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Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor Review

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Graphics:

Normally one would not expect to describe Mordor, the Black Land, to be described as beautiful, but it actually is in Shadow of Mordor. Well, the slave camps and orc strongholds are not exactly pleasing to the eye, but beautiful nonetheless for their great detail and character.

To be honest, I am finding it hard to describe the environmental graphics because they are just exactly what I would hope for with this setting. The ruins all appear to be ancient and in disrepair, while the orc structures are crude and ornamented with bloody spikes, weapon racks, buckets of grog, and occasionally an arena. At least that is the case for the first part of Mordor you play in.

The second area, which is just another part of Mordor, is filled with grass and plants, with orcs occupying otherwise abandoned structures that they likely had not built. The reason for this emerald in the Black Land is that the armies of Sauron must be fed, and this is where the food is grown by slaves. This area is actually quite impressive to see because of all the grass on the ground, and the moss and vines on the ruins.

The lighting of the game is almost breathtaking at times, with how the sunbeams are cut by the mountains and buildings. This, on its own, makes the world come to life as your eyes will consume the image for every detail. The rain can also help bring the world to life, but mostly the only place I can see it is on Talion's cloak, which gains a new shine to it. I never noticed a similar shine on other objects in the rain, though the effect of drops splashing on surfaces is present everywhere. Everywhere except where trees and other objects would block the rain.

 

 

Character models are mildly mixed. Overall they are very good, but if you look closely you will be able to catch vertices where, ideally, there would be none thanks to tessellation. Being an open-world game though, such a detail is easily forgiven, especially as they are not all too obvious. Only in screenshots and during some close ups might you be able to spot them on the orcs. Talion's model, however, is far superior than any orc's and I never noted a blemish on him.

I do have to mention the quality of the character textures, but before I do I must also state that I ran the game with the texture quality set to Medium. I will get more into this option when I discuss performance and settings, so for now just understand that there are two higher options: High and Ultra.

The textures for Talion, like his model, are exquisite, but can be very blurred and soft for the orcs, which I am sure can be seen in the screenshots. With the number of times you get a close up of an orc, such as when you first meet a captain, select a new captain as your nemesis, or grab and dominate any orc, these imperfections cannot help but jump out at you. Sure, orcs are not what one would describe as good looking, but this is not the same. To be fair though, this is really the only truly negative comment I have for the graphics, save one that belongs in the performance half of this section. On the High texture setting, the blurring is less present, but still noticeable, especially with hair.

There are three fluids in Shadow of Mordor I want to discuss, instead of the usual two, but we shall begin with the usual suspects. Water is not a particularly common material in the game, but you can find it, and when you move through it, it will splash around your feet. The ripples may not go far, but it still looks very nice. There is no opportunity to swim in Mordor, so that is the limit for water interaction.

 

The treatment for fire is similar to water, where it does look nice, but if you look too closely, its imperfections are exposed. The fire does look to be completely pre-rendered and not of the same resolution as the rest of the world, which stands out on torches. Campfires do look better though, with a greater complexity, but still not quite matching the world around it. The fire does look to actually engulf its fuel and does not just hang in the space on top of the logs though, which I am thankful for.

Explosions are even better than the fire in appearance, and are also very satisfying. One thing about them that is also nice is how they tend not to be filled with fire. Perhaps this makes them less cinematic, but more realistic. Although, when you explode the grog containers, it does spread across the ground like burning oil, giving you a very nice fire effect. The fire even changes color as it spreads, which is actually a pretty cool touch.

The third fluid I want to discuss is Talion's cloak. Since you can almost always see it, I felt it would be worth mentioning how nicely it flows as you move. Really it is impressive as it naturally ripples with your walking, running, and attacking. I never once saw it clipping through anything either. I know, this is a really small and minor thing to mention, but throughout the game I just kept noticing the quality of the cloak, so I just had to mention it now.

