It’s natural to be sceptical about licensed video games, and everyone has the right to feel this way about them, especially when a blockbuster-sized one comes around with a burden of expectations and hype to live up to, despite having a broad ancestry of mediocre releases. Of course, we’re referring to Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, and the many Lord of the Rings titles before it. Much of this problem could be attributed to the Tolkien Estate, which has been difficult with game developers about the IP since the beginning, or you could say that game developers have just never done justice to the captivating beauty, depth, and lore of J.R.R.’s epic fantasy universe. It’s probably both, but we believe that Monolith Productions’ latest stands as one of the first commendable successes for the franchise in the video game realm, finding a balance in combining and improving upon elements drawn from obvious inspirations, while making a name for itself with innovative design that sets a benchmark for future games to meet.

Our journey takes place between the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, with Talion, one of the few Gondorian Rangers left, patrolling the Black Gate, which is an outpost where men stand watch should Sauron come back to Middle-earth. Not much has happened in many a year past, so Talion’s wife and son are restless in being confined to the desolate fringes of Mordor, which they’ll unfortunately never leave. Sauron marks his return by sending his Black Captains and Orcs to the Black Gate, and Talion and his family are murdered during this assault in a disturbing, sacrificial manner for unknown reasons. To his horror, Talion awakes later on, barred from death and bound to an Elven Wraith who has forgotten his past. Their situation is a result of sharing in similar pain and desired vengeance, and they must work together in Mordor and fulfil what they’ve left unfinished in life.

Hardcore Tolkien fans will notice the creative liberties taken here, such as with a Wraith being able to bind himself to a “dead” man and how loose points between the main books’ stories are boldly addressed with original and established characters (like Gollum and Sauron) that play with the lore. Regardless, the premise is an enthralling one that kept us latched to the story’s mysteriousness, imaginative usage of Tolkien’s ideas and world, and deep connection with major and obscure elements of Middle-earth’s broad history. For example, the Wraith is the legendary Celebrimbor, an Elf who created the Rings of Power. While he isn’t explored much by Tolkien, he’s a well rounded character with a gripping backstory that makes him one of the most pivotal figures in shaping Middle-earth’s fate. Most people also think of Mordor as a lifeless wasteland, but the story manages to draw you in with its diverse inhabitants and locations, some of which you won’t be expecting. But even if you aren’t an avid Lord of the Rings fan, the story manages to stand on its own well enough for anyone to follow.

It’s worth noting that the plot itself is fairly straightforward and slowly driven by story missions segmented into character arcs. Gollum is heavily explored for four or so story missions and drops off the narrative for a handful of tasks involving an Orc named Ratbag, and so on. While this narrative delivery is unexpected, the existing and original characters that you’ll meet will definitely entertain you along the way. However, the story’s concluding hour is a major letdown; it seems lazy and rushed compared to everything before it, and is topped off with unnecessary sequel bait to boot.

There’s another story going on beside the scripted one that’s unique to your playthrough, and that’s thanks to the Nemesis System, which takes some of the nameless Orcs that you usually fight and turns them into randomly generated personalities with distinct traits. You’ll discover that their society is organized into a merciless, “survival of the fittest” hierarchy, with powerful Warchiefs leading over their own respective Captains, who have their own grunts, too. Orcs are constantly trying to move up their ranks in Sauron’s army by murdering each other and trying to kill Talion to prove their worth. It’s up to you to exploit this hierarchy.

All of the leading Orcs are shown to you on a field that represents each of their statuses. You can select any of them to view their individualised names, appearances, strengths and weaknesses, and fears, which you’ll need to take note of. They will even react to your actions on the battlefield and remember you from previous encounters. But most of these particular Orcs are unknown to you at first, so you’ll need to gather intel from minions with the Wraith’s ability to probe minds or discover other sources that reveal who they are and how to defeat them.

By strategising our way from battling the lowest Captains to the Warchiefs, we were amazed at the amount of complexity and care that must have gone into creating this system, which is truly a forerunner for emergent gameplay that results in small, one of a kind narratives based on how you play. We could mention some of the surprising and revenge-fuelled encounters that we had, but the intricacies of the Nemesis System at work in these scenarios cannot be detailed here. Rest assured, though – it’s a standout feature that sells the game alone.

