a tower to reveal a new area. The most disappointing thing about Middle Earth is probably the fact that it reveals to us that next-gen open world games look set to repeat the formula established a number of years ago that nobody has dared deviate from since. Collectibles and free roaming do not make a fun game, and the game’s life-span essentially boils down to how long you can slaughter Orc chieftains in the name of revenge until you grow a bit bored of everything. As it stands, it’s an immensely fun and satisfying game and the Nemesis system provides an endless horde of enemies to slaughter. If you like the Arkham games, you like Assassin’s Creed, and you’re a fan of Lord of the Rings, you’ve probably already bought this. Even for non LOTR, the story is so bare bones and the lore so obscure that you won’t miss much if you have no idea what’s going on. The game offers nothing revolutionary, but it is bloody good fun while it lasts.