Thursday, March 19, 2015

One Has Walked Through Mordor - The Shadow of Mordor Take Your Time Review

Quick Note: Shadow of Mordor feels like the first true next generation game. The story is interesting and the lore deep, but the excellent combat and unique Nemesis system really brings the game to life. If you like open world games and combo heavy combat, look no further than this gorgeous game.  

Ever since Peter Jackson's films The Lord of the Rings franchise has become infused in main stream audience. Any large fantasy film or TV series has been compared to it, and with good reason. With so much face time, it's interesting that the franchise can't seem to nail video games. Too many of them try to be like the books/movies, which often leads to fans having their hearts broken because the games just can't live up to the original source material. By crafting an original piece using the lore and world of The Lord of the Rings, it seems that Monolith Productions and WB have nailed the perfect balance of crafting a story that will cater to fans expectations without living in the shadow of the source material and make a great action game. 

In Shadow of Mordor, players fill in the shoes of Talion, a Range of Gondor tasked with manning the wall that protects the realm from the forces of Gondor. Not all is archery practice and salutes though, as Sauron's forces storm the wall and kill Talion and his family at the behest of their master. Talion wakes up, alive, but fused with an ancient spirit whom wishes to help him exact his revenge on The Black Hand of Sauron and his fellow compatriots. The story is interesting, but not overly original. However, the use of the world's lore is incorporated rather seamlessly, and the nebulous time period in which the game takes place allows the it to feel ingrained in the franchise without having to step on the toes of any of the source material. It's essentially it's own, standalone tale, and is all the stronger for it.

The story of the wraith is also quite interesting.

But the story isn't the real reason to visit Mordor. No, the reason to dive into this game is the gameplay. Mordor is separated into two, fairly large open world maps that feel alive. Creatures run amok as Uruk man broken fortresses and tend to slaves. Within these maps Talion will battle Sauron's Army and make his way to the Black Hand. Combat is almost an exact replica of the combat from the Batman: Arkham games (no surprise since WB owns both) and is just as silky smooth as the Arkham franchise. Running into combat without a care is not advised, as enemies are strong and will tear you apart. Unlike games with a similar combat system, like Assassin's Creed, timing your counters and keeping the crowd at bay is very important in Mordor. It's very easy to be overwhelmed by a small gathering of ten Uruk if you're not careful, especially early on. 

But Talion is the best man equipped for the job, wielding a long sword, bow and dagger. Each weapon represents a different combat style for Talion, with the long sword used for face to face encounters, the dagger used while sneaking around and the bow for long range. Each weapon can equipped Runes onto them, allowing the player to customize each item with bonuses such as health regeneration on a stealth kill or increased damage with a high combo counter total. Runes are earned by defeating Captains, but we'll get to them in a little bit. 
Headshotting an enemy with a bow hasn't felt this good since The Last of Us.

Aside from his Ranger combat abilities, Talion also has supernatural abilities from the Wraith to assist in combat. This includes the ability to slow down time for a brief period while aiming the bow as well as draining power from enemies and, eventually, branding them so you can command an army of your own. In hand to hand combat, the Wraith powers also allow Talion to stun enemies to give himself some room. 

Both skill sets help balance out Talion as a whole, and can be upgraded by gaining skill points through experience. Talion will level up as he kills Uruks, saves slaves, and find collectibles. The skills add new layers to the combat, lowering your combo counter, giving Talion finishers, and even letting Talion teleport with a shot from his bow. The power progression is a little unbalanced, with the game being a little too easy towards the tail end, but the feeling of becoming so strong you can rule Mordor is exhilarating and adds to the fun of the game. 

The land of Mordor and it's wildlife can also be used by Talion for combat. Cargor, lion like creatures, can be lured to a group of Uruk to attack, or even be released from cages when captured to turn on their masters. This is just one example of the living world helping Talion, but there are plenty of other species to discover and use against the Uruk masses while traveling across the land. Just beward, because Talion is just as tasty to many of these creatures as an Uruk. 

The developers really bring Mordor to life with different locals that feel natural and interesting, especially the second area of the game.

Aside from the strong combat system, what really makes Mordor stand out above games like Batman and Assassin's Creed has to be the Nemesis System. Unlike most other games, where there are set bosses and ranks of nameless minions, Mordor has a hierarchy system for the enemies. Sauron's Army is ruled by The Black Hand, who commands five Warchiefs in each area. These Warchiefs have 20 Captains underneath them ruling over the Uruks. Each Warchief and Captain rules an area of the map and has a set of unique attributes. These enemies are not set in stone, but rather built by the game randomly. Each Captain and Warchief will have a different look, name and different attributes, including fears, strengths and weaknesses. Attributes aren't given to Talion right away either, so it is up to the player to find a snitch in the army to give Talion the necessary information. 

This is what makes Mordor really feel alive. Each encounter with these stronger enemies becomes a puzzle, with the player having to figure out what exactly is the best way to take out an enemy. Each game is different from player to player, with countless variety. And not only are the enemies randomly created, but they are endless. Time passes and another captain will move up in the empty spot of a dead captain. If Talion is killed, the Uruk who killed him is promoted, and every hole in the army is filled with new, randomly created Uruk. It is quite possible to continue playing Mordor for tens of hours after it's over simply to enjoy this nemesis system. And the satisfying feeling of taking out a Warchief using his weakness at the last second will keep players coming back to play for sure.  

By the end of the game, handling groups of 30 or more Uruks feels like child's play.

There are also collectibles to find and challenges to beat. Artifacts and glyphs give the player more insight into the Wraith's past and the world of Mordor while each of Talion's three weapons comes with ten unique challenges to take on. Because Talion is a Ranger, there are also scavenging challenges in which he must collect specific herbs and hunting challenges to take on Mordor's wildlife. All of these allow the player to interact with the world and unlock tomes of information on the world of The Lord of the Rings and Mordor. Most games do this as well, but for whatever reason Mordor had me more wrapped up in this than most, teasing me with the little exclamation point to tell me I unlocked some new information on the world. I easily spent 10 minutes after each play session just reading through the glossary to learn more about Mordor and it's inhabitants. 

The Nemesis System really makes the game, but Mordor does so many little things to make the game flow well. When jumping up the side of the building, Talion makes a giant leap up first, skipping over at least a story worth of wall to make climbing easier and less tedious. In many missions, Talion will walk alongside another character. Most games force the player to follow using the controller, but in Mordor Talion will walk alongside the character automatically and talk until it's time for the action to kick in. When crouching to go into stealth mode, players can hold down X (A on Xbox) to have Talion move faster, similar to running when standing up right. All of these are small musings that made the overall package of Shadow of Mordor more enjoyable and I'd love to see some of these introduced to other franchises that have similar gameplay mechanics.

The graphics and voice acting are top notch as well.

This game is by far the best game to prove what this console generation is capable of. The solid combat and interesting world are great, but the dynamic and unique Nemesis System will keep players involved for countless hours and helps each player build a story of their own while also progress through Talion's. Shadow of Mordor is without a doubt not only one of the best action adventure games available, it is also one of the best, if not the best, The Lord of the Rings game available to fans. 

9.5 out of 10

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