You can upgrade Talion’s Ranger and Wraith abilities with an RPG-like skill tree after gaining XP. An example of the former is one that allows you to throw daggers, and another for the latter is one of our favourites: Shadow Strike, which instantly teleports you to an enemy of your choice to slice his head off. You can also heighten your attributes with a currency-like system by increasing your health, the amount of arrows Talion can carry, and the number of runes on his weapons. These runes are gained from fallen Captains and Warchiefs, which provide different kinds of stat boosts and replenishing facets that are activated based on meeting particular criteria during combat with your sword, dagger, or bow. All of this adds a substantial, rewarding layer to every objective, and we looked forward to tinkering with this RPG system as often as we could.

You’ll be accomplishing your Orc-domineering sprees with gameplay that’s blatantly reminiscent to the Batman: Arkham and Assassin’s Creed games. The former inspires the brutally fun combat and stealth, which is based on encounters where you discreetly kill enemies one by one while using the environment to your advantage, or go all out and violently attack, counter, jump over, and utilise special moves to destroy enemies. You’ll be alternating between these states often, which generate fluid gameplay flow that feels even more gratifying to control than the Arkham games. On the other hand, the Assassin’s Creed influence can be seen in the way that you traverse the open world and climb about structures, which isn’t as advanced in its execution, but is nevertheless responsive and almost equally impressive.

The world also feels alive and literally open with its immaculate, natural level design, which makes for smooth navigation and rare moments of tedious travel. We were actually overwhelmed with where we could go at first and roamed around for three hours before returning to the main story. There’s good side content to explore as well; you can find artifacts that reveal interesting details about Mordor’s history, partake in assorted challenges that test your reflexes and patience with each of your three main weapons, and always discover new Captains and Warchiefs to brawl. We did think that this content could’ve been more diverse rather than solely relying on killing enemies, though. Some missions could’ve delved into more characters to flesh out Mordor’s culture or been focused on other aspects of gameplay like traversal, but what’s offered still affords challenging, enjoyable distractions that prolongs the game’s length.

We must touch on how positively stunning the game is on the PS4. The visuals are incredibly sharp and meticulous, especially with how smooth the animations are during combat. Meanwhile, the characters, environments, and fantastical, medieval aesthetics are pretty faithful to how they’d be described by Tolkien and seen in the movies as well. The Orcs look just like their disgusting cinematic counterparts, Talion’s outfit looks like what a Ranger would wear, and Mordor’s landscapes are breathtaking in scope and detail, especially in the southern region of Nurn, which is a fertile marshland by the seaside that made our jaw drop with its lush magnificence. Day and night cycles help to show off the beautiful lighting, too, and whenever it started raining, we were impressed by the sheen and “wetness” of everything exposed to it.

Nathan Grigg and BioShock Infinite composer Garry Schyman deliver a solid soundtrack that captures the story’s light, personal moments with moody piano pieces, while also nailing the dark, violent presence of Orcs during combat with songs that have bombastic wind instruments and percussion accompanied with dissonant strings. It’s also worth noting that the sound effects, such as the clash and clang of metal on metal and eerie noises of your Wraith abilities, are appropriately awesome, especially since some of them are brilliantly played through the DualShock 4’s speaker for added immersion.

Lastly, Troy Baker – in his seeming quest to voice every major video game character – predictably performs spot on as the rough, distraught Talion, and Liam O’Brian’s convincing Gollum and Alastair Duncan’s Celebrimbor are great to watch in their respective roles. However, Nolan North seemed like he would have a larger part in the game as the Black Hand, but only appears in two cutscenes, which is really disappointing and highlights the lack of potential character development that could’ve been done with him and a handful of other characters.

Conclusion

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor isn’t perfect. The somewhat repetitive nature of the side content and lame final acts prevent it from achieving our top score, but do not mistake us when we say this, because it’s one of the best games that we’ve played this year. It finds its own groove with its inspired yet satisfying combat, stealth, and open world navigation; it’s one of the first Lord of the Rings games to take meaningful advantage of the property’s world and lore; and it possesses a true stroke of genius with the Nemesis System. To put it another way, this game is like the One Ring: it’ll take much for it to ebb away into the shores of time, but will surface in our memories for years to come due to its “preciousss” novelty.