I seriously did not want to finish this game.
If you read my previous article on Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, then you probably know where this review is heading. Shadow of Mordor (SoM) isn’t a great game, however, it is an interesting one for how it fails. SoM is less than the sum of its parts because developer Monolith seemed to not understand what makes any of its systems work. This game is a jumble of contradictory ideas that should never inhabit the same game. Yet they do. It’s fascinating!
The game begins with the protagonist, Tailon, dying alongside his wife and child. Tailon awakens attached to the ghost of an undead elf and a thirst for vengeance. The plot and characters are carbon copies of stereotypes from other games and there aren’t any real innovations. The only surprise is the developer’s decision to frame the story as an attempt to stop Sauron from returning. Given that the game is set just before the Lord of the Rings trilogy, most players will start the story knowing how it ends. It seems pointless to invest time and emotion into a plotline spoiled by one of the most famous sets of books of all time and a trilogy of blockbuster films. Combat is similarly clumsy. Tailon builds up combo points while attacking enemies which he then uses to unleash special attacks. When enemies attack, the player hits a button above the enemy’s head to counter that attack. Unfortunately, the button presses are unresponsive and major fights devolve into an endurance battle between the enemy, the player’s ability to counter, and the player’s patience for mowing down wave after wave of the same orc. Monolith clearly wanted an elegant dance of blades, but the designed battles better fit the ham-fisted Dynasty Warriors series.
These missteps come to define SoM and undermine even its best features. The only truly innovative aspect of the game is the nemesis system. Players can mind control (the game calls it “branding”) the evil Uruk and help them reach ascendancy within Sauron’s army. Branded Uruk will fight for the player and engage in missions on his behalf. Tailon, on the other hand, didn’t get the message about the branded Uruk being allies. He’ll happily target them as if they weren’t on his team making large fights a duel battle of killing the enemy and not killing the player’s allies. Perhaps even more ridiculous and avoidable is the instant death that sometimes follows branding. Tailon releases the newly branded Uruk by giving them a shove. He will happily wade through a brutal, frustrating fight, brand an enemy hero, and then hurl him off a cliff requiring the player to start all over again. This kind of mistake is made all over the game and comes to define it far more than any other aspect. It’s frustrating to lose time invested in SoM to poor and contradictory feature implementation.
The most confusing aspect of Shadow of Mordor is why it’s an open world game at all. The story and mechanics of the game conflict with the traditional benefits of the open world genre. Open world games allow for exploration and discovery yet SoM’s transportation is slow and doesn’t have monuments or features to discover. Furthermore, the game is set behind enemy lines. It’s hard to be a tourist when there are Uruk patrols every five feet. Open world games also allow for emergent gameplay; a feature notably missing from SoM. Missions are carried out within self-contained levels and rarely include any element of surprise. Every creature is an enemy and behaves in a predictable pattern. Finally, there is no way to have a lasting impact on the world. Nothing the player does appears to alter the landscape of Mordor. The nemesis system might have provided some sign of progress, but the influence of the branded war leaders only appears to extend to the few bodyguards that surround them. In some cases, it’s actually more detrimental to fight beside your branded Uruk than apart. Branded Uruks fighting for the player are identified as traitors by their non-brainwashed compatriots. Given the vast number of non-brainwashed Uruk, the branded Uruks are overwhelmed quickly forcing the player to hunt down and promote yet another Uruk hero. SoM is surprisingly bad at all the things that open world games are good for.
I really wanted to like Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. The reviews are great and I’m a huge fan of open world games. I just can’t support a game that is so confused about everything that it’s attempting. Combat mechanics only work for small parties yet the game is full of huge battles. The nemesis system wants the player to create an army, yet combat treats branded Uruks like enemies. Finally, the setting and world totally contradict the virtues of an open world style game. The game feels like Monolith tried to jam in their idea of a Lord of the Rings game into a publisher’s demand for an open world game. The mix doesn’t work and I cannot recommend this game.