At first, everything about Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor screams Assassin’s Creed: Hobbit Edition. The cloaked hero, a ranger named Talion, unlocks fast-travel options by scaling giant towers, uses deadly stealth and ranged techniques to dispatch foes from the shadows, and relies on an otherworldly vision through which he can see hidden objects. To proceed through the majority of the game, Talion must assassinate the various Uruk-hai (orcs) scattered throughout Mordor’s tainted valley, Udun, and its fertile coastal region, Nurn. But whereas Assassin’s Creed locks you into memories that must proceed in a specific fashion, Shadow of Mordor actually embraces its open-world architecture, allowing you not only to determine where you’ll be facing off against the fearsome Uruk-hai warchiefs, but which orcs actually end up advancing into those positions.
This Nemesis System actually works as advertised: If a nameless orc kills you, he’ll be bestowed with both a sobriquet and rank, and as the days pass, power struggles occur, in which the hierarchal vacuum created by the edge of your blade is filled by bloodthirsty hopefuls. If you’ve got your vendettas, or foes that you’ve branded into your service, you can interfere and intervene in their Trial by Ordeal or Feast (to name just a few of the ever-occurring events), promoting rivals even to the point at which a once-challenging battle is swiftly settled by the butchery of turncoat bodyguards. Your foes grow in strength alongside you, hardened by their visible scars: Take out an eye and that orc might have an eyepatch when next you meet, or burn him and he may be wrapped in cloth. It’s almost impressive enough to help you ignore the repetitive nature of the game, as bending orcs to your will is a time-consuming affair. Even more so when you consider that the game is engineered to force you to retreat from certain encounters, spawning near-infinite hordes of orcs to repel you, especially when stealth fails.
Fans of Tolkien, of course, may disagree. Both Udun and Nurn have been deftly rendered, from the creeping spiders and lingering hell-bats to the undead ghuls, four-legged caragors, and giant graugs. Landmarks like the Black Gate can be explored, and hidden artifacts reward exploration with plenty of lore to flesh out the plot, which takes place between The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Rings. There’s a dauntless dwarven hunter, Torvin; a former human rival, Hirgon; a talkative orc known affectionately as Ratbag the Coward; and the elven wraith sharing your body, Celebrimbor. (There’s even room for Gollum.) And while you may be doing the same things in Nurn as in Udun, there’s at least a clear sense of progression (deftly marked by a Power ranking), through which Talion can more efficiently dance through his opponents. And due to the open structure of the game, you may not find much use for mechanics introduced in story missions, such as grog-poisoning or graug-riding, but other players may discover these to be the lynchpin techniques for their own scenarios.
If you embrace the tactical nature of its combat, which is rarely resolved on a single battlefield, then Shadow of Mordor stands largely without flaws, and the bonus Trials of War mode will offer additional hours of arcade, high-score-busting action. For those who find the battles to be tedious, particularly given the sometimes hit-or-miss stealth, the plot, environment, and details should at least get you through the main story. This isn’t the one game to rule them all, but it’s a powerful experience in its own right, one that every fantasy enthusiast should pick up.