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Talion the Orc Slayer – Shadow of Mordor Review

by on October 24, 2014

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Developer: Monolith Studios
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Release Date: September 30, 2014
Rated:M for Mature
Platform: Playstation 4, Xbox One (Reviewed on), PC
MSRP: $59.99
Genre: Action/Role-Playing Game

I’m trying to sneak around overhead of a group of Orcs trying to be careful not to alert them of my presence. I stop for a moment, noticing that I have a problem ahead of me; there’s an Orc captain standing at the end of my path, getting ready to turn around. Making the situation worse is that he’s a captain I haven’t had a chance to gain intel on, so I have no idea what his strengths and weaknesses are.

Soon as he sees me, everyone will know I’m here. I take my bow and start pulling back on the arrow, taking my time with setting up the perfect headshot. I let the arrow fly, hoping my troubles will be over in a matter of seconds.

The screen alerts me he’s invulnerable to ranged attacks, and now he’s spotted me.

“There you are Ranger,” he says cockily, pulling out both his blades, “Seems you want to die early tonight. Promise you I’ll make it happen soon enough.”

He lets out a battle cry, bringing out a swarm of orcs enclosing around me. I begin fighting my way through landing a long streak of consecutive blows. I’m using every combat finisher I can think of to get back to the captain. With my hit streak charged, I begin another combat finisher on an orc and see a health bar pop overhead of him.

“Ranger!” he snapped, smiling through the blood soaked bandages held together by rope, “I told you I’d be back for you. Now it’s my turn to repay the favor!”

I’d sworn to myself I’ve killed him twice already, the last time an hour ago.

Now I’ve got two captains I have to be aware of hidden in the swarm of orcs around me. Luckily for me, I had intel on the bandage-wrapped captain telling me he was instantly killed by combat finishers. I work my hit streak up to be charged for a combat finisher, instantly downing the zombie captain with relative ease. With few orcs left, and a third of his health remaining, the screen tells me of his intention to retreat.

“The strategy was ill prepared, I’ll get you next time Ranger” he shouted while running away. Now the hunt begins. I start following close behind, chasing him down until the perfect moment to end his existence.  This is one of the many different types of scenarios players can find themselves in while playing Shadow of Mordor.

Revenge Never Tasted So Bland, But The Appetizers are Delicious

Shadow of Mordor takes place between The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring. Players take on the role of Talion, a ranger captain of those guarding the Black Gate. As fate would have it, the 3 Black Númenórean captains of Sauron attack the Blackgate and successfully overthrow it. In the final waning moments of the battle, Talion is forced to watch his family killed and offered as a “blood sacrifice”, his fate similar to theirs soon after. However, sometime later Talion wakes up alive yet confused. Talion learns he’s been possessed by a mysterious Wraith who promises to aid Talion in avenging his family. Thus, Talion’s journey begins on his quest for vengeance.

From left to right: Talion, Wraith

From left to right: Talion, Wraith

Once you step into Shadow of Mordor, you’ll be amazed at how fleshed out the world is. Orcs, who’ll be your main enemies to face throughout the game, feel alive and full of personality. If they’re not busy trying to kill you, they’re trying to kill each other for higher power. If they’re not up to that, they’re performing other tasks like hunting, trials by ordeal, or recruitment. These happen regularly throughout the game regardless of the player’s progression in the story.

The other characters Talion meets along the way are written deftly balanced between being a plot device and being fleshed out. Everyone in the story has a purpose for being there, regardless of the player interacting with them or not. It creates the feeling of the player jumping into a world that’s alive; Talion’s story is only one of many happening.

All of this is bolstered by superb voice acting work; Troy Baker is exemplary in making Talion into more than a one-dimensional character. Liam O’Brien is almost indistinguishable from Andy Serkis as the voice of Smeagol/Gollum. Even Nolan North shines as the Black Hand of Sauron.

However, the major criticism I have of Shadow of Mordor is that the story feels all too much like a standard, run-of-the-mill revenge story. There are plenty of other elements in the game that expand it into more than just that, but even they too feel too atypical and never elevate beyond being atypical. It’s not really noticeable when playing the game, but when completing it that’s a different story.

Isn't he just so....precious (crickets chirping)

Isn’t he just so….precious (crickets chirping)

It’s a Beautiful Game, but A Little Too Ambitious

Shadow of Mordor’s world is way too breathtaking, and rife with plenty to explore to have the story bog it down; with two giant open-world maps each distinct from one another, there’s plenty of secrets to uncover. From the lush, open fields to the giant battle fortresses, and even to the dark, gloomy caverns along the edges of the map, there’s plenty for players to explore and discover.

Everything in the game has a sense of purpose for being in the game; the forts, artifacts, creatures, everything is integral to the game functioning. Again. the attention to detail shows in the way NPCs, enemies, and both Talion and Wraith look. That even includes the creatures that inhabit the world: caragors, ghuls, and graugs. There’s a feeling of love and energy put into perfecting the game’s atmosphere and environment to make it feel like it belongs in Tolkien’s much beloved series.

