Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor Review: Facing the Dark Lord

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Posted on September 25, 2014, Ron Whitaker Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor Review: Facing the Dark Lord

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor drops you right into author J.R.R. Tolkien’s world, gives you phenomenal powers, and then sets you free to do what you will with them.

Dark times have come to Middle-Earth. Sauron’s power is growing, his influence is spreading, and Mordor is decaying under his hand. Standing against him at the Black Gate are the Rangers of Gondor, and one of their captains, Talion. When the Black Gate is overrun, Talion and his family are killed by The Black Hand of Sauron, one of the Black Captains of Mordor. It’s not a very auspicious start for the Troy Baker-voiced character.

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor
Platform: PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4 (Reviewed), Xbox 360, Xbox One
Developer: Monolith
Publisher: Warner Bros.
Release Date: Sept. 30, 2014
MSRP: $59.99

Things improve quickly,though, as Talion isn’t quite dead yet. Instead, he’s been imbued with the power of the Wraith, resurrected, and set on a path to avenge the murder of his family. Talion’s Wraith powers allow him to leap from tall buildings without taking damage, fire a ghostly bow, invade the minds of his enemies to gather information, and later in the game, even dominate their minds to force them to fight for him.

All of this takes place in Mordor, but it is not the barren land that you might recall from watching Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films. Sauron’s darkness is spreading, but many parts of Mordor remain green and healthy, and Shadow of Mordor allows to explore just about every inch of it.

The world map uses a system similar to that of the Assassin’s Creed games. When you enter a new area, you’ll seek out a Forge Tower and climb to the top. Once there, you can “reforge” the tower to unlock that area’s activities — and there are a LOT of activities. Artifact collecting, herb gathering, hunting and freeing slaves are just a few of the things you can spend time doing when you’re not actually progressing through the main questline. All of these activities and quests will earn you money, which you can spend on upgrades, such as more health, more bow shots, and more rune slots on your weapons.

Upgrading your weapons with runes can add even more utility to them, including a chance to heal, stun an enemy, or ramp up your damage. There’s a nice variety of options that allow you to do some light customization to your gear. It’s not much, but it does let you tailor Talion to your playstyle somewhat. All of those things are nice distractions, but we’re out for revenge here.

Sauron’s army is out there, and you can see it at any time from the pause menu. Five warchiefs and several shadowy captains can be seen at first, but you don’t know who any of them are until you start interrogating some orcs. Grab an orc, and you can tap his knowledge to learn the names and locations of an orc captain. Interrogate a captain, and you can learn the names of the warchiefs, or the strengths and weaknesses of any orc other. Gathering this information is hugely important. Some orcs can be quickly dispatched with an arrow shot or a stealth attack, while others may fear fire or wild animals. Adopting the proper strategy to taking down specific leaders in the army is key in these battles.

This is where the much-vaunted “Nemesis System” really shines. Instead of sending innumerable faceless enemies at you, it gives names, faces, and unique characteristics to every captain and warchief. Instead of being tedious, it ends up giving more depth to a system that could have been extremely shallow.

While the first half of the game has you taking out Sauron’s forces, the second half charges you with subverting them. You’re building an army, and the only soldiers here are orcs. After you dominate a captain, you can send him out to take on other captains, to cause riots in the ranks, or even to challenge a warchief for his position. Your ultimate goal is to take control of all the orcs by dominating warchiefs, which gives you control of their subordinates, and to lead them against the Black Captains — Sauron’s right-hand men.

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