Just like the Mines of Moria, The Lord of the Rings franchise has kind of been stripped of anything interesting to be expanded upon. If it’s not the original three movies, it’s the unexplainable prequel trilogy that tries to tie a children’s novel into the horror show that followed. Characters who have nothing to do with The Hobbit appearing because they’d be old enough and well, it becomes a “let’s throw the fans a bone” sort of thing. So imagine my surprise when a game developer finds a way to make Middle Earth interesting again.
Okay, right from the start, if you’ve watched the preview gameplay trailers, you might have gotten a sense of deja vu, and a feeling that maybe you’d played this game before. If you’ve played any of the Assassin’s Creed games, you’d be correct. You see, at its heart, this game is about as close as you can come to re-skinning a game and calling it something else as you can get. From the parkour elements of movement, to climbing tall buildings to unlock portions of the map, to the different missions scattered across the map, what we have here is a game that we would have been chiding Ubisoft for putting out as a blatant cash in. Except Ubisoft didn’t put it out, WB did, and the last time I saw a game that was this blatant about its influences was Darksiders.
Of course, not everything in the game is taken from the AC series. Some of it is taken right from WB’s own stable of games. Specifically the combat in game is taken from the Batman: Arkham Asylum series. Just picture Batman from those games wielding a sword, and you’ll get the general idea of how combat works in the game. You chain together combos and then perform an execution when enough consecutive swings connect. You can dodge and keep the streak alive, block and keep the streak alive, and indeed, once you’ve upgraded the character enough, you can take a hit and still keep the combo going. The biggest difference between Arkham and Mordor is the number of opponents. Because Mordor takes place in an open world for most of the game as opposed to the enclosed rooms of Arkham, if you get into a brawl with a bunch of Orcs, they’ll just keep coming. Now, it’s true that they do tend to attack you like canon fodder ninjas do, one at a time, but even this can get pretty overwhelming. Another thing that differentiates the game from Arkham is the reaction times of your hero when you are being attacked. Where Batman could, for the most part, react to an attack even in the middle of another attack, our hero is swinging a big honking sword, and that cannot always be moved in time to deflect attacks. So even if you react in time, your avatar may not be so skilled.
Our hero, if you wish to call him that, is a Ranger who was stationed at the Black Gate. The timeline of the game is vaguely defined as being after the events of The Hobbit and before the events of The Fellowship of the Ring, but there is no indication of just when the game occurs in that time line. Our hero suddenly finds himself dead, and yet not dead. He can’t explain it. So it is explained to him by a ghost who has taken up residence within his body with him. That ghost is a dude named Celibrimbor. Just who is Celibrimbor and why does it matter? Well, it turns out he forged the great rings of power, including the One Ring, and he’s a little bitter about how things turned out.
The merging of these two characters is what starts to separate Shadow of Mordor from Assassin’s Creed. When you die in Assassin’s Creed, the Animus that is controlling the simulation freaks out and resets, because that’s not how the memory of that character goes. Whereas here, if you die, the Orc that kills you gets a promotion, and then you come back to life. In fact, the way player death is treated in this game sort of reminds me of the old Mario games, where you would earn extra lives, then come back if you died, because that’s basically what’s going on here. You die, Orc promoted, you live and hunt down the Orc that killed you. The merging of the two characters also gives you magical abilities that would not otherwise be controlled by a Ranger. Celebrimbor can unleash many furious attacks, and later in the game he can dominate the minds of enemies.
The dominating of enemy minds actually leads me into the other thing that makes this game different from any that have come before it. You see, the armies of Sauron are controlled by Warchiefs and Captains, and unlike other games where this is just lip service, in this one they really are commanded by these characters. They will show up on the field and challenge you personally to combat, and if you wish to win the game, you are going to have to find out information about those Captains. Who is the best source of information? Why, the soldiers they command, naturally. So what you do is get one alone and basically do a Vulcan Mind Meld, only not so nicely. There is a screen you can load up that shows the Order of Battle for the Orc army, and when you dominate an Orc soldier, you will get to pick one Captain or Warchief to gather intelligence about.
Early on in the game, you can only gather intelligence about your enemies using this method, but later on you can take control of characters, bend them to your will and make them fight for you rather than against you. I have to say, this actually sounds cooler than it turned out to be, as most of the time the guys I took control of just sort of stood around unless they were actively engaged by something. Having said that, even dudes just standing around can be kind of handy if you’re trying to survive an attack from thirty enemies.
As you play through the game, your character will level up his abilities to the point where thirty Orcs are, well, if not easy, then manageable. If you feel like it, you can take it up a notch. Remember in one of the Hobbit movies when they had to fight off Wharg riders? Well, Mordor has many beasts that can be tamed and ridden, including a beast that resembles a Wharg but maybe cannot be named as such for copyright reasons. Remember in Fellowship of the Ring when they had to fight a Cave Troll? How would you feel about riding one of those and using it to attack enemies? Sound fun? I thought so too. Sadly, the beast is too stupid to swing his massive arms around, instead preferring to stomp. In other words, what I’m saying here is the developers wasted a golden opportunity. Maybe to keep it balanced, I don’t know. Whatever the case, I found the desire to ride these beasts diminish as I went through the game, only taming them in order to make sure they didn’t attack me.
I found that it took far longer to upgrade my character than I would have liked. Killing Captains would produce Runes, which can be placed on your weapons, and these runes could be destroyed for money if you had more than enough… and by the way, you will soon have more than enough if you just exist in the game for longer than a couple of hours. Only every rune I destroyed gave me the same amount of money, which meant that a level one rune gave me as much as a level fifteen rune. When upgrades cost money, that’s just annoying. Some of the missions won’t start if you don’t have all of the upgrades required, meaning sometimes the game started to feel like a bit of a grind.
Lastly, I have to make a comment about the voice work. The heroes and main characters are all well done, but the Orcs themselves all have a bit of personality. Eventually, you kill enough of them to realize they can’t have infinite numbers of recorded dialogue, but when it’s fresh and new it’s pretty enjoyable. Strangely, though, all of the Orcs have British accents. Not even trying to hide it British accents. Kind of bizarre.
Short Attention Span Summary:
I wound up finishing the game in around twenty hours, and in that time I found no reason to stop playing aside from nagging details like sleep, food and work. It held my attention firmly, and I suspect I might wind up doing everything there is to do on the map. I hope Monolith gets right to work making the sequel.