‘Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor’ about as good as a formula gets

By Colin McInerney

There is a formula that budding game designers are told to stick with in regards to pitching a new game. The game should be 70 percent tried-and-true mechanics, 20 percent old mechanics used in a new way and 10 percent original elements. No game in recent history has neglected to deviate from this formula more than “Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor.”

“Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor” presents itself as a modern action-adventure game full of fast-paced gameplay and boring story cut-scenes that accompany the genre, almost to a fault.

The game is mechanically similar to the “Assassin’s Creed” franchise. For the unaware, this means there is a third-person, over-the-shoulder perspective and an abundance of killing and climbing. The combat system borrows heavily from “Batman: Arkham Asylum,” with a heavy emphasis on combos. The main character is a scruffy white dude—the go-to protagonist for uninspired video game narratives—named Talion. He must get revenge—the traditional motive for go-to video game protagonists—on Sauron’s army of Uruks for killing his wife and son.

There is also a big skill tree that allows players to pick and choose abilities, and the game takes place in the Lord of the Rings universe. There are big Orc captains and a system in place staging battles with these captains. If they kill you, a power struggle occurs and some of them, including the killer, get stronger. The game’s 10 percent—the Nemesis system—has made death in video games consequential and interesting, a near unprecedented feat in modern big-budget games.

Besides being fairly derivative, “Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor” is a sound game. It focuses on killing and is reasonably uninspired but is at least well designed. Every aspect of the game is focused on making Talion a more brutally efficient killing machine. As the game progresses and players unlock abilities, this level of expressive freedom in sadistic murder only rises. Eventually, Talion acquires the ability to mentally enslave Uruks even in the heat of battle. Those that survive can be made into captains and wage war against other captains, creating a sort of metagame. This is all incredibly cool, and is not only where the game’s design shines the most but also where it allows for real player expression.

The downfall of the game is that it does its best to personify the Uruk captains. Players do not enslave a mindless, nameless Uruk. Instead, Tharkak the Manslaughterer is promoted through the ranks. He remembers who Talion is. Talion exploits Tharkak’s weaknesses and ultimately kills or enslaves him. The game does so much to paint the Uruks as memorable, as people, and only allows you to either kill or enslave them, with the express purpose of killing other Uruks and ultimately achieving revenge.

What this means is there is a game and system in place in which player expression is permitted, so long as that expression involves killing and other forms of wanton destruction. This is encouraged almost to a fault. When an encampment is cleared of Uruks—and sometimes there will be close to 100 of them—they respawn nearly immediately, giving no chance to get away in the safety that should have been created. There is no down-time to take a breather, which seems an odd complaint for an action game, but is nonetheless bothersome. It detracts from the game’s otherwise solid pacing.

Is “Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor” worth the time? Sure. Provided they have the money to pick up a game and want something that will to let players kill stuff, absolutely. However, those in search of a cerebral experience that celebrates games as a form of artistic expression should give it a pass. It should be taken as a blockbuster piece of entertainment–something to pass the time in a period where big games with real substance are scarce.