Review: ‘Middle-Earth: Shadow Of Mordor’ Makes It Personal

On paper, Middle-Earth: Shadow Of Mordor looks like a competent clone of the Batman: Arkham series. It’s got the same combat, with a few tricks cribbed from Assassin’s Creed and a few other games. But it also has a new mechanic, something that feels fresh, and something that will make you invested in the game way more than you should be.

You’ve probably heard about the game’s nemesis mechanic by now, but it’s when you see it in action that you really appreciate what Monolith has pulled off. Essentially, they’ve turned the usual dynamic of open-world adventure games on its head.

When you die in most games these days, it’s an annoyance. You’re set back a little bit, or have to start the boss fight over and start a new strategy. The nemesis system makes death something you want to avoid, because every time you die, the orc chiefs and warlords you’re hunting level up. They earn a little more prestige, a little more power, some extra soldiers, and it makes killing them that much harder. Die often enough and they’ll start actively hunting you. It forces you to think strategically; how many orcs can I take down before they realize what’s going on?

It ties in well with the story, although that’s the only part that does; you’re essentially the zombie of a ranger avenging his family, aaaaaaand nobody cares. Aside from Gollum popping up, the game’s main story is basically a sidequest it’s unusually insistent about, and the punchline is something you’ll guess well before the cutscene rolls. The real story are these orcs you’re hunting down, because you’re really going to want to kill these green-skinned jerks.

I’ve never met a game so in love with taunting the player. Go by an orc you’ve fought, but not killed, a few times, and he’ll mock you, or maybe show off the scars you gave him while pointing out, hey, your family’s dead, so neener. Seriously, there’s nothing you can do to these guys that they aren’t going to richly deserve. And the game gives you plenty of tools to get messy revenge on them; you can turn factions against each other, brainwash orcs to be sleeper assassins, torture them for information about other rivals, or, you know, just kill ’em.

The system also means that you’ll get some fun, and sometimes bizarre, emergent gameplay. The orcs aren’t just standing around, they’re doing things, and sometimes those things catch you by surprise. Or in the middle of a completely unrelated fight, an orc you’ve run into a few times will crash the party to try and get your head.

The game has flaws, of course: The story is dull, as I noted, and the game’s randomized system has a few problems; you’ll see promoted orcs get the same name as somebody you just stabbed, and dialogue gets recycled a little too often. But you’ll be too busy playing them against each other to care too much; it’s a meaty game, and the nemesis system makes it that much meatier.