REVIEW: Middle-earth – Shadow of Mordor

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  • reviewed on PlayStation 4 / Rated M / $59.99 / released September 2014
  • FINAL: You NEED this game. 5 out of 5 stars

The first thing that needs be said about “Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor” is that we can chuck it onto the theoretically massive pile of “Lord of the Rings” tie-in paraphernalia that author J. R. R. Tolkien would have hated. And yet, while “Shadow of Mordor” may not precisely fit into the Professor’s tightly-controlled fantasy epic, it does make for a fine video game.

“Shadow” takes place between the events of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings,” after the enemy Sauron began rebuilding his army but before Frodo and company started the quest to dunk the One Ring into Mount Doom. Players take on the role of Talion, one of the last local men to guard against the Orc armies occupying Mordor. Talion is killed as the game begins, but resurrected and paired with the ghost of an ancient Elven lord. Between Talion’s ranger skills and the spectral enhancements of the Elf, the pair set out to infiltrate and eliminate Sauron’s Orcs. Given that Talion is now near-immortal, this sounds like the kind of idea that should end “The Lord of the Rings” before it starts.

The marquee feature for “Shadow of Mordor” is the Nemesis System, where Orc leaders rise and fall based on your actions. Should a lowly Orc fighter get the drop on Talion in a fight, the villain will see his rank rise. When you see him again, he will taunt you over your defeat, recalling the events of that skirmish. Even if you put an Orc chief down, he can come back, only this time bearing the scars and clumsy bandages of Orcish surgery. “Mordor” allows the player to forge adversarial relationships with Sauron’s foul ranks, turning formerly bland enemy encounters into stories of revenge and heroism.

Orc captains also come with their own unique strengths and weaknesses, which you can discover by interrogating low-level grunts. Once you’re aware of an Orc’s psychological makeup, you can use that against him. Is Lugush the Bold afraid of fire? Wait until he’s standing near a campfire and then send an exploding arrow into it. Later in the game, you unlock the ability to assert control over the Orcs, allowing you to position traitors in the ranks and further manipulate Sauron’s army into defeating itself.

The combat in “Shadow of Mordor” borrows the best of the last five years of action video games. There are counter moves and stealth attacks, slow-motion time tricks and swan dives. Initially, you can get easily overwhelmed by even a small band of Orcs, but as you improve Talion’s abilities and weapons, you’ll turn into a veritable shark cruising across Mordor. The violence is ratcheted up a few notches from where we left it in the film version of “Lord of the Rings,” with black blood everywhere and beheadings being extremely commonplace.

“The Lord of the Rings” has certainly yielded enough mediocre video games. “Shadow of Mordor” has accomplished something totally unexpected by being an excellent “Lord of the Rings” game that doesn’t bother to include the familiar cast (aside from a few cameos). Instead, “Shadow” ventures into some lesser-known elements of the mythos and populates it with largely original creations. It would have been very easy to miss this mark, but “Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor” hits the bullseye, right on an ugly Orc head.

This review is based on product supplied by the publisher. “Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor” is available for PC, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4. Image courtesy Warner Bros Interactive Entertainment.