This will be my first foray into reviewing games. I have covered video games in one of my older opinion pieces but it was barely scratching the surface and revolved around the storytelling tools that video games could have through its gameplay mechanics.
For this review, I’ll be covering a game I recently played a full play-through of in light of its sequel being announced, Middle-Earth: Shadow of War, and is the first in its series, Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor. So let’s dive right in.
DISCLAIMER: Spoilers ahead!
From a quick, on-the-surface look at the game, it didn’t sound very special. It was a game that had animations similar to the Assassin’s Creed series of games and I actually did not have much interest in the game until I read reviews on its selling point: the Nemesis System.
This system made it so named enemies could grow in strength if they killed you in battle and would create a sort of feud with you over time as they could also return from the dead (albeit returning as an amalgamation of steel and flesh) and you could hunt them down or track them. And that system forged an amazing experience, especially early on in the game where encounters with any of the Uuk-hai captains felt epic in its scale, which can feel like its on the level of a boss fight.
It also helped that the combat system, which was similar to that of the aforementioned Assassin’s Creed games as well as the Batman Arkham series of games, which made every fight enjoyable. The stealth system was excellent too, allowing you to sneak up on unsuspecting Uruk to take them down in brutal but satisfying ways.
All of these factors, combined with an exceptionally talented voice-acting cast as well as story narrative kept me going. Definitely a strong start for a game that is also open-world and allowed so much flexibility in how you wanted to tackle each challenge ahead of you.
Rating: A very solid 9/10. Great opening for a game that has big ambitions as it is tied to the main LotR story written by J. R. R. Tolkien, which may have had a tiny gripe as it might have affected creativity space, in my opinion. Nonetheless, off the bat, the game impresses and does a great job offering players a reason to keep going.
Story-wise, this game delivers it in truckloads. It starts out a little slow, with the main character of Talion, voiced by the ever excellent Troy Baker, who is shown as a ranger captain of Gondor, who lives near the wall with his family.
Invading Uruk-hai forces and the Black Captains, who serve as the main antagonists of the game, slay Talion’s family in front of him. Talion, in his death, realizes he cannot die and that he is cursed to live on to avenge his family, alongside a new ally, an Elven wraith.
The wraith is later revealed to be Celebrimbor, a talented smith of legend, and was the creator of the Rings of Power. And using their new-found strength and abilities, Talion and Celebrimbor sets out to defeat the Black Captains and avenge their fallen allies.
Along the way, we encounter several characters as well, the Queen of the Sea, known as Marwen, a Dwarven hunter known as Torvin, a ranger deserter known as Hirgon and the iconic Gollum.
Rating: 7.5/10. I liked the story but I hate that it’s so intertwined with the original LotR trilogy, trying to fill in the gaps between The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings timeline. But it impressed very very well. Although there were so many bits that just felt like locks for new abilities. Still… it was a functional story and would be interesting if a film adaptation was ever considered.
Wew, I would have to imagine a LotR game set in its universe would impress in its storytelling, especially after it brought us classics like the trilogy. In Shadows of Mordor, it kind of impressed but as part of the ‘fantasy’ genre, it’s very limiting due to how the moral background of characters are written to not be very complex unlike other genres. Here it’s pretty much the same.
Rating: 7/10. As mentioned, the complexity of characters were not very high and had predictability in their actions. But as a fantasy trope, they had to be limited in order to tell their story of good vs evil, which I did enjoy. However, I did have gripes on how Talion becomes exceptional at using his new-found abilities almost instantly after learning them, which is great from a gameplay view but not so much when looking at it story-wise.
Rating: 9/10. The one thing that made me love the game so much was definitely the combat as well as the mechanics behind it. Every hit felt weighty and gives a satisfying impact on hit. The combat finishers felt amazing to pull off too, ranging from executions to an area of effect hit on your enemies.
Not only that, the carnage you leave after finishing a battle will leave you craving for more as you run along the wide fields or Uruk strongholds for the next battle. The stealth gameplay was amazing too, as it becomes a more tactical approach to avoid detection and take out your enemies before they find you and try to surround you. Each stealth finisher you learn in the game is also brutal and satisfying to pull off, and as you plan out your next move, it does feel a lot more like a puzzle of sorts.
But it’s not perfect. The ranged gameplay feels weak as nothing outside of a charged shot seems to actually do much damage. Although they rectify it by giving you more options later on through your skills, it feels lackluster. One more problem I do have is the leniency of the game. For stealth finishers, it is possible to still carry out a finisher AFTER an Uruk detects you, which do feel like it takes you out of the game a little. But those are a small nitpick in a masterpiece of a game.
Especially not forgetting…
The Nemesis System
This is truly the highlight of the game’s underlying mechanics. And it creates so much interesting encounters that it deserves its own section for this review.
There is so much depth, from how you first have to crack down on your enemies by gathering intel to learning your enemies’ weaknesses and exploiting them to take them out. It forces you to tweak your playstyle when you encounter one or more when you explore a stronghold as they are not easy to take out early on and it is more than likely you would die to them. Not only that, Uruks that beat you in battle also get promoted into the system, replacing dead captains in the hierarchy and lets you track targets for quests, power struggles, revenge targets, etc.
It becomes even more interesting once you unlock the ability to control Uruks, after a quest unlock. And this is where the system shines. Now, you have to help your chosen to climb the hierarchy, turning the way you look at the system differently as you’re now involved in it as well.
Lastly, to keep the game feeling like time passes, there is a system to ‘pass time’ where you simulate power struggles being resolved, or Uruks fighting to get promoted, or simply grow in strength. And this occurs whenever you get killed or when you use the option to do so at a checkpoint.
Overall: 8.5/10. This game is an amazing game, especially for someone like me who really enjoys open-world games. Combat is fun and adrenaline-pumping at times when you’re surrounded by insane amounts of Uruks. Stealth is done well so you have to plan your route to avoid getting caught and dying in the process. And the Nemesis System is probably this game’s greatest contribution to gaming as a whole. And since Shadows of War has been announced and the new changes to the Nemesis System such as enemies that will track you as well, it looks extremely promising and I look forward to another foray into Middle-Earth once more.