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A Look Back at Middle-Earth Shadow of Mordor A Look Back at Middle-Earth Shadow of Mordor


A Look Back at Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor

Making your way through Mordor one dead orc at a time.



Walking into Mordor

With Amazon’s The Rings of Power taking us back to the marvels and delights of Middle-Earth, perhaps it’s time to look back at one of the only Lord of the Rings games that weren’t a direct tie-in with the movie trilogy or a real-time strategy game.

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is an open-world action adventure from Monolith Productions. Released back in 2014, it still holds up remarkably well today. Shadow of Mordor tells an entirely original story set before the events of the books or films. While not considered to be properly canon, due to it taking certain liberties with established characters and events, Monolith did a fantastic job of digitally recreating Peter Jackson’s cinematic vision, as well as sticking remarkably closely to Tolkien’s original source material and the rules of his world. The developers even consulted Peter Jackson’s film crew and the Weta Workshop in order to nail the look of Middle-Earth as we know it.

As with The Rings of Power, Shadow of Mordor leans into and plays with what fans know and love about the Lord of the Rings, while also providing an interesting new spin on things. Leaning into the more action-heavy side of Middle-Earth’s world, it really is the perfect game for fans old and new.

Image: Monolith Productions - Ranger Talion and wraith Celebrimbor must work together to stop Sauron's dark forces.
Image: Monolith Productions – Ranger Talion and wraith Celebrimbor must work together to stop Sauron’s dark forces.

Before Sauron’s Demise, The Black Hand Was First

Shadow of Mordor’s story follows the life of a Ranger named Talion (voiced by the ever-talented and ubiquitous Troy Baker). At the start of the game, Talion is tasked with defending the Black Gate of Mordor. (This being set before the books or films, the Black Gate is garrisoned by the men of Gondor after Sauron’s defeat at the end of the Second Age). However, it is not long before this garrison is attacked by Sauron’s three captains: the Hammer of Sauron, the Tower of Sauron, and, most heinous of them all, the Black Hand of Sauron (played by the equally talented and ubiquitous Nolan North). The attack ends poorly, with Talion’s men, his family, and even Talion himself falling to their blades. This opening does a good job of setting the tone and establishing an emotional hook with the player, as well as stoking the desire for revenge.

Luckily for the player, things do not end there, otherwise, this would be a very short game indeed. These killings weren’t just there to establish the villains but were sacrifices intended to bring forth the ghost (or wraith, as he is called in-game) of Celebrimbor. Fans of The Rings of Power will recognize this name as the elf Elrond is assisting in the show, and fans of the books will recognize him as the elf who forged the original rings themselves. Instead of dying along with his family, Talion is bonded with Celebrimbor’s wraith. This prevents either from dying, even if Talion suffers mortal injuries, and is something that plays perfectly into the game’s Nemesis system – something we’ll come back to later.

From there, Talion and Celebrimbor must work together to find out what is happening in the land of Mordor, and to destroy Sauron’s three captains before they can wreak any more destruction. Unfortunately, this is also where the game’s story starts to stumble. After such a great opening, the rest of the story is rather simplistic and forgettable. Talion meets a number of side characters on his journey – from Hirgon, another Ranger in need of aid, to Lithariel, a warrior elf who wishes to help Celebrimbor, and many in between – but none add much to the story. While the characters themselves are fine, it’s their lackluster side stories and, more importantly, dull missions that let them down.

Image: Monolith Productions - Ratbag is one of the few interesting side characters players can meet, but creates a jarring shift in tone.
Image: Monolith Productions – Ratbag is one of the few interesting side characters players can meet, but creates a jarring shift in tone.

One character, in particular, a cowardly orc named Ratbag, stands out as an oddity. Ratbag is Shadow of Mordor’s comic relief and, as the game’s story is rather bleak, it certainly needs one. But while his antics do make for a fun change of pace and can be quite amusing, Talion’s encounters with him jar tonally with the rest of the game.

The ending, too, is a disappointment, finishing not with a bang but with a whimper, and a terrible quick-time event.

Image: Monolith Productions - Charging about on the back of a caragor is a thrilling way to get from A to B.
Image: Monolith Productions – Charging about on the back of a Caragor is a thrilling way to get from A to B.

Beyond the Black Gate of Mordor

So, if the story isn’t really worth sticking with, what made this game so fondly remembered, and why should Lord of the Rings and The Rings of Power fans get invested now? The answer: the world and the gameplay.

The game is set, understandably, in Mordor, but more specifically, in two key regions within Mordor: Udun and Nurn. Udun is what most people would imagine when told to think of Mordor – desolate, rocky, red, and grey. Little in the way of wildlife can be found, and it is positively overrun with orcs. Nurn, however, is lush and green and is even situated on the edge of a sea. Though not a healthy land by any means, this region (which, in the lore, was used to grow the crops to feed Sauron’s armies) provides a nice palette cleanser to the dreary desolation of Udun.

Neither map is large, but both provide enough variety in terms of structure, terrain, and things to do that the player will never get bored. In fact, their more compact designs mean they don’t fall into the same mistakes modern open worlds do by either leaving large swathes of land empty or cramming in too many repetitive collectibles and missions. Mordor does have collectibles, of course, but these come with the fun touch of retaining the memories of those who owned them before. Listening to these memories through Celebrimbor’s wraith powers provides new detail and lore to those players willing to explore.

