The Average Gamer

Shadow of Mordor Review (Xbox One)

Shadow of Mordor - Uruk Campfire
Shadow of Mordor is what Assassin’s Creed could have become, if boats had never been invented. I love it. You pick a target and spend the next hour or so of the game planning out your attack. Where does he hang out? What are his weaknesses? What other threats are nearby? How will you handle reinforcements?

In the early stages, it was the guerilla tactics that appealed to me. Talion may have gained some special skills in death but he’s still woefully underpowered compared to an entire horde of orcs. You can leap in and use your Batman-like skills to bounce from uruk to uruk, building up combos to eventually finish them. It’ll take a while though and they’ll keep coming. Better to identify your goal, jump in, grab it and jump out, leaving carnage in your wake.

If you choose to hang around, an uruk captain will come over to investigate the commotion and that’s where you’re in trouble. From a distance the captains look like any other uruk. On more than on occasion, I made a sneaky leap onto an unsuspecting warrior only to learn that he was a bad-ass captain with an axe to grind against my face. You need to scour the battlefield before you jump in – figure out who the captains are, where the explosive barrels are and how you’re going to lure one towards the other. Fortunately, uruk have pretty bad eyesight and aren’t willing to climb. If you need to escape, you rarely need to do more than scurry up the nearest wall and hide on a rooftop until they get bored.

In those early hours, combat can be a little dull as all you can do is hit and parry until you’ve built up a 10-hit combo that unlocks a gore-laden finish move. The ability tree is geared around giving you skills to deal with certain types of uruk and as you progress, battles become more interesting. While the shield-bearing or axe-wielding uruk are initially troublesome, soon you’re flipping over uruk heads, stunning them in the process and giving you an opening for an attack flurry that builds up the combo faster. Earn more ability points and now your special attack can be done after five hits instead of 10. Now the fights are fast, fluid and brutal. Uruk bodies will go flying and when you unlock the flurry attack that ends with an uruk head exploding in your hand, the others will run screaming. Talion is a monster.

Shadow of Mordor - Black CaptainHe’s not really though, because Talion has been designated a Good Guy fighting against the uruk Bad Guys. As Talion grows in power with the shade of Elven lord Celebrimbor whispering in his ears, he starts to do some pretty dark things. Shadow Strike allows you to teleport across hundreds of yards and instantly kill a target. I started seeing uruk as handy portals to cross the map, instead of foes to avoid. Spotted two at a distant prison camp? Excellent. Teleport to one and then drain life force from the other to refill my magic arrow stocks. Sure, they can talk and have a rich (if violent) society but they’re not really people.

About half-way through the game you’ll unlock the ability to brand uruk with your wraith-like powers. They then act like sleeper agents. You’ll see your eerily-glowing minions going about their daily business of bullying prisoners but they’ll no longer attack you and will come running to your defence if you get into a scrape nearby. Soon, battling dozens of uruk at once will be a distant memory as you can simply bend an entire stronghold to your will. Turn bodyguards against their captains. Turn a single uruk in the middle of a camp and order him to fight dozens of his brethren just for the lulz. This evolution of your battle tactics throughout the game is fascinating and its a shame that it doesn’t lend any moral ambiguity to the basic Good vs Evil plot. Talion is Good even when he wields mind-controlling powers for violent means. End Of Story.

The Nemesis system is a great addition to the basic “kill all the things” of the game. Sure, each uruk captain’s strengths and weaknesses are just picked from a list of options, but they keep things interesting. Coupled with their titles and unique appearances, it gives them personality of sorts. I found myself laughing at unlucky uruks who’d drawn vulnerability to both ranged and stealth attacks. “Hah, he’ll never make it to the big leagues,” I said, perched above him, ready to strike and kill instantly. On the other hand, it might be useful to have those vulnerabilities in a position of power if he turned against me later. Spoiler alert: they’ll never turn against you. They’re mind-controlled.

Shadow of Mordor - Talion Wraith CombatShadow of Mordor is incredibly polished. It’s filled with little touches that often annoy in other games – every stage in missions will autosave so if you die after clearing two of three areas, you can retry from after the second area. Fast travel is easy to unlock but there’s a multitude of ways to travel around if you prefer. Even filler missions have some variation.

I ran into some trouble after a foolish mistake when trying to free the last of yet another group of prisoners. As I retreated up a cliff to recover, I looked down to see the freed prisoners and nearby workers mobbing the uruk horde, shouting “The Ranger needs us!” and eventually driving them off. It was glorious and would have been a great reminder of the good I was doing – had I actually been a Ranger in Mordor and not a woman slobbing on my sofa at 3am watching some nameless video game NPCs battle other nameless video game NPCs. It was inspiring, nonetheless.

The game may be a mish-mash of other games that we’ve played to death, but it’s done with style and the Nemesis system takes things to a new level. Shadow of Mordor is simply brilliant.

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