"An awesome world of Uruk-slaying attached to uninspiring story quests."
Maybe this is because my preferred style in aciton-RPGs is to create a melee-loving tank of a warrior capable of smiting the ever-loving crap out of most anything stupid enough to cross my path, but it always takes me a little while to get into games in that genre that rely upon stealth to any tangible degree.
While I had good to great times with Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Horizon Zero Dawn, I have to admit it took a few hours before those games turned from "that project I started a bit ago" into something I was looking forward to spending time with on a nightly basis. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor was no exception.
After watching the opening cinema, detailing the fate of Talion, a ranger stuck on the front lines in the ongoing war against Sauron and his Uruk army, I was immediately thrown into the fray. I knew that Talion and his family had just been butchered by three high-ranking lieutenants of Sauron and, due to some sort of ritual, the ranger's body had been possessed by a powerful spirit, bringing him back to life with super-human powers, as well as a voice in his head encouraging him to take revenge upon his killers. I also knew there were plenty of Uruk scattered around a small open-world region littered with ruins and fortresses. And whatever else I knew about what I could do and where I could go was best summed up by regurgitating the game's basic controls and then simply stating, "Walk to the quest markers on the map and see what happens."
A process that's easier said than done if you're utilizing stealth to avoid as many Uruk as possible. Those brutish orcs tended to patrol in groups and Talion wasn't exactly a natural as far as standing toe-to-toe and hacking away goes. He didn't have that much health and it took enough whacks to kill an enemy that it was easily possible for every Uruk in the vicinity to wind up alerted by the fighting, putting him in a no-win situation. As a result, I found myself spending way too much time skulking around, waiting for openings to stealth-kill a solitary foe -- or for a group to move away, so I could sneak past their little camp. I might play for an hour or two, but I wouldn't accomplish much due to how slowly my cowardly self would move from one place to another. Therefore, I wasn't having the greatest time and Shadows of Mordor felt like it'd be one of those games I'd endure instead of enjoy.
Fortunately, this story has a happier ending. Because this is an action-RPG, it is only logical that Talion would get more powerful as I played and that formula REALLY worked out in my favor. You acquire two different kinds of experience in this game. One of them gives you the option to boost Talion's health or give him more arrows for his bow or add glyphs to his weapons in order to bestow combat bonuses. The other is used to unlock special attacks or combat moves. Groups of Uruk became less imposing when I could regularly slam the ground to temporarily stun them, or quickly whittle their numbers down via instant execution attacks. Instead of constantly dreading assaults from the powerful cat-like Caragors, I could mentally dominate them and then ride one into an Uruk camp to unleash hell on their unsuspecting hides. Eventually, I could even dominate Uruks, allowing me to brainwash a few of their archers into slaughtering their own comrades. And just like that, I was having a great time!
Uruks and their organizational hierarchy played a large role in that enjoyment. While most are rank-and-file soldiers, a handful are designated as captains. These guys are stronger and have a list of strengths and weaknesses that can play a large role in how you tackle them. For example, one might be immune to arrows, but can be instantly killed by a well-executed stealth attack -- a process made more challenging due to how it also possesses a sizable number of followers.
Simply put, I had a blast hunting down and slaying captains, devising new strategies for each one. After you've gotten a little ways into the main plot, you'll get a never-ending stream of procedurally-generated missions where you can attempt to disrupt a captain's attempt to earn more prestige in the Uruk clan. If you're unable to prevent them from succeeding, they'll get a small power boost that potentially can add strengths and/or remove weaknesses from their profile, making them trickier opponents.
The captain system has fingers in many aspects of Shadow of Mordor. If a rank-and-file Uruk kills Talion, they'll get promoted to captain. Whenever Talion falls in battle, new captains will be raised to replace fallen ones and a few likely will be promoted up the ranks in hopes of eventually becoming a Warchief. Have enough encounters with a particular captain and it potentially will become Talion's nemesis.
This can lead to epic confrontations, such as my repeated struggles with the unfortunately-named Barfa Giggles. I ran into that dude over and over again. The first couple times, he was able to complete his objective and gained power, annoying me enough that I started making a point of assaulting him whenever possible. Then, to add insult to injury, I was able to prevent him from completing three or four straight missions, but due to one thing or another, he was able to flee every damn time, surviving to try, try again. Finally, on about the sixth or seventh try, I was finally able to corner the elusive Uruk and kill him. Barfa Giggles might have been a randomly-created foe, but I found my hunt for him to be more involving and exciting than my confrontations with about anything attached to the game's actual plot.
Really, the main story is possibly the least interesting part of the game. While Talion does meet a few interesting characters, with his attempts to promote the cowardly and incompetent Uruk captain named Ratbag in order to weaken their society from the inside being a notable highlight, it's hard to shake the feeling that many of the game's quests are little more than tutorials showing you different ways to defeat Uruk. You'll encounter a quest-giver and follow him or her around for a while, getting walked through simple tasks while receiving checkpoints every time you accomplish anything of note -- a far cry from single-handedly storming a fortress just because you want to massacre the captains lurking around the place as far as "engaging" and "fun" goes.
This was one of those games where I'd play it for the fun of harassing the Uruk for an hour or two each night…and then take a deep breath before deciding to knock out a plot-related quest or two because, well, I'd have to do them sooner or later. The game gives you so many tools to terrorize Uruks with and so much freedom to do so that the story quests felt like constrictive busy-work. It didn't help that the game ended on quite the anti-climax. You might think that fighting your nemesis and his army of supporters, the second of Sauron's three lieutenants, a group of five elite Uruk leaders and the final lieutenant in back-to-back-to-back-to-back confrontations would be thrilling, but the reality is far more depressing. The larger-scale fights were pretty fun, but one of those lieutenants was "fought" by you repeatedly sneaking up on it to perform stealth attacks and the other -- aka: the final boss -- was confronted via quick-time actions. Way to end on a whimper, guys!
It says something about how much fun I had with Shadow of Mordor when I can still recommend the game despite not particularly caring about much of anything attached to its actual plot. It might have taken a little while to get used to its stealth-based system, but when I did, I had a blast hunting down Uruk and finding all sorts of ways to kill them. One day, I might be working to eliminate the strongest captains in order to replace them with inferiors; the next, I'd be killing any captain that was subordinate to a particular Warchief in order to make that guy easier to bring down. Thanks to all those options, it wasn't that tough to endure a plot littered with unfulfilling quests -- it just would have been nicer if more of the mandatory content had been capable of holding a candle to the fun activities I could dive into when I didn't want to bother with it.
Community review by overdrive (June 18, 2021)
Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.
If you enjoyed this Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor review, you're encouraged to discuss it with the author and with other members of the site's community. If you don't already have an HonestGamers account, you can sign up for one in a snap. Thank you for reading!