Back in 2003, a little game called Mercenaries released, which went on to be one of my favourite games of the Xbox/PS2 generation for two simple reasons: the destruction and the Deck of 52 system. Basically, there were 52 enemies scattered across the game world, each representing a playing card. The better the card, the better the reward for capturing or killing said enemy. Technology limitations at the time prohibited the system from being too complex, but it was still immensely addictive. Years later, a game pretending to be the sequel to Mercenaries came out, but it was awful and quickly forgotten. Ever since then, I’ve been clamoring for a game that utilized something akin to that Deck of 52 system in a new and innovate way. In comes the most unlikely of spiritual successors in Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor. The current generation of consoles have been out for almost a year now, and Shadow of Mordor is the very first game I’ve played that felt truly next-gen due to one simple feature: The Nemesis System.

But we’ll get to that in a bit. First, let's get that pesky story business out of the way. The plot focuses on our grim hero Talion, played by Troy Baker, and his equally grim Wraith pal, played by Alastair Duncan. They make a compelling pair, even if the dialogue is a little bland (whole lot of ‘light vs. dark’ nonsense). Basically, something really bad happens to Talion at the beginning of the game, which causes him to cross paths with the mysterious Wraith, whose interests match his own. Together, they set out on a violent road-trip across Mordor. The story doesn’t have the scope or sweeping narrative of Lord of the Rings, but it’s a competent tale of revenge that messes with the mythos in a (mostly) non-insulting way. Monolith has done a great job of beautifully recreating Middle-Earth in a way that should please book and movie fans alike. Hearing orcs talking about your exploits and the battles you fought against your foes makes the world feel alive and responsive to your actions.

The sword combat plays out more like the Arkham games than Assassin’s Creed, only if Batman didn’t have any rules and executed his enemies in the most brutal ways possible. The better you time your attacks, the longer your combos get, which lead up to those gruesome, satisfying combat finishers (many Uruk lost their heads in the making of this review). The stealth, however, is more akin to Assassin’s Creed. It’s simplistic enough to avoid frustration and rewarding enough for you to actually utilize stealth, instead of just going into every scenario balls deep. Overall, the combat in Shadow of Mordor isn’t particularly innovative, but is it ever satisfying and effective. Plus, how many other games let you teleport through an arrow at your target before finishing him off with a graphic decapitation? None. That’s how many.

The sense of character progression in terms of upgrades is fantastic. At the start of the game, you barely feel capable of taking down a single Uruk captain without a lot of planning and a little bit of luck. By the end of the game, you can take down dozens of bodyguards following an Epic Warchief with nary a scratch. The abilities you unlock fundamentally change the game, as you soon become able to poison food, scare enemies off with more brutal attacks, and shoot fire arrows. When all these abilities come into play in a single brawl, you feel like a force of nature.

So, about that Nemesis System. Where do I even begin? The Deck of 52 system I mentioned earlier was completely static. The same enemies would always represent the same cards and they would always be in the same places. In Shadow of Mordor, Sauron’s Army is filled with randomly generated Uruk captains and Warchiefs that all have different appearances, personalities, and abilities. Some wander around the world rather aimlessly, looking for a fight, while others can be found hunting beasts or enjoying feasts. When a captain spots you and shouts out “Ranger!” you know it’s on like Donkey Kong.

Sure, Talion has a healthy helping of personal vengeance on his plate, but it was the rivalries I made with these procedurally generated Uruk that really drew me into the game. My blood boiled at the sight of Lamlug the Tainted, who had killed me on three previous encounters, which only made it that much more satisfying when I finally lopped his head off on the fourth attempt. The beauty of Shadow of Mordor is that everyone is going to have their own tales to tell about what went on over the course of the game. Nobody will go up against the same enemies in the same way.

The insanity truly begins when you gain the power to brand, dominate, and control other Uruks. They basically become your slaves, and you can command them to do whatever you please. They become more than slaves when you find yourself helping them in various situations. For example, in one instance, one of my branded followers was about to be executed by another Uruk, but I stepped in and spared his life. I felt a strange sense of connection with Ratlug Elf-Slayer, like I was his mentor or something. You know, before I commanded him to incite a riot with a stronger Uruk Captain as a distraction, knowing full well that he would die in the process. Sacrifices must be made.  

The fact that you can infiltrate Sauron’s army, take over an Uruk’s mind and have him send out a death threat on someone that holds a higher rank, then help that mind-controlled Uruk kill his superior to take over his position, ONLY TO KILL THAT MINION FOR THE HELL OF IT (which is an actual trophy/achievement in the game) is absolutely incredible. Or the fact that you can instigate a riot between two different Uruk’s battling for power, just to crash the party and kill them both. Monolith literally thought of everything on this one.

It’s the first time in this new generation where a game feels like it’s doing something that couldn’t have been done before. There were so many little moments, like when a returning foe recounts the scar you gave him in your last battle, that made me stop and wonder, “How did they do that?” It’s not just about impressive graphics or some behind-the-scenes technology that doesn’t have a significant impact; the Nemesis system is a true game-changer for enemy encounters in video games. The fact that a puny, no-name grunt can rise through the ranks of Sauron’s army to eventually become a Chieftain, without any sort of in-game scripting, is worthy of applause.

Shadow of Mordor is also one of the few games in history where death doesn’t feel like a punishment. Although the Uruk that killed you will be stronger on your next encounter, and he may hold his victory over your head like a sore winner, when you do kill him, he will drop a more powerful rune than the one you might have gotten the first time around. Runes are used to power up your three weapons (sword, bow, and dagger) in interesting ways. Some runes may replenish your health for certain types of kills, while others can extend the amount of time you have to save yourself from death in Last Chance mode. It’s all these little tweaks and stories that make Shadow of Mordor a deeply personalized experience, without ever resorting to ‘choose your own adventure’ smoke and mirror tactics.

Middle-Earth: Shadow or Mordor won’t stick with you because of its story, or the missions presented within that story. But it will give you dozens of stories that only you can tell because only you experienced them within the Nemesis System. I’m not saying all games should adopt this mechanic, but Monolith has raised the bar for what I expect out enemy designs and persistent world-building in the future. Only time will tell if this ends up being a game-changing moment for this generation of consoles, but at the very least, big things can, and should, be expected from the inevitable sequel.  Just don’t mess it up like Mercenaries 2, please.

Final Score: 9/10 

 

 

 

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