 

The pretty much covers the look to the game, which means it is time to talk about performance, so here are my specs:

  • Processor: AMD A10-5800K @ 4.40 GHz (44.0x100)
  • Cooling: Corsair H110
  • Motherboard: ASUS F2A85-M PRO
  • GPU: EVGA GTX 770 2 GB
  • PhysX: EVGA GTX 570 1280 MB
  • Memory: G.Skill Ripjaws 4x8 GB (32 GB total) at 1866 MHz 10-10-10-27
  • PSU: OCZ Fata1ty 750 W
  • OS: Windows 7- Professional 64-bit

The variety of settings for Shadow of Mordor is a little different than most games, so this is going to be a little more involved. Most of the settings I turned up to their maximum, including lighting, shadow quality, mesh quality, ambient occlusion, and vegetation range. As per my usual I had motion blur and depth of field disabled. I also had V-sync disabled because I found that it significantly limited the framerate. At these settings my computer was not able to maintain 60 FPS, so V-sync was pulling it down to 30. By disabling V-sync, but enabling a framerate cap, my experience averaged in the 40s and often reached into the 50s, and even to 60. There were also times that it dropped to 30 and lower, but this was rare and, I believe, caused by something in the background taking resources. I never noticed anything in the game that seemed to trigger the dip and associated stuttering, which is why I believe it is not due to the game itself. Despite having V-sync off, I never experienced any screen tearing, and I did try to keep an eye out for it.

One option that I found suspiciously missing was Anti-Aliasing. Shadow of Mordor simply has no built-in, traditional AA method, such as MSAA or even FXAA. It does have an option that does provide an AA effect, but it's not obvious and I am unsure of how well optimized it is.

You are able to set the game to run at a resolution greater than your monitor's native resolution. Specifically it gives an option for 150% and 200%. Naturally the frames will have to be downsampled, removing aliasing like super-sampling does. I did not learn about this until after I finished my playthrough, but having experimented with this, it would not have mattered. The performance hit of even the 150% option was too great for me to accept.

 

In the end, is AA really needed in Shadow of Mordor? I am a little torn on that question. While there are definitely examples of aliasing throughout the game, such as the ropes you can climb along, the bulk of the graphics looked completely fine to me. The aliasing can jump at you, but it is not as omnipresent as I have found it to be in some other games. (In fact I almost forgot to mention the AA situation in here.)

Now I will get to the texture quality option I mentioned earlier. When you are in the menu to set it, the game clearly states what the requirements are for the different settings, with Low requiring 1 GB of VRAM, Medium 2 GB, High 3 GB, and Ultra 6 GB. It also states how much VRAM your GPU has, which is rather convenient. As my card only has 2 GB, I kept to the Medium setting, although I did bump it up to High at times for testing. The difference in quality is present, especially with the orc close ups, but it can come with quite a hit to performance and increase in stuttering. However, this behavior is inconsistent, as during one test I experienced a noticeable performance hit and increase in stuttering, and in another test, the increase was far less noticeable. (With the latter test, I only noticed a stutter when entering new regions, when the contents of the VRAM would change.) The built-in benchmark does suffer the hit in performance with the higher setting, but the benchmark is not representative of the entire game.

Despite the positive result, I would still recommend playing the game on whatever setting your VRAM actually supports, since it takes a game restart to change it.

 

(Medium texture quality on the left. High texture quality on the right.)

By the way, if you own a computer that can actually support the Ultra textures, do not forget to download them. They are part of a free DLC that you have to get through Steam and then download, since they are not included with the base game.

Altogether the graphics of Shadow of Mordor are amazing. I cannot speculate how much effort was put into crafting the game world, but however much it was, it was worth it. Mordor has never looked so good. Orcs could use better textures for their close-ups, which are common, but the remainder of the game is almost breathtaking. The lack of an AA option like MSAA, FXAA, or any other is odd and unexpected, but it is not as severe a loss as it could have been. It just leads to more blemishes, but not enough to mar the appearance.




  1. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor Review - Introduction
  2. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor Review - Graphics
  3. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor Review - Story
  4. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor Review - Gameplay
  5. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor Review - Additonal Gameplay Media
  6. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor Review - Conclusion
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