From the first moment you step into the world of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, a sense of familiarity slowly creeps up on you. Action in third-person, a protagonist with a gravelly voice who seeks revenge for the death of his family, and a combat system based on counter attacks and evasive maneuvers; we’ve played this game before, haven’t we? But what makes Shadow of Mordor so unique is not the anti-hero protagonist, nor is it the rich mythology of Middle-earth. It is the enemies.

You are Talion, one of the brave rangers of Gondor that guard the Black Gate at the border of Mordor. When an army of Uruks attacks, Talion is captured and executed together with his family by Sauron’s lieutenants. Instead of dying, Talion finds himself stuck between the lands of the living and the dead where he meets a mysterious (and very dead) Elf that brings him back to life in order to avenge his family and help said Elf remember his past.

The plot feels more like an excuse for the game to push forward, and I found myself caring less and less about what’s going on as I progressed through the story. It’s there as a way to help the player unlock new abilities for Talion, and then teach him how to use them. Did you just unlocked the ability to teleport on top of an enemy? Here’s a mission that will teach you how to do that quickly and effectively. The plot also manages to introduce new character into the world of Tolkin’s writings that feel like they’ve been there since the beginning, something that helps it become just a little more interesting.

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Combat is the game is made up of attacking, dodging and counter-attacking. You also have the ability to sneak up on your enemies and dispatch them stealthily, just like another of Warner Bros’ third-person action franchise (the one with the man dressed like a bat). But unlike those games, Shadow of Mordor is a difficult game; you’re going to die, a lot. Many times you’ll find yourself fighting wave after wave of Uruks that descent on you from every direction until you can’t hold them off. Enemies will attack Talion mid-combo and even mid-dodge, so there are times you just can’t avoid getting hit. It doesn’t really matter if you die, though, since it’s an integral part of the combat system. It can even freshen up the game when it happens (and it will happen quite a lot).

I mentioned before that enemies are what make the game. In the world of Middle-earth, the orcs and Uruk-hai are the soldiers of Sauron’s army, and this time things are no different. In Shadow of Mordor, every orc has a name and personality: something will make him stronger with rage, while others will make him quiver and flee in terror. You’ll meet three different types of orcs: the lowly foot soldier that serves only as cannon fodder; the Captains are stronger orcs, with their own strengths and weaknesses, that serve as the Warchiefs’ bodyguards, who are in turn the most powerful Uruks on the map. As I said, Talion’s death can be a good thing. Why? Because when Talion dies, time moves forward and that when you witness the effects of the dynamic Nemesis System. The orc that killed Talion gets promoted to Captain. If there’s no room in the ranks, it will try and kill off one the weaker Captains and take its place. From there is will start revelries with other Captains, and eventually become a Warchief’s bodyguard. When Talion finally gets around to killing his boss, that orc will take his place as a Warchief. A nameless, faceless orc will rise up from anonymity to a powerful leader in Sauron’s army – and it’s all thanks to you.

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The world of Shadow of Morodr is living breathing, and the orcs are constantly fighting each other for power and rank. ┬áBut does it affect the player? Well, you can grab certain orcs and squeeze them for information on Captains or Warchiefs – that way you’ll know how to approach them and what weaknesses to exploit. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Later in the game you’ll gain the ability to brand and dominate an orc instead of killing him. From that point onward, that orc will work for you, and will help you in your fight against other orcs. Naturally, you can also dominate Captains and even Warchiefs, and use them to create chaos and turmoil among the orcs. And as the strength of Sauron’s army diminishes, yours keeps growing and growing.

So if Talion can dominate every orc he encounters, why should he even bother killing them? The answer to that is rather simple – runes; Talion is armed with a sword, dagger and bow he can upgrade using magical runes. To get those runes, you’ll have to slay Captains and Warchiefs – the more powerful they are, the better the rune they hold. That’s a nice system that really gets you to consider your options: do you dominate the huge Uruk in front of you and add him to your army, or do you slay him to strengthen Talion himself?

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In addition to the lackluster story missions there are also a few varieties of side missions and collectibles. Some improve your weapon skills, or just earn you more experience points to invest in your other skills. The more interesting missions are all related to the orc population. Instead of taking on a Warchief yourself, dominate his bodyguard and send him to kill and replace him. Or start a riot by pitting one of your Warchief and all his clan against another. Shadow of Mordor is filled with ways for you to play the game and kills orcs.

Visually, the game just looks great. The Mordor we all know from the books and movies is a dark, desolate place, but Shadow of Mordor depicts it with lush landscape filled with life. You walk around the map without a single loading screen, and even when you’re fighting dozens of orcs at once the game never slows down or stutters. It’s a next-gen game in every possible way, though not completely without bugs. Sometimes Talion won’t respond to your commands, something that could really frustrate during a long battle against a Warchief. Other times Talion will get stuck in the world’s geometry and can get stuck in corners or behind low walls.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is not a game you can easily let go of. It makes you feel small inside a huge, living world: every orc is a character by itself, and that fact they can remember you from previous encounters only strengthen that feeling. There aren’t many games that make each encounter with an enemy so personal. It’s really a shame the boring plot and small bugs you’ll undoubtedly experience won’t let you completely immerse yourself in Tolkin’s world. But even so, we’re talking about one of the most fascinating and fun games of the year. So what are you waiting for? Mordor is just begging to fall under your dominion.


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