Shadow of Mordor is just ok, has a very limited gimmick, and did not deserve to win GOTY 2014

The impetus for my finally playing Shadow of Mordor was a bunch of people naming it in a forum thread on games they just couldn’t get into. This was an inauspicious start, but I’d always intended to play SoM (I bought it at launch from Dell only to have the shipment delayed months) and I was very much in the mood for an open world game to just run around and cause havoc in. Having finished the game now I can say that it held my attention well enough, but I have no idea how it earned the plaudits it did on release, or how it became game of the year in a year that also featured Sunset Overdrive, Forza Horizon 2, and Shovel Knight.

I think of Giant Bomb GOTYs as titans of the industry, the best of the best. Games like Uncharted 2, which was polished to a gorgeous sheen, The Last of Us, which was a haunting and intense survival journey, or Saints Row the Third, a game I played on PS3 in 2015 when we were well into the 8th generation and had a heck of a fun time with. Shadow of Mordor is not that. It’s just okay. Nothing special. A fine game, a good even, but it is nowhere near top tier.

If I had to give it a grade it would be 7 out of 10, and on the Giant Bomb scale I would round down to 3 stars. It’s a mechanically mediocre, kind of ugly, game that barely tells a story and has a cute gimmick that it doesn’t do that much with. More on that a bit later.

Do you like scraggly grass textures and rock? You're going to love this game's look. Down below we see two ghuls attack an uruk. Watching the uruks fight various creatures is a neat future of the game, but gets old relatively quickly.
Do you like scraggly grass textures and rock? You're going to love this game's look. Down below we see two ghuls attack an uruk. Watching the uruks fight various creatures is a neat future of the game, but gets old relatively quickly.

Shadow of Mordor tells the story of Talion, a ranger in Mordor, which has been overrun by uruks, who is killed with his family at the beginning of the game and merged with a long-dead wraith. The pair then proceed to exact brutal revenge on the uruks who have invaded Mordor. The idea of a dual-character, half-ranger half-wraith, is a good one, and the game does a fair amount with it. Most of the time your character presents as Talion, but he switches to wraith form at various points, such as when climbing wraith towers or using his bow. The wraith also speaks to Talion throughout the game, and it works to add a companion character and a relationship to a game that’s mostly about you, alone, in a very hostile world (though there are some other, living, NPCs you interact with.) Talion can also access the wraiths powers to do things like teleport, slow time, stun enemies with the wraith’s touch, and even come back to the dead (even within the game's fiction.)

This is Talion. He is generic. See that mountain? You can't go there. The game's two maps are small for a modern open world game.
This is Talion. He is generic. See that mountain? You can't go there. The game's two maps are small for a modern open world game.

This is the wraith form. The character can look like Talion, the wraith, or some combination of the two.
This is the wraith form. The character can look like Talion, the wraith, or some combination of the two.

Unfortunately the game squanders this cool premise on a hum-drum story, which is boring for two reasons: 1) Talion is a boring character. 2) There are no real stakes.

The first issue is common in games, but that doesn’t make it acceptable. Talion is another brown-haired 30-something male protagonist who is mad because the bad guys killed his family. We have seen this a million times before. That’s not to say you couldn’t do something good with it, but the game doesn’t. Talion is stoic and strong and super boring. His wraith sidekick fares a little better, but has relatively few story quests focused on him, and isn’t fully fleshed out.

The second issue comes from the license itself. We already know the story of Lord of the Rings. We know who the important players are and how events will play out. Talion, not being part of the main crew, is naturally forced to the sidelines. Nothing he does really matters and I don’t think the developers could have done much to fix that. They try, by focusing much of the story on helping particular NPCs escape Mordor and trying to create stakes in the survival of Talion’s friends, but Talion’s friends are boring stock characters and I didn’t really care what happened to any of them. The game is between a rock and a hard place. It needs to introduce familiar LOTR concepts and characters, but it can’t really do anything with them. It supplements this with lore, but in the end it’s just a bunch of LOTR flavored weak tea. Also there’s an interlude with a dwarf hunter that’s very different in tone from the rest of the game and silly to the point of parody. The guy talks non-stop about how much he loves hunting, and how hunting is his mistress but doesn’t nag like his wife, and is a very cartoony comic relief character in a grimdark game. I did appreciate the lightened tone but the whole thing was out of place.

I will say that the game ends well. It doesn’t make up for the mediocre material for most of the game, but it does go out on a high note.

If Shdow of Mordor’s story is a let-down, the gameplay is at least adequate. Picture an Arkham Batman/Assassin’s Creed hybrid and you’re pretty much there. You run around and climb like Assassin’s Creed, often dispatching foes stealthily by leaping out of bushes or off ledges, and then when forced to fight you engage in a slightly clunky form of Arkham Batman combat, with combos, finishers, and all the fix ‘uns. It works for the most part. There were times Talion didn’t go where I wanted him to, and others when the camera made combat impossible, but the controls are generally solid and enjoyable.

Do you like standing on ledges above dudes and stealth killing them? This game has plenty of that.
Do you like standing on ledges above dudes and stealth killing them? This game has plenty of that.

