As a relatively new publisher on the scene – at least when compared to EA, Activision et al – Warner Bros don’t quite get the credit they deserve.
The LEGO games have improved massively while under their watchful eye, Mortal Kombat is the best it has ever been (save perhaps for that one time in the ‘90s when pulling out a chap’s spine was genuinely shocking) and Batman: Arkham Asylum and Arkham City are not just the best Batman games of all time, but two of the last generation’s finest. Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor does for The Lord of the Rings what Arkham Asylum did for the Dark Knight.
Protagonist Talion is different to most on account of the fact he’s already dead. Murdered during a grizzly blood sacrifice, the Aragon lookalike returns to the world as a Wraith – a ghostly entity denied from both heaven and hell. The fellow Wraith who resurrected Talion comes along for the open-world ride, in an attempt to remember, well, everything. It would seem that becoming a Wraith makes one quite forgetful.
Usually we cast a wrinkly frown when a developer has blatantly copied something from another game. Monolith’s decision to have Talion wall running and sneaking in the shadows in a highly similar manner to Ezio and other Assassin’s Creed stars does however make a lot of sense. Developer Monolith’s previous outputs have mostly been first-person shooters, including FEAR and Condemned, and so by studying AC’s animation routines very carefully they’ve managed to provide Shadow of Mordor with a control system that arguably took Ubisoft years to perfect.
This also means that most gamers – with the AC games being as popular as they are – will take to running up walls, shuffling across ledges and leaping off buildings like a duck to water. Being a ghostly Wraith, Talion doesn’t require a hay barrel to land into when jumping off towers and such – he simply slams into the ground in a manner that would make Iron Man jealous. Another benefit of being six foot under already (the plot is one of revenge, if you haven’t guessed) is that Talion can’t die. Instead, each failure passes time – Sauron’s armies grow and shift, and as they do new missions and challenges not only open up but also change location. You may find that the Orc Captain that left you slain has relocated to a different stronghold, and as such is now surrounded by his peers. This provides the choice to try and take them all on at once, or simply wait until he’s on his lonesome again.
The combat system too has an inspiration, and this time one that’s closer to home. Namely, the Batman Arkham trilogy. When facing a large number of enemies the camera pans out to give a full view, with Talion automatically leaping from one target to the next in the blink of an eye. Countering is a simple case of hitting a button in good time, while as the story progresses new enemies are introduced that either have to be stunned before attacking or attacked from behind. Talion even borrows a few moves from Batman, such as performing a sweeping kick to knock an enemy off their feet before slamming them back to the round with a well-placed punch to the gut. Sadly there’s no chair throwing, but whereas Batman doesn’t kill enemies, our hero here is more than happy to decapitate those in his path. This degree of ultra violence does actually serve a purpose – killing enemies in a brutal fashion can scare those nearby, causing them to flee like cowards.
While it’s true that Shadow of Mordor has some clear sources of inspiration, it has its own merits too. The ‘Nemesis System’ is one fine example. Orc Captains roam Middle-Earth, each of which can be tracked and traced from the menu screen. They’re boss characters, pretty much. Coated in strong armour they’re tough to defeat, sometimes even when you know their weaknesses. Every time a Captain defeats Talion they grow stronger and during the passage of time they move up the ranks to eventually become Warchiefs – even tougher adversaries.