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Unfortunately, I think the creators got a little too ambitious in crafting the world. While there’s a lot to explore in Shadow of Mordor, there can be quite a bit of empty space to run through. Sure there are orcs, graugs, ghuls, and caragors everywhere, but there are areas of the map more specific for getting from point A to point B. Some of the smaller castle areas get to a point where you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. There were moments I was pulled out of the game because of these instances.

They Say the Ultimate Form of Flattery is Mimicry

Shadow of Mordor’s greatest strength is in its gameplay. While the gameplay mechanics aren’t new or revolutionary, it improves upon all the mechanics it borrows from other games to create an addictively fun experience. The stealth mechanics feel natural, fluid, and responsive to where sneaking around is exciting. It makes me think of how Assassin’s Creed could be a little more fun if the mechanics were refined. There were far too many times where I chose the stealth route on missions than charging into a mission. Making it more tantalizing are the shadow kills, stealth kills, and arrow shots players can use to pick off orcs one at a time.

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Combat wise, the look and feel is akin to the Arkham series: fast, fluid, and unforgiving. Like the famous Rocksteady series, the combat is all about timing and picking your attacks, counters, and stuns. If you continue to land repeated hits, it charges up a hit streak that allows you to perform some brutal executions, brandings, or stun moves. Miss one hit, try and counter too early, or get hit by an enemy and the hit streak resets.

Now, while worrying about timing your strikes, players have to keep in mind the strengths and weaknesses of the various orcs Talion will be fighting. For example, Defenders are Orcs with shields that block normal frontal attacks; players will have to jump over them, stun them and hit them from the back. Beserkers, the stronger brutes with two weapons, can only be countered or attacked when stunned.

Then there are captains (mini-bosses) who are far stronger than the typical enemy fodder and have more specific strengths and weaknesses. Some bosses are susceptible to ranged attacks (arrows) and some are invulnerable, some fear fire and some really hate caragors; all of this intel helps to increase a player’s ability to beat a captain. This intel is gathered through interrogating orcs known as “worms” or finding intel scattered amongst the map.

The sweet satisfaction of taking down a captain

The sweet satisfaction of taking down a captain

All of this is a lot to take in for battles, but once you get used to it the battles become fun and challenging. Combat is all about thinking on your feet and adapting to what’s being thrown at you, it’s about managing the information you do know to exploit any advantages, and is unforgiving if you mess up. Not only that, but the combat is also able to pull off a consistent learning curve that isn’t too difficult to pick up throughout the whole game.

Now, there is one thing I think needs to be addressed seeing as it’s always a heated topic for video game discussions, to the point of overkill:

Shadow of Mordor is incredibly violent.

Some people are going to care, some aren’t. However I think the coldness of the violence in this game is necessary. The sound of the blade slicing through skin, the executions both Talion and the orcs do, is Talion any better than the orcs? A lot of games discuss morality in terms of black and white; one good answer and the other evil. However, in Shadow of Mordor it’s unspoken but observed. There are questions that will be raised to the player, and they’ll have to find the answer for themselves.

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Just one of the many executions you can perform during combat

There’s a lot to do in Mordor, and I mean a lot

Shadow of Mordor can be a long game depending on how you play it: there’s the main storyline, side quests, collectibles, and artifacts scattered throughout the game. The main missions are mostly fun to play through, but only give you a sliver of what’s to offer. The side quests do an exceptional job fleshing out the world and accomplish the rare feat of having plenty of variation. Not to mention, each side mission has a certain gameplay style attached to it. One of my favorite ones was an epic fight against 100 orcs inside an arena-like environment. Another was sneaking through a battlement and picking off 5 orcs without getting caught. I never found myself bored with the side missions; I wanted to play them more.

Depending on how the game is played, Shadow of Mordor can be a long journey to experience. With all of the sidequests, storyline missions, collectibles, artifacts and challenging, there’s a lot the game has to offer for you to do. Not to mention, almost all of those help to flesh out both the world and lore. When you’re not working on any of these options, players are allowed to roam the map and explore it, and thus run the chance of engaging in a battle with a captain if spotted.

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Finally, there are the extra side missions that do nothing to progress the story, but provide insight into how roles and powers play for the Orc armies. Some of the missions have two orc captains pitted against each other in duels, executions, or ambushes. Others have them rising in power through trials like trials of ordeal, hunting or recruiting. Going into these missions have an immediate impact on the game. These missions stress the importance of choices and the consequences that follow them.

Overall, Shadow of Mordor is a great game that deserves to be played and easily falls into one of the top gaming experiences of the year. While it doesn’t provide anything new or groundbreaking, it’s refinement of popular gameplay mechanics from other games are refreshing. Mordor is a sight to behold and explore that offers not only a lot of content in your first playthrough, but does warrant a second playthrough. Shadow of Mordor does have its faults, but they do nothing to really impact the gameplay experience. In the end, it manages to build a solid game out of several popular games’ mechanics to provide an exhilarating, addictive, and challenging game.

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