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Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor Review

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Gameplay:

For anyone who has been following news about Shadow of Mordor, the Nemesis system is likely of particular interest to you. Well, I am going to get to that in a bit, because combat, stealth, and abilities have to come first.

The combat is designed to be flowing, like what we have seen in other franchises, allowing you to build up hit streaks by shifting focus from one enemy to another. It keeps things going and makes you feel as lethal as possible. Often that works pretty well, but it also has some frustrating quirks to it. One is that there is nothing to indicate which enemy you are focused on, and also no player-control. The game does have some logic to the system, but this logic will have you attacking one enemy directly in front of you, and then suddenly turn around to attack an enemy not even on your screen, let alone posing an immediate threat.

As you build up your hit streak, you will also charge some abilities, including Execution, Combat Drain, and Wraith Flash. Wraith Flash is an AOE attack that does some damage, but I found it to be more useful for knocking enemies away. It also does more damage at higher hit streaks. Combat Drain has you absorb energy from your foes, which is needed for your wraith powers. Execution is what it sounds like, but serves more of a role than just instantly killing an enemy. Executions, and a few other attacks, can terrify orcs, and cause some to run away from the fight. For some battles, this can be particularly important if you want to survive.

 

Speaking of survival, death is not altogether punishing in Shadow of Mordor. When you die you will respawn at a Reforge tower, which also serve as fast-travel points. Time will also advance, which is where the punishment can really come in. Even without your efforts, the orcs will still fight amongst themselves, killing captains and gaining power. This can significantly shake things up if only by putting more captains into play again, and they can be very lethal foes.

Stealth is key to the game, which should not be surprising since you are in orc-filled Mordor, and each orc wants to kill you. In some areas being sloppy is not going to hurt you much, but inside of strongholds, the orcs will just keep coming if you are not careful. There are also some useful abilities that come with stealth, such as Brutalize and Stealth Drain. Brutalize is a stealth finisher that is meant to terrify your enemies. Used appropriately, this one attack can quickly disperse the area, allowing you to escape.

 

Stealth Drain, like Combat Drain, is used for recovering the energy needed for your ranged attacks, wraith attacks, and focus, which slows down time when aiming those attacks. Really though, these abilities achieve their full effect when you learn to brand enemies. Branded enemies will fight for you, instead of against you, and can quickly change the tide of a fight. Many times captains and even warchiefs have died at the hands of my branded allies, instead of my own blades. Stealth Branding can let you turn a fight before you start, while Combat Branding can turn a fight in progress. Even having one ally can make the difference.

Of course, the power of branding comes not from the orcs you easily cut down, but from the captains. These special orcs are more powerful, and controlling them grants control of those under their command. You can also use branded captains to get close to warchiefs, as bodyguards, so when you fight the warchief you are not alone.

Ranged attacks I found to be useful more for utility than offense. One of the abilities you unlock will send you, instead of an arrow, to an enemy in a flash, and eventually you will learn to execute enemies the same way. This is useful for covering distances very rapidly and for hunting down fleeing enemies. You will also learn to use these abilities to brand, or dominate, the beasts of Mordor, which can be as invaluable to you as any branded enemy.

 

 

Now we can talk about the Nemesis system, which had a powerful yet subtle influence on my experience. To be fair, some of that subtlety is likely the result of my killing or branding captains whenever I encounter them, instead of letting them escape and grow more powerful. Sometimes captains would escape or I would have to run away (hey, multiple captains can be hard to manage in strongholds). The next time I meet them, they would comment on the previous encounter, such as mocking me for running away. Only by advancing time will captains become more powerful as a result of surviving you. If you do not survive a basic orc (or if they just get the killing blow) that orc can be promoted to captain, gaining a name and everything that goes with that status.

Where the system does stand out more is just the design of the captains. Each one has multiple, special attributes to them, such as having hatreds, fears, weakness, and abilities. Hatreds will cause the captain to start regenerating health, which is especially annoying when it is Hate of Defeat. Fears can be exploited to cause the captain to start running without ever attacking them. Certain beasts, fire, and orcs fighting orcs can all be fears. Weaknesses come in two varieties, with some just being a way to do extra damage, and others guaranteeing an instant kill. Similarly, captains can also have strengths, making them immune to things like stealth and ranged attacks. Abilities can be anything from poisonous weapons to walking away if you are brought to low health, instead of finishing you off. A captain with the right combination can be particularly lethal and force you to be creative in how you fight them. As this is all procedurally generated, the challenge is never fully overcome and keeps it fun.

Part of the fun with the Nemesis system comes from how you can encounter multiple captains all in the same area. Each one presents its own challenge, and you will want to learn what is special about them, if you can. When you first encounter a captain, you will not know what their strengths and weaknesses are and will have to learn them from other captains or certain other sources. Pay attention and spend time collecting information to be as lethal as possible.

As reward for killing captains, runes will be dropped that can be installed in your weapons. These runes can have a variety of effects, from increasing terror to regaining health and arrows. The more powerful an enemy was, the more powerful the rune. You are able to make the captains more powerful by sending death threats to them, which gives them a boost and has them pull their bodyguards in.

 

Killing captains also increases your own power, which is how you gain access to more abilities to unlock with your experience. You will also acquire another resource that you spend on adding rune slots to your weapons, increasing your health, focus, and arrows, and even special abilities for your weapons, such as invisibility for unlimited stealth kills.

As dead captains leave openings in the orc army, other orcs will be promoted to fill in the gaps you made. This happens both when time advances and when you just kill enough captains that the slots have to be filled. There is a chance of branded orcs being promoted to captain, as I just discovered while trying to test something else. Pretty handy not having to hunt down and brand them myself.

 

Finally, one thing I want to mention is something I found particularly annoying about many of the sub-missions. There is no retry option for them. If you fail a mission you are only allowed to abandon it, which means you will have to spend the time running back to where it starts to take another shot at it. While I can understand that this is meant to be a living world, so things can change in the time it takes to run back, it seems like an unnecessary punishment for silly mistakes, such as free-running at the wrong part of the wall, causing you to not climb it, but attract attention, ruining the mission.

The gameplay definitely has its flaws, but it does more right than wrong. A great deal more. The combat could be tighter, but is still fun and increases in enjoyment as you unlock new abilities. The stealth is always exciting, in my opinion at least, and is a very powerful tool for victory. Branding is simply an awesome ability that can really upset what would otherwise be insurmountable challenges. The Nemesis system never presented itself to me as this grand 'see this scar, you gave that to me' moment, but that could be because I was too effective at killing my enemies. What I did experience was still pretty cool and really gives a dynamic, living quality to the game that keeps it interesting.

 

It took me 17 hours and 54 minutes to complete the campaign, but because I was skipping over side missions and not collectible hunting, I was only at 55.3% completion. Now I am at about 70% with 21 hours in, and still have a lot of side missions to do. The bulk of that 15% swing was likely due to me running around getting collectibles, which are conveniently located on the map, so finding them does not take too much time. My guess would be that completing every mission will get me close to a full 25 hours to 30 hours, or more, in part because of the time it takes to retry missions and because some are locked behind abilities. (I have already reached 25 hours as I have continued playing after writing this review, with still many side missions to do.)

 




  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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