Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor Improves On Assassin's Creed’s Strengths While Retaining Its Flaws [REVIEW]

By Alex Riviello , Updated Oct 15, 2014 04:34 PM EDT
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Middle Earth is a pretty big place, but nearly all of the games adapted from Tolkien's work have focused on The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit. Those are major events in the lore, of course, but there must be more stories to tell than just those.

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Shadow of Mordor proves that there's more to mine from this world, even if there aren't many dwarves left around to do it. After all, why not try different styles of games in Middle Earth?

Why not, indeed.

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Let's be clear from the start- Shadow of Mordor blatantly steals from Assassin's Creed. There's no two ways about it, the game world's design is lifted almost completely from Ubisoft's famous series. Monolith Productions has taken that world and placed in it a more melee-drive game, "borrowing" the combat system from Batman: Arkham Asylum in the process. It's a smooth system that allows you to effortlessly chain together attacks and parry incoming ones against a group of enemies, truly letting you feel like a badass as you dispatch enemies with ease.

Stealth and action? It doesn't sound like these two systems should work together but they do, merging to create a game that lets you skulk around and assassinate orcs and but just as often lets you feel like a seasoned warrior. This is a stealth game made for impatient people like me, where even while crouching stealthily you can choose to run at a pretty decent clip, and you even stab enemies in the front if you're fast enough.

You are given three weapons to play with - a sword, a dagger (actually a shattered sword), and a (spirit) bow. You never get anything more, but you can upgrade them in various ways with experience gained from killing Orcs and performing tasks. Each weapon has their own name and side-quests that revolve around them that involve you using the weapon a bunch- shooting a group of orcs with your bow, stealthily dispatching a few with your dagger, etc. They're fun but just diversions from the main game.

Unlike most open-world games, you're going to actually want to stick to the main missions in this one. While you're given a big environment to explore it's an ugly, barren land, with nothing much to do in it.

Mordor is a pretty dismal place, in look and in culture, and the few remaining humans left are slaves in Orc villages that contain barrels of booze and not much else. Roving gangs of orcs are about the most exciting things you run across, as well as a few larger animals that you can turn into mounts and were never mentioned by Tolkien (even though this game is canon!)

Sure, there's some collectibles to find around the world, and you can even craft this big ghostly mural thing from bits and pieces around the world (think the entrance to the mines of Moria), but that's about it. All there is to do here is fight orcs.

Fortunately, fighting is really damn fun.

As in Assassin's Creed you'll climb to the top of towers and unlock all the events in the area around you, but the game improves its assassinations by giving you so many different ways to find intel about the orc Captains and exploit it, and making them a part of your personal story. The much-talked about Nemesis system, which sees orc leaders remembering you and hunting you down across the world, really is as good as you've heard, and saves this game from being otherwise unremarkable. You feel more of a part of the lore, like your actions have a meaning, especially when one you have history with comes across your path for a second time. It's even better when you begin to mark them and make them fight for you.

See, the story- such as it is- sees you trying to hunt down and kill The Black Hand of Sauron after he killed you and your family, and the only way to get your revenge is with an army of your own. You'll have to mark Uruk-hai with your magic sign and basically possess them, trying to get them promoted up the ladder to make them Warchiefs. You can pit them against each other and meddle with their competitions and ambushes to sway the hierarchy yourself, and it's here that the game truly and utterly shines. It's a blast... until it's over.

Once the main story is done it's doubtful you'll want to go around and continue to assassinate the Captains that still litter the land- what's the point? The little wisp of story promised at the beginning of the game has long evaded your grasp by that point, and there's just clean-up duty remaining, with no driving force.

As in Assassin's Creed the monotony is the game's biggest fault and its ultimate downfall. There simply isn't enough of a variety of missions here and the Nemesis system- impeccable though it may be- can only keep your interest for so long.

There's also the case that except for a few lore entries and the always-present female narration at the beginning, this simply doesn't feel like a Lord of the Rings story, just a dark and brooding tale about an angry man who likes to stab orcs in the neck.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, but perhaps the DLC will offer up the story we had hoped for, and the variety we yearn for.

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Middle-Earth Shadow of Mordor is available for PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360 and PC. This review was written based on a playthrough with a PS4 retail copy provided by the publisher.  

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