Players can get around through an exhilarating mix of fast-paced parkour (which only gets more fast-paced the more spectral skills the player unlocks) and Caragor riding. Caragors are warg-like beasts created specifically for the game, which can be possessed and used as a rather speedy (if somewhat finicky) mounts to get from A to B in style.

Despite coming out in 2014, the graphics also still hold up well today.

Image: Monolith Productions - Combat is satisfyingly snappy and viscerally violent.
Image: Monolith Productions – Combat is satisfyingly snappy and viscerally violent.

Becoming a Ranger of Gondor

But it is the gameplay of Shadow of Mordor that really sets it apart from anything else on the market.

The combat is slick, flashy, fast-paced, and gory. Cutting down groups of wandering orcs in a whirlwind of steel is a spectacle that never gets old. Based on the fantastic free-flow combat system of the Batman: Arkham games, Talion can string together massive combos of successive strikes, bouncing from one enemy to another as he whittles down their numbers. Similarly, if timed correctly, Talion can counter incoming attacks, opening enemies up for a stylish instant-kill. And high enough combos allow the player to pull off grisly finishing moves, which often result in the poor orcs losing a limb or even their heads. It’s quick, it’s satisfying, but it also requires careful timing to pull off correctly, so players need to stay engaged and can’t just switch off and button mash.

Killing orcs and completing missions rewards the player with experience and skill points which allow them to upgrade Talion’s wraith powers. Using these skills to kill orcs with the flick of a wrist or zip around the maps via teleporting with spectral arrows, creates a real power fantasy for the player.

Stealth is another important aspect of the gameplay. Playing like a mix between the Arkham games’ stealth from above and the Assassin’s Creed franchise’s sneaking and stabbing, it allows canny players to move about the battlefield like a literal ghost, picking unwitting orcs off one by one, without ever raising the alarm.

But despite wielding all that power, players still need to be careful. Talion is surprisingly brittle, with lucky or persistent orcs only needing to get a few good hits in before he falls. And this is a good thing. Not only does it lend a sense of fear to battles against large groups of enemies, with players having to think tactically in order to get out alive, but it also plays into this game’s standout feature, the Nemesis system.

Image: Monolith Productions - Shadow of Mordor's ground-breaking Nemesis system leads to some very unique interactions.
Image: Monolith Productions- Shadow of Mordor‘s ground-breaking Nemesis system leads to some very unique interactions.

The Nemesis System

This is what put Shadow of Mordor on the map and is what truly elevates it above the rest, making each playthrough unique and personal to every player.

The Nemesis system is a gameplay mechanic that has never, and probably won’t ever be beaten. And it is a shame it can only be found in Shadow of Mordor and its sequel, Shadow of War. This is because publisher Warner Brothers Interactive has patented the system, ensuring it can only be used in their games. It may have seemed like a smart move to benefit Warner Brothers financially, but as the Nemesis system has only been seen twice in the eight years since its debut, it was not a move that benefitted gamers. Here’s hoping WB is working on something new that incorporates the Nemesis system, or they start selling licenses to other companies because it really is a game changer.

For those who don’t know, the Nemesis system sees the game keeping track of the player’s actions behind the scenes: tallying their interactions with certain orcs and noting which ones have been killed and which have killed the player. It also gives these orcs unique personalities – they might be boastful, poetic, sneaky, or stark-raving mad. And it places them within a hierarchy, with the lowliest orcs always seeking ways to climb the ranks to become Warlords.

These personalities and ranks aren’t static, either. Being killed by an orc will see them automatically promoted up the chain of command, and the next time the player encounters them, they might have gained a new ability which makes them even more deadly. They might even mock the player for dying so easily the first time round. Conversely, killing an orc might see them out of the picture for good, but if the player didn’t lop their head clean off, they shouldn’t be surprised to see them return for a shot at revenge. These previously defeated orcs may look radically different upon their return, sporting new scars, patched wounds, and perhaps even a hook to replace a missing limb. Some orcs might flee before being killed, guaranteeing another faceoff in the near future, while others may work together to ambush the player. The orcs even fight amongst themselves, killing each other off in order to rise above the rest.

All of the interactions feel unique and tailored to each individual person playing Shadow of Mordor, with so many iterations that they should never see the same thing twice, no matter how long they play for. And it is in giving the player total freedom to mess with the system and create their own stories that this game shows its true potential. Shadow of Mordor could have done away with Talion’s story and just left the player to their own devices, and it still would have been just as amazing.

The game’s sequel, Shadow of War built upon the Nemesis system further, adding even more nuance and detail to interactions and expanding upon each orc’s personality. It truly is a remarkable system and one that desperately needs to see a return. But whether that is in another Lord of the Rings game, or something else entirely, it is up to Warner Brothers Interactive.

Image: Monolith Interactive - Shadow of Mordor is a game that allows players to make their own fun.
Image: Monolith Interactive – Shadow of Mordor is a game that allows players to make their own fun.

Make Your Own Fun

So, while the main story may disappoint fans of Tolkien’s work, Shadow of Mordor is a game all about allowing the player to make their own fun. And for anyone who grew up with the films or is just now getting into Middle-Earth with The Rings of Power, the chance to explore Mordor and create your own stories is everything a fan could wish for.

Max Longhurst is a keen gamer, avid writer and reader, and former teacher. He first got into gaming when, at the age of 8, his parents bought him a PS2 and Kingdom Hearts for Christmas, and he’s never looked back. Primarily a PlayStation fan, he loves games with a rich single-player experience and stories with unexpected twists and turns.

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