For a certain variety of dedicated gamer, “Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor” ($59.99, rated M) is very nearly The Perfect Video Game.
If you enjoy massive open-world RPGs like “Elder Scrolls” games, you’ll love this game. If you dig historical fiction action-adventure games like the “Assassin’s Creed” series, you’ll love this game. If you’re a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” saga, you’ll love this game. And if you’re into all three of those series, well, you may as well set aside the next several weeks.
“Shadow of Mordor” is set, within the mythology of the Tolkien universe, between the events of “The Hobbit” and “The Fellowship of the Ring.” Players assume the role of Talion, a Ranger tasked with patrolling the borders of Mordor and protecting Middle-earth against the return of the dreaded necromancer Sauron. (Gosh, I love typing this stuff.)
In the game’s initial tutorial sequences, Sauron and his army indeed make their return, and Talion is killed by marauding Uruk-hai (super-orcs) and Sauron’s chief lieutenant. Before he can pass into the afterlife, however, Talion is possessed by the wraith of an ancient elf warrior. Talion returns to Middle-earth as a wraith-ranger hybrid, and the real fun begins.
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Influence of ‘Creed’
The back story may seem a little contrived, but it’s there for a reason, as Talion’s new wraith abilities power several unique mechanical functions in the game. The elf spirit’s mystical powers allow Talion to invade the mind of his enemies, extracting information he needs for subsequent boss battles. By interrogating an Uruk scout, Talion can learn the location and weaknesses of Suaron’s captains, whom he must defeat to advance the story.
It’s a clever way to integrate the narrative with tactical game concerns, and one of a handful of distinguishing characteristics that keep “Mordor” from being “Assassin’s Creed: Tolkein.” As with so many other games in this genre, “Mordor” borrows heavily from the hugely influential “Creed” franchise. Veteran players will recognize familiar elements like the alternate vision mode, the integrated climbing/parkour movement system, the premium on stealth, and the parry-and-counter combat system.
Combat and missions
Speaking of combat, you’ll see a lot of it in “Mordor,” but the designers have a few surprises that are revealed as the story progresses. The game’s much-heralded Nemesis system uses an advanced AI to track your decisions and make adjustments. When you square off against a recurring bad guy, the enemy remembers specifics about the encounter and adapts his combat style for the next encounter. In other words, even as you’re studying the enemy, the enemy is studying you.
Side missions incorporate some interesting twists, too. In the Tolkien books, there’s a running theme that evil can be overthrown by turning it against itself. The designers have provided an interactive method of exploiting this by encouraging Talion to infiltrate and subvert the Uruk tribes. By turning one faction against another, Talion can even the odds in his fight against mighty Sauron.
I found this to be maybe the single most intriguing aspect of “Mordor,” in that it leverages the strengths of the video game as a storytelling medium to explore a specific theme. With the books or movies, you can be told about evil’s self-destructive nature. With a game, you can actively exploit it and deploy real strategic thinking. It’s a neat trick.
Rewards for nerds
The story progresses at a nice pace – maybe a little slow – and Talion can improve his abilities and equipment in the usual RPG fashion. Skill trees for both Ranger and Wraith abilities grant the player useful new combat options, and Talion’s weapons can be upgraded with a series of Runes.
Serious Tolkien nerds will be rewarded with dramatic disclosures throughout the story, concerning the Rings of Power, the actual identity of the elf wraith, and a creepy little guy named Gollum. I’ve read an embarrassing amount of Tolkien over the years, and I was seriously impressed at the level of scholarship evident in the game. Pretty much every location, artifact and creature is logged in your journal, where you can read up on further details at your leisure. Not many video games are fun to read – this one is.
The graphics and sound design are top-notch on PS4, but if you’re playing on older consoles, be aware that technical specs and the Nemesis system are necessarily scaled back on PS3 and Xbox 360.
“Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor” is a can’t-miss game for fans of the genre – you know who you are – and a strong contender for game of the year.
“Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor” is available on Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One.
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