Ashgam the Ruinous raised his sword above his head as I laid on my knees before him. He wore a large steel helmet with four horns protruding out the sides. We fought for only a few moments before he took me down — I was filled with rage. Ashgam froze for a moment and lowered his sword before looming over my head and saying, “Too easy,” before sauntering away as his minions finished me off. Next time I would have my revenge.
Stories fill Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor; but they aren’t the stories games generally tell. The main narrative is largely uninteresting to anyone who isn’t a huge fan of Tolkien’s world. Talion, a lone ranger of Gondor set to watch over the Black Gate, is banished from death. A wraith has taken hold of his body and they must work together to stop Sauron’s power from growing once more. The narrative that is there feels entirely rushed and uninteresting, despite a strong opening. Events play out but nothing seems to come of them and Gollum shows up for no real reason.
Setting itself in between the events of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Shadow of Mordor has the challenge of creating drama out of a story that cannot enact any meaningful change — we know how this story must end. It’s a wonder that there is any meaningful drama at all. Shadow of Mordor succeeds not by telling a riveting story of Talion’s revenge, but by enabling the player’s own personal revenge against the enemies that have defeated them.
Later, I found Ashgam the Ruinous at a feast. He was celebrating his victory with his troops, drinking grog and bragging about how easy it was to kill me. I was too cocky and engaged all fifteen of them in battle, taking out only a few before Ashgam stood before me again. “Too easy,” he laughed, before plunging his sword into my neck. Next time, I promised. Next time I would actually take my rival down.
Shadow of Mordor incorporates a “nemesis system” that helps create the stories you want to tell your friends. The nemesis system shows rows of named orcs starting with Captains and moving up to Warchiefs. Each individual orc on the map feels like they have their own identity — they feel like living, breathing parts of a larger whole. They all have their own strengths and weaknesses, fears you can play off of, and personalities that make them unique. Two orc armies may dislike each other and start a power conflict, where whomever wins becomes more powerful. Since Talion causes them so much strife, any orc that kills you grows in the ranks.
At this point Ashgam the Ruinous was a Veteran Captain and the bodyguard to Warchief Nakra the Disgusting. I found an orc nearby and, using my wraith abilities, forced him to give me all the intel he could on Ashgam. According to this orc, Ashgam was afraid of fire and could be killed swiftly with a stealth attack. I stalked Ashgam as he patrolled an orc stronghold. He stopped near a fire and I positioned myself right above him. I pulled out my bow and shot the fire; Ashgam screamed, running away in fear. I couldn’t initiate my stealth takedown, but I did grab him just so he knew I was the one terrorizing him and I knew where to find him. “Too easy,” I said, tossing him to the ground and dashing away.
Moving around the open world is quick and easy. Climbing up the small structures feels incredibly similar to Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed series. Sometimes you’ll run up a wall when you don’t mean to, or have trouble climbing a structure, or be unable to move forward properly when perched on a ledge, but those issues are few and far between. The open world itself is fairly expansive and largely empty. Most of the world is a barren wasteland with orc strongholds around the perimeter, while ruins and plateaus fill the rest. It’s empty and void of any sort of personality beyond generic fantasy. Tolkien’s books and Peter Jackson’s movies offer up a much more lively and colorful world, even in the barren places like Mordor — it’s a shame Shadow of Mordor doesn’t follow suit.
In addition to the stories being weaved through the nemesis system, Shadow of Mordor incorporates side missions for your different weapons. These missions vary wildly and incorporate many of the different skills you unlock, making all of them fresh and fun to complete. As you finish more of these missions, your weapons morph into better and more detailed versions of themselves. The knife was originally the broken sword of Talion’s dead son, but by the end it resembles a large, sharp knife with runes and markings embedded into the blade.
The combat in Shadow of Mordor is nearly identical to Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham games, only far more brutal and devastating. It’s incredibly fun to have ten to twenty orcs surround you and be able to systematically take every single one of them down. The runes you get from defeating Captains and Warchiefs can slot into your weapons, amplifying your current skillset and making you more powerful. By the end of the game, almost nothing stands a chance against you.
All of the pieces of Shadow of Mordor fit together to make a fun action game, but it is the nemesis system that truly sets this game apart. All the different things you can do with it create a much more interesting package. Later in the game, you’re given the ability to brand orcs, enslaving them as a part of your own army. This opens up even more possibilities to play with the system. You can create feud wars with rival orc factions; or help a branded orc become a Warchief’s bodyguard who can turn on him at your command; or give death threats to other orcs allowing them to grow in power, creating a harder challenge for you and a greater chance for a high-tier weapon rune. It all works so seamlessly and and effortlessly that the world feels alive and enemy encounters have actual weight and consequence behind them.
Like when Ishmoz the Assassin appeared out of some bushes and struck me down in one blow. Later, I branded him as one of my own and sent him to kill Nakra the Disgusting, a rival Warchief trying to start a riot with one of my own.
Or when I found out that Mozfel the Caragor Slayer — who wore a caragor head as a helmet — was actually deathly afraid of caragors and ran away at the sight of them. I charged headfirst into his camp riding a caragor and he fled, screaming in terror.
Or the time Brogg the Twin started fighting me before Mogg the Other Twin joined in on the battle. I was able to decapitate one of the twins before needing to flee. Hours later I came across Brogg again, only this time he was Brogg the Brother and wore his brother’s rotting head on his shoulder.
Or once I discovered my adversary Ashgam the Ruinous was executing some of his rebellious subordinates and planned to finally take him out. I loomed over him as he killed his minions. Once he reached the last one, I fell down upon him knocking him on his stomach. I flipped him over while he was still dazed and slit his throat from ear to ear. I finally took down my nemesis.
These types of stories in Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor make up for its less-than-stellar narrative and world. The nemesis system creates a dynamic world and stories that feel natural and immersive. The main narrative and their uninspired missions bring Shadow of Mordor down from excelling on all fronts. But the nemesis system is a step placed firmly in the next generation and create something entirely unique in what is otherwise a relatively bland open world game. After 22 hours I was still finding new ways to manipulate the dynamic AI and create powerful and effective stories about the many orcs of Mordor.