One Does Not Simply…Design a Good Lord of the Rings Game
by David Baxley aka xRogue 5x
Lord of the Rings has never been high on my list of nerd likes. Sure, I read the Hobbit and the trilogy back in school but it didn’t capture my interest the way Star Wars did. It wasn’t until the movies hit that it became something I really enjoyed. It was as if Peter Jackson read my mind and fixed every issue I had with the source material, for example, Tom Bombadil. The success of the films sparked an Ent flood of games to capitalize on their success. But all of us were deceived and left searching for that one game to rule them all. The PS2 movie tie-in games were passable but I was always left wanting more.
When I heard that they were gearing up for yet another attempt at a LOTR game I grabbed my lube and waited for them to turn my ass into a clown car of dicks and shame. But what’s this? Could it be? Did Monolith games and Warner Bro. Studios manage to prove themselves worthy wielders of the secret fire of Anor?
Middle-Earth: Shadows of Mordor is hands down one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had thus far on the Xbox One. In a sea of mediocrity and repackaged experiences from last-gen this game stands head and shoulders above anything else currently available. Shadows tasks you with playing the role of Talion; a ranger of Gondor. You are assigned to keep watch on the Black Gates when the forces of Mordor attack and defeat your men. However, you aren’t simply defeated. The Hand of Sauron performs a ritual and you are bound in a wraith like state of undeath. It is here that you meet the wraith Celebrimbor, the great smith who was tricked by Sauron into forging the rings of power. Together with his help the two of you set out on a quest to defeat the Hand of Sauron and break the curse binding you. The story is well crafted and unfolds at a nice pace. Along the way you meet interesting characters that aid you in your quest as well as a few familiar faces from the LOTR franchise. The game forty or so hours to complete and each one of those hours felt fresh. This freshness was achieved through stunning music and visuals, tight and polished gameplay, and new innovations that I can’t wait for more games to emulate.
While the story isn’t going to challenge any of the greats it is competent and fulfilling. They also went the extra mile and made little story connections that explain some of the gameplay elements. For example, in most games you die, respawn, and continue as if the death didn’t take place. In shadows you are a wraith, and as such, cannot die. You simply rematerialize some time later. During this time Sauron’s forces replenish themselves and grow stronger. They do this for most of the powers and serve as nice little touches that could have easily been left unexplained. The music was epic and stirring. It felt like it was ripped right from the brain of Howard Shore and belongs at the side of anything from the movie soundtracks. There is nothing quite like dealing death and judgment to a group of orcs when the score kicks off, especially the one with a choir chanting the language of Mordor, to make you feel like a hero worthy of song.
Where this game truly shines is in the gameplay and mechanics department, and at the end of the day this is the most crucial aspect of a game. You can bake a cake with shit and cover it with frosting and pretty decorations but you would still have a shit cake. On a basic level Shadows is the love child of Assassin’s Creed and the Batman Arkham games. Shadows doesn’t simply cut and paste. The game takes one makes each one of those respective franchises great and polishes them and puts their own unique flavor on them. Shadows, like Assassin’s Creed, is open world with collectibles and side missions. It even has similar towers that you climb to fill in details of your map. Unlike Creed, Shadows never once felt needless and repetitive. Sure, Shadows has collectibles but they are all shown on your map. Not only that, they are meaningless items that you collect simply for the sake of collecting them or for an achievement. In Shadows, you are given in game incentives and unlocks for them and there aren’t hundreds of them either. The combat is the most satisfying part of this game. The action and battle are so smooth that even Jay-Z looks rough in comparison. Battle is fast-paced and frantic. Not once did the frames drop or the game become sluggish. (See Star Wars: The Force Unleashed for the opposite of this game.) The game has light rpg elements. You get experience that then translates into unlocks. These unlocks range from more health to more devastating and unique actions that you can do in combat. My favorite of these being when you gain the ability to instantly slay an Uruk that you are fighting. This usually results in the separation of his head from his shoulders in a sickening spray of black blood. And there aren’t just a few to choose from. The game practically drenches you in combat options. So much so, that I was left feeling overwhelmed and I found myself falling back on the moves I found to be the most effective. What I find effective might not be what you find effective. The game gives you a choice on how to approach it.
You can go in sword swinging or approach things in a more shadowy manner. It is left up to you on the tactical route you want to take. There is ranged combat, stealth, swords, sorcery, you can even dominate the various beasts of Mordor and ride them into battle looking like something from the cover of a metal album. There is even random loot drops to scratch one of my favorite rpg aspects. Whenever you kill one of Sauron’s officers they drop a rune which can then be equipped onto your sword, bow, or dagger. There are a wide array of them to suite any play style and they also vary in level and strength. Then there is the Nemesis system.
One cannot talk about this game without mentioning this innovation. When I heard about the developers talking about this before the games release I was hopeful but ultimately doubtful of their ability to pull this off. Each area of the game world is controlled by a tiered hierarchy of Uruks ranging from Warchiefs down to captains. Each one of these officers has a name, power level, and a suite of strengths and weaknesses. You can either kill them or convert them over to your side. When they are on your side you can them play them off against one another. It’s crazy cool. These officers aren’t content to sit around and wait for you to come slay them. As time progresses they will attempt to gain power and advance in rank.
Random side missions will spawn in the world. These missions feature one of the officers trying to accomplish something, for example, one of them will challenge one of the others to a duel to the death. If successful the challenger takes the newly created vacancy. This is just one example of the wide variety of side missions that shows up. They serve to make the world feel fresh and alive and not once did they feel stale or repetitive during my forty hours with the game. On top of that the enemies remember your encounters with them. For example, if you fought a particular Uruk and during this battle threw him through a fire but then he escapes the next time you encounter him he will show scars from your previous encounter and then reference that encounter in his dialogue. These officers aren’t pushovers either. They made for meaningful and challenging encounters. I was fighting one captain who had the ability to blow a horn and summon guards to his side. At the start of the battle I was ripping him up. When his health dipped low he then blew the horn and summoned twenty or so guards to his side and then used them as a screen to facilitate his escape. I literally had to shut my mouth after that. I couldn’t believe that they delivered on what they promised in those developer videos and then some.
Middle-Earth: Shadows of Mordor is a tightly crafted and deeply rewarding experience. I couldn’t believe how much fun I was having while playing it, especially, considering it is a game tying into an existing license. Do yourself a favor and support a game of this quality and pick it up immediately. You won’t be disappointed. This is a game YOU SHALL NOT PASS on!