The theme of corrupting power has always been a pivotal one in The Lord Of The Rings, but we’ve rarely seen the heroes of Tolkien’s world dare to wield it. Thankfully, Monolith Productions has a little more backbone when it comes to exploring the darker recesses of Middle-earth, and Shadow of Mordor takes a wholly bold and refreshingly mature approach to its oft-adapted source material.
For starters, the story begins at journey’s end. Players are dropped into the boots of an undead ranger named Talion, slaughtered alongside his wife and son by Sauron’s forces and resurrected to enact bloody revenge across the barren planes of Mordor. Here, Monolith’s approach to combat refuses to pull any punches, with decapitations and throat cutting among the brutish moveset at the player’s disposal. This intemperate, viscerally violent approach to combat finds its roots in Batman: Arkham Asylum’s sublimely tactile fighting system, here adapted to grisly effect as it transforms Arkham’s pugilistic ballet into a series of clanging blades and head-piercing executions.
That’s not all Talion has to rely upon to best his opponents. Aided by Elvish Wraith Celebrimbor, Talion is endowed with supernatural powers that not only enable him to more effectively dispatch Orc scum from afar (ranged abilities are exclusively a Wraith power), but also dominate enemies – a skill regretfully left until late in the game that allows you to brainwash Orcs into sleeper agents that can be sent to start riots in camps or kill their masters.
This feeds into the Nemesis system, Shadow of Mordor’s triumphant mechanic that procedurally generators unique enemies. Even the lowliest enemy grunt in the world has the potential to become an archenemy, and each foe is defined by distinctive appearance, personal traits and voice. Orcs and Uruks you encounter in the world more than once will remember you, growing stronger and bearing the scars from your last encounter, and you can analyse their personality quirks to better exploit their weaknesses.
While this may cause a few anticlimactic narrative conclusions, Nemesis forms the compelling core to Shadow Of Mordor, and stands among the most gratifying, open-ended gameplay mechanics ever conceived. Matched with an effective, if overly familiar, series of underlying combat and traversal systems, and a story that fuels further immersion into Tolkien’s world, this is the real deal. Raw, challenging and darker than Orc’s blood, Monolith has served up a rousing expansion of Middle-earth.