With a title like Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor may seem like a tongue twister and the list of long-forgotten games set in Tolkien's world may not help its cause any but this game may just be the title to beat with its eclectic mix of both open-world exploration and intuitive combat that finds its' roots in Rocksteady's Batman games.
A Little Background Info
For those who don't already know, this adventure RPG tells the tale of Talion, a fearless ranger guarding the Black Gate. At the night Sauron returned to Mordor with his army, he was slain alongside his family and everyone under his command. He returns to life inexplicably tied to a powerful spirit of vengeance. With his newfound abilities, he must now seek redemption, learn the identity of the wraith keeping him alive and ultimately come face to face with his nemesis.
Not Just for Fans
Regardless if you are into The Lord of the Rings books (or the movies) or not, the plot of the game is engaging because it ties up nicely with the actual gameplay -and it does not require much knowledge of existing LoTR lore. Talion has access to three weapons: a sword used for close quarters, a dagger used for stealth kills and a bow meant for long-range attacks. You will be using these from start to end but the upgrade systems do provide enough variety to keep the fights from getting too repetitive.
Free Flow Combat
The battle system is one that we're already familiar with and that makes even more room for experimentation. We don't need to learn a complicated battle system or spend hours figuring out the perfect class build. Shadow of Mordor does away with unnecessary technical elements and delivers a malleable system that makes every upgrade count.
Anyone who has played Assassin's Creed will be familiar with the stealth aspect of the game but even if you get spotted, you don't need to spend ten minutes waiting for enemies to lose interest. The baddies aren't always inclined to chase after you, that is, unless you've shown a bit of cowardice in the past. Talion moves like Rocksteady's Batman in some instances, complete with tight jumps and attacks. The map isn't so stupidly large that it feels empty and the side quests are kept down to a minimum, keeping only those that actually make sense to play. Efficiency is the name of the game in Shadow of Mordor and that is a rarity in today's style over substance AAA games.
A Stronger You…
Leveling up gives you the chance to unlock skills in the talent tree. Tired of having to deal with shields? Get the Shoulder Charge ability to knock baddies down and damage their shields. Invest the points and you can throw spectral daggers, issue Death Threats against an Uruk Captain or ride Graugs into battle. Using the Dispatch ability, a single button press is all it takes to instantly kill enemies branded with the Wraith's Mark and Caragors you've gained control over become valuable allies even when you're not using them as mounts. Shadow of Mordor has a long list of useful skills and using them is intuitive enough that you don't need to resort to button mashing to get combos going. Talion feels powerful but he is never truly unbeatable. You will need to pay attention in every fight, lest you risk giving your foes a chance to level up themselves.
In lieu of getting weapon and armor upgrades or random loot from enemies, Talion receives runes every time he takes out a ranked Uruk. Runes may then be attached to weapons to provide valuable stat boosts and other useful perks that can, say, refill your health after you perform a certain move or makes you immune to Poison. Exploiting enemy weaknesses will influence the rune type that gets dropped. A stealth kill, for instance, will likely net you a stealth-related rune. Experimenting with different combinations will help bring down even the toughest of bosses and runes that don't fit in with the build you want can be broken down into upgrade points.
...for Stronger Orcs
The Nemesis system also gives Shadow of Mordor an amazing amount of depth. You may think that killing a specified target is a straightforward mission -- do well and you get rewarded, do badly and you can try again. The game adds another facet to this in that it gives your enemies a chance to adapt to you too. The Uruk-hai are more than just nameless fodder that serve to delay you from your quest. You are in a living, breathing world where enemies that defeat you climb up ranks and Uruks can duel amongst themselves to gain supremacy. Shoot an Uruk Bodyguard in the head he may just come back with a new helm that eliminates that weakness.
Your actions influence events in the world and the Uruk hierarchy shifts constantly -- sometimes even without your input. As you interact with them, you form relationships with the game's baddies, influencing their strengths and weaknesses. By the end of the game, you will remember a few names, even like or despise a few Uruks depending on how things played out for you. Fight one enough times and you may even get your own unique arch nemesis in the process. Like you, they increase in level and get harder to beat as you leave them to do as they please.
Enemy locations are not scripted. The game doesn't require you to be a few feet away to trigger an encounter. Uruks can pop out of nowhere to fight you mid-mission. If one kills you, then that baddie will get his shot at glory by rising in rank. Victors will usually bully other baddies in the region and you can watch they attempt to increase their influence, amassing more allies to make things harder for you later on. That is, unless they get randomly killed by a Graug.
Of course, you can always choose to Brand Uruks into submission. Pull that off successfully and you can force them to fight for you instead of against you so you can control who's in charge. This adds an unexpected strategy element that offers a welcome break from doing things solo (on in this case, with a Wraith buddy).
A New Direction
Monolith Productions has done it. They've pushed the envelope of storytelling with the dynamic brilliance that is the Nemesis system. Borrowing from other warrior based adventure games, they've given us familiar ground to tread on while surpassing our expectations with the overall package. From the combo-based combat to a world that morphs based on your actions, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor proves that a game doesn't have to be about a million pointless fetch quests, pretty hair textures or the amount of blood and gore. It just has to have its own voice in a sea of tired templates.
Anyone considering playing this game should also check out kotaku.com for SOM tips. They've written a decent enough beginners guide to give you the low down of surviving combat.