They await your embrace. Staring idly into the distance, their hands dawdle at the menial task before them. Crouching low like a cat about to pounce, you eye your target, pupils dilating in anticipation. Trepidation conflates with excitement, and your emotions jitter as if you’re undergoing a state change. Oh so carefully, you pitter patter forward on the lightest of steps, your target merely breaths away. And just like that, you lurch forward, snagging them tightly in your arms before planting a loving kiss on their neck. This is Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor’s stealth tutorial, teaching players the techniques as they approach their soon-to-be deceased wife with a heartwarming bouquet. Imprinting this memory on the player at such an early stage feels trivial, it’s a novel inversion of the typical tutorial. The moment lingers though. Like a gas station burger at the start of a road trip, it sits in your stomach, a constant sense of dissatisfaction at odds with the sense of joy you feel on the road. It permeated the experience, feeling like an albatross around the neck of a game that worked best when it embraced the manic over the mainline.
After stealth is used to kiss your slaughtered spouse, it is forever after used for covert orc obliteration.
Shadow of Mordor fancies itself a revenge tale, one where a cardboard cut-out of Aragorn, named Talion, traipses through Middle Earth. His journey is predicated on avenging the death of his wife and son, and he’s returned from Purgatory by a ghastly ghost-elf spirit named Celebrimbor, who’s equally trapped in this hellish reality and inhabits Talion’s body. Orcs have overrun the land, and it’s his job to stop them.
One of the first impressions of Mordor is how limited the world feels the instant you step on the ground. It’s a blase blanket of dullness the size of a Wal-Mart Parking lot, just expansive enough that getting to your car feels like a drag, but close enough that you can still spot your destination in the distance. This has been one of my major issues with any expanded Lord of the Rings stories in general, the world doesn’t feel like it has any extra room to breathe. Everything still seems to revolve around the central Tolkien novels, and while it’s prudent to keep a universe from spiraling into incomprehensible canonical forays, this world feels like its glass walls have turned to diamond in the interim.
Meanwhile, Talion spends much of his time trying to find out the history of the ghost-Elf named Celebrimbor that co-habitates his body. Unsurprisingly, that story also winds up tying back to the central LOTR tale surrounding Sauron and the One ring. All the while, Talion rarely mentions his family, but his lone connection to his past life comes in a happenstance stumbling upon an ex-compatriot of his who went rogue. They have little rapport, and their embattled history feels like an issue that would fall by the wayside when the entire human race is crumbling around them. Ancillary story issues stack like Jenga blocks covered in petroleum jelly, and they come to a head with the introduction of Gollum as another key cog in the story’s central mystery. The presence of such overt canonical tethers feel like stuffy safeguards, their insertion only muddling the simple tale Monolith is trying to tell. The overwhelming collection of these mainstream ties can smother a title that actually found a way for players to create their own revenge tales on a scale far grander than Talion or Celebrimbor’s pursuit of Sauron.
Monolith’s Nemesis sytem allows players to manipulate the orcs in this world by targeting specific ones, slaying them, conquering them and eventually commanding them. As the player defeats those orcs, new ones step up to take their place. The opposite works as well, as any orc who defeats the player increases in power, improving their place in the orc hierarchy. What makes it more unique is its sincere lack of self-seriousness. Orcs will readily comment on the fact that they recall slaying your puny human meatbag body before, and how they’re prepared to strip your dignity even further. Some orcs also return from the dead, sporting gnarly scars and sometimes bags over their head to cover their grotesque appearance. Who knew they were so vain?
But Mordor has an Orc problem, and they’re prone to suffocating the player at points. Small skirmishes balloon to widespread battles within minutes, as any new Orc passerbys join the scrum like Urukhai to a freshly slaughtered goblin. Those types of amassing battles may bludgeon home the bleakness of one’s situation, but it can make missions that require the pinpoint assassination of one particular orc nearly impossible. Even if you manage to take down the legion surrounding him, don’t worry, there’s another patrol of 20 orcs just waiting to take their place. These belt-loosening battles have a shelf life, and after the twelfth time of trying to take down Goober the Monstrous, I pined for the simplistic counter-immediate kill of Assassin’s Creed days.
Creed is a useful comparison in this sense, since the exploration and side missions feel like the most enjoyable components of this Mordorian Madness. Shadow of Mordor borrows heavily from other games, as is the case with most open-world grab-bag games nowadays, but they make no bones with the comparisons, even using tower scaling as the impetus for opening more of the map. They stop just short of having Talion dive off these structures making an eagle sound, although his graceful falls look eerily similar. What they do instead is take out any of the artificial craft that’s grafted into Creed. Talion doesn’t linger seeking out the next small crevice to place his hand, he flies up flat walls like it’s nothing, and Monolith’s decision to ensure scaling and movement would be a superhuman strength rather than a realistic portrayal works well when fleeing or maneuvering around Orc strongholds. These additions bleed right into some of the side challenges that task players with performing a particular number of kills with a weapon to earn upgrade points. The carnival game nature of them provide a refreshing break from the gray seriousness of the story, and steer players directly into the skid of this game’s most pleasurable mechanics, stealth, exploration and the bow. Oh and that bow, with its willingness in slow-motion mode to allow for instant kills. It truly is the best part of Shadow of Mordor.
Monolith’s novel nemesis system provides a deep, system-based revenge tale for those seeking a player-based emergent storytelling more satisfying than the one they penned, but it’s impossible to escape the trappings of a world whose only fleshed out new character is an orc named Ratbag who’s hell-bent on revenge. Shadow of Mordor weaponizes other open-world game systems with an ease of maneuverability welcomed in this hostile territory, but fails to engage the player beyond that surface level excitement. That stealth kiss of your wife in the beginning feels like a misnomer the more you play, as any level of intimacy with anyone in this world is shredded to pieces. If I could’ve just once, snuck up on old Ratbag and planted one slobbery kiss on those seaweed, emaciated cheeks, Shadow of Mordor would’ve at least made me feel something.