Shadow of Mordor: a goulash of orcs we love to hate

With the intention of going through a 3-4 hours game session, I sat down with Shadow of Mordor. Eight hours later, after a marathon session and liters of spilled orc blood (and a little tad of human blood), I realized that it was already three in the morning. It had been a long time since I had been so absorbed in a video game.

What’s Shadow of Mordor? Set in the world of Middle-earth, you play Talion, a ranger of Gondor who wants revenge for the brutal murder of his family – family that had the bad idea to follow him in his exile to the Black Gate (the idiots!). Following our death early in the game, the character is brought back to life by an elf spirit, which also accomplishes this miracle repeatedly in the game since one tends to die quite often for having underestimated the green pests. The elf wraith also gives Talion a selection of destructive special abilities, for our greatest enjoyment. The history behind this wraith is also quite interesting to uncover.

I wondered what made this game so exciting for me: it’s clearly the nemesis system.

One could describe the game as a fighting game: one cuts through a multitude of snarling orcs. These orcs are very well rendered – the game is inspired by New Zealand, or at least by the films of Peter Jackson, for its visuals. Also more importantly the game’s AI remembers your previous actions. We are used to see this in Bioware or Telltale games, and here you face orcs who will remember that you made them suffer or that they already killed you before. This leads to interesting and personalised dialogue. It motivates the player to hunt and shoot down them.

For their part, the orcs progress regularly in the hierarchy of Sauron’s army through their use of orc pastimes (challenging or assassinating another leader, organizing an alcohol-fueled party …) and become stronger, especially when they get to eliminate you. Soon enough, you will face multiple sworn enemies and their simple on-screen appearance will prod you to face them, or to heroically run away.

The game’s environment is reasonably interactive: You can climb everywhere, hide, blow up barrels of grog and campfires (watch the sausages) release Caragors (big doggies of Mordor, invented by the game designers) and snipe your enemies with spectral arrows. Thus, a similar situation can be approached in multiple ways:  will I kill this chap with my sword, dagger or bow? Too many choices for my violent brain!

This is probably one of the game’s weaknesses – in the end it’s not very varied gameplay. Personally I do not get tired of smashing buttons to trigger shattering combos, but others might find it a bit boring. There is a number of side missions, but again it’s like kill 10 orcs with your bow in less than a minute, or assassinate 5 using your dagger… The same murderous activity from different angles.

In addition to the nemesis system, another plus of the game for me is the development of Talion’s skills – from a human weakling quickly dominated by a few orcs you will become a killing machine, crushing orcs and reliving battles reminiscent of the final battle in the first Jackson movie, where a tide of orcs impale themsleves on Aragorn’s sword. Very enjoyable.

In short, I recommend this game – it’s great to blow off steam and it will provoke you enough with rude orcs as to encourage you to spend more time teaching them good manners.

Why to play this game: for the enemies who build a personal hatred with you, for the background bits from the Lord of the Rings lore that are well integrated here and there, for the skill tree that transforms you into a demigod, for the enemies that evolve with your actions and the beautiful graphics.

Why not play this game: if you are a Tolkien fundamentalist, if you do not like repetition in missions, if the view of an ugly main character puts you off (compared to the beautiful orcs) and if you prefer diplomacy and negotiation to brute force.

Find the game on Xbox, Playstation and PC

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