There are also several upgrade trees and ability systems, using multiple forms of in-game ‘experience’ currency and runes. You get more health, you unlock abilities, you equip specific powers, it’s standard stuff and it’s fine, if a bit convoluted. The gameplay does change fairly radically because of this, though. When you start out you will have to be more stealth focused, since large numbers of enemies are very difficult to deal with. By the end of the game combat posed almost no challenge to me, and while early on I avoided large packs of uruk, by the end I just ignored them. It makes for an empowering progression, but it also makes things boring. My play time for the game was above average, so maybe if I had focused more on the main path it would have been different, but I was ready to be done with Shadow of Mordor well before I was. I’m glad I stuck it out, thanks to the good ending, but the game could have also scaled its challenge better. I should also note that particularly frustrating early on are large groups of uruk, who are very difficult to deal with when you don’t have a lot of powers, and fairly trivial later on. If you’re finding a combat challenge frustrating you should go power up a bit and return. A few mid to late game abilities make all the difference.

Combat can be hectic. The game can also put a lot of enemies on screen, sometimes as many as 20-30 at a time.
Combat can be hectic. The game can also put a lot of enemies on screen, sometimes as many as 20-30 at a time.

Oh, and there are forced stealth sections. I HATE forced stealth sections. Unsurprisingly the only place I got stuck in the game was a dumb forced stealth section I had to play 10-15 times to advance.

Stealth can be pretty forgiving in this game, since you won't be seen if you're off the ground even out in the open, but I still hate forced stealth sections!
Stealth can be pretty forgiving in this game, since you won't be seen if you're off the ground even out in the open, but I still hate forced stealth sections!

I would add that Shadow of Mordor clearly suffers from having versions for the 360 and PS3 as well as the 8th gen consoles. I have to think that having two maps you can travel between instead of a larger, unified, area was a concession to having to cram everything into half a gig of RAM. It also meant that the game had to be playable without the gimmick of the nemesis system. I think that is the reason why the gimmick feels a little tacked on, and not essential to the SoM experience.

Uruk captains have names and will throw verbal barbs along with their spears.
Uruk captains have names and will throw verbal barbs along with their spears.

That’s right, the much vaunted Nemesis system was kind of a bust for me. The theory behind it is that Sauron’s army has 20 or so captains or warchiefs who struggle for power with one another, and that you participate in these struggles by killing captains you don’t like and defending those you do, and eventually you “brand” enemies, making them loyal to you, and guide them to positions of power. These named uruks exist on the map regardless of what you’re up to, and can attack you if you come within range. They have strengths and weaknesses, which you can scout out beforehand, and unique appearances, and they taunt you when you engage in combat, even remembering if they killed you the last time you fought or if you had to run away. I appreciated named enemies roaming the world to run into, at least when they weren’t trying to gank me when I was low on health and arrows after a mission,, but I’ve played MMOs and this didn’t feel very different than the named enemies that wander those zones.

Captains gain power and advance in ranks, or can be dominated and controlled by you (like the two guys in the background.) Also note that Flak has a poisoned spear. Captains have some combination of weaknesses and special abilities.
Captains gain power and advance in ranks, or can be dominated and controlled by you (like the two guys in the background.) Also note that Flak has a poisoned spear. Captains have some combination of weaknesses and special abilities.

I should also note that I played the Xbox One Game of the Year edition and had two fairly major bugs, once getting stuck in a wall that I was able to teleport out of after about 90 seconds of moving around within the wall so I could get a bead on an enemy for a shadow strike, and once having a slow-mo effect get stuck on and being forced to abandon the mission in order to return the game to normal. Nothing shocking, but not great for an AAA game 3 years after release.

But maybe that’s unfair, because Shadow of Mordor isn’t really an AAA game. It’s more of a solid B-tier game that got elevated because it launched early in its generation and had a neat gimmick. Its uninspired gameplay, limited gimmick, and weird structure (with its pair of similar maps making it feel like two similar games in a series rather than a cohesive whole) just aren’t quite ready for prime to time. The graphics in the game are just okay (with some admittedly brutal execution animations) The open world activities other than the main quests are limited and repetitive. Do you want to save exactly three captives over a dozen times, or find 32 hidden runes, or do 30 weapon challenges? Have fun with that, I guess.

Do you like cart-pushing missions? At least the escort portion isn't so tough but still...the missions in this game are taken straight out of generic game design 101.
Do you like cart-pushing missions? At least the escort portion isn't so tough but still...the missions in this game are taken straight out of generic game design 101.

That’s not to say it’s not fun. It is fun. You clamber over ruins, you fight ghuls in the moonlight, you torment the uruk armies like a shadow, dropping hives of insects on them from above and luring caragors into their strongholds. Some of the named uruk are really cool looking, with fun little comments and interesting combinations of strengths and weaknesses. Wading into combat with a horde of enemies only to convert a bunch of them to serve you and turn the tide of battle is satisfying the first 20 times (until it becomes boring.)

Maybe you prefer escorting injured comrades to safety. There are 20 main missions in this game and there are maybe 6-7 that have interesting design.
Maybe you prefer escorting injured comrades to safety. There are 20 main missions in this game and there are maybe 6-7 that have interesting design.

Would I recommend Shadow of Mordor for people who want to play through it before Shadow of War? Not really. This is not a game you HAVE to play. The story is lackluster and whatever other charms it has will probably be better in the sequel. I would just wait for the next game. That’s not to say I would caution against it if you’re the kind of person who just has to play everything in a series (like I am) or have it in your backlog (like I did.) It’s a good game. If you’re comfortable with a 7 out of 10, enjoy. Not every game can be a home run. But if you’re looking for a masterpiece GOTY that you just have to play before the new one comes out…nah. You’re good. Wait for Shadow of War. I kind of wish I did.

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