Needs no haystacks.
HIGH Seeing almost any of the wraith powers for the first time.
LOW Bizarre pacing kills all momentum and drags the campaign down.
WTF Why was branding introduced so late? It should be a core mechanic!
Well, I'm guessing Ubisoft is feeling pretty ridiculous right now. They've churned out approximately 19, 546 Assassin's Creed titles over the last seven years, and not one is as concise, free-flowing and action-packed as Monolith's Shadow of Mordor. Of course the influences in Mordor are clear to see and it obviously owes a debt to the titles that came before, but the fact remains—this journey through Middle Earth handily trounces every Animus session I've ever had.
The latest from Monolith (Tron 2.0, Condemned, F.E.A.R) is firmly set in the Tolkien mythos, and acts as a sidestory that happens after The Hobbit but before Lord of the Rings. The main character is an agile ranger named Talion. At the beginning of the game he's killed by Sauron's forces, but soon resurrected by a mysterious wraith who shares his body from that point forward.
I won't spoil the wraith's identity, but Monolith did a great job of incorporating Tolkien elements to make Mordor seem like a true-ish chapter of the grand Rings tale, and not just a cash-in that name-checks the obvious bits. On the other hand, Talion feels like a cipher. He's bland, generic, and ‘driven' by forgettable revenge tropes. There's a void where his personality should be. It's a shame since the wraith is a strong supporting character with a compelling backstory, and seeing his ghostly afterimages materialize during the action is a striking visual.
In terms of play, the core experience is all about being set loose in an open world, but Monolith gets it righter than most by giving Talion a wealth of powers that feel useful and effective, and by stripping away much of what drags open-worlders down—no awful escort missions, no tailing missions, fast-travel is available almost immediately, and there's no need to gather cash or ammo. Everything here is fast, free-flowing, and the game rarely ever gets bogged down in a moment-to-moment sense.
Tactilely, it feels amazing to run, climb and jump, and the combat is just as good. Borrowing much from the Batman: Arkham titles, Talion can flip, parry, combo and stun with the best of them, and thanks to the wraith, he also has access to a wide range of abilities that make him a supernatural force to be reckoned with. The first time I summoned an ethereal bow and fired an arrow that teleported me to my target for an instant kill, I could not stop from smiling. I may even have squealed a bit.
However, the thing that really cemented the Mordor experience and made it such an AC killer for me was the ability to track and kill important enemies in the world at my leisure. Too many open-world games put restrictions on such targets and take away much of the freedom they purport to offer, but to me, having an open world should mean more than just driving long distances across a map. Some missions still adhere to traditional structures, but it's common to stumble across a key enemy while poking around in one corner of the world or another, and intentionally hunting one down is almost always possible, whether in a mission or not.
Shadow or Mordor gets a lot right, and there's much to be said for a formula that feels as mechanically pleasing as this one does. Unfortunately, despite everything that clicks, the developers make a few baffling choices that prevent it from being the all-rounder it could have been.
The most incomprehensible decision in Mordor involves the evil Uruk army. From the start, the player can access a diagram showing the hierarchy of the troops, learning their locations and the weaknesses of key figures. It's nice to see, but it means little and has no impact on how the game is played until Talion unlocks the "Brand" power. Once it's active, Talion can then recruit Uruks into his own army, and suddenly, the value of having that intel is revealed.
It's fantastic to brainwash a low-level soldier and then send him on a mission to assassinate his superior. He'll carry things out on his own (and hopefully win) but Talion can also intervene and make sure that the right Uruk comes out on top. Such a layer of strategy is quite welcome once it gets rolling, but it's not available until two-thirds of the way into the campaign! Worse, Monolith requires players to amass a large force before going into the final mission, when it would have been more natural and enjoyable to cultivate troops from much earlier on. Branding and recruiting is one of the best parts of Mordor by far, and it's absurd that it's held back for so long.
The other error Mordor makes is that near the halfway point, Talion takes a tangential detour into an entirely new land when it feels like things should be building up to a final confrontation. The characters he meets in this secondary area feel like pointless distractions (let's go hunting? really?!?) and this chunk of play feels orchestrated solely to extend the game's running time. Ironically, when Talion finally gets back to the business at hand, it all goes by in a blur. Rather than the series of epic battles the endgame should be, scenes and events whiz by in rapid-fire sequence, and the ending has none of the weight or drama that it should.
Despite these problems—and they're fairly significant ones—it's impossible to deny that Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor remains an engaging action experience, and one of the few open-world games I've genuinely enjoyed. That it connects to Lord of the Rings in such a legitimate way is just icing on the cake. If Monolith's ducks had all been in a row, Mordor could have been a top contender for the year, but even so, it's still worth getting into for no other reason than it delivers what I've wanted from Assassin's Creed since the start.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS4. Approximately 16 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains: blood and gore and intense violence. There's no sexual content and no salty language, but the violence actually is pretty intense. There are countless decapitations shown in close-up, and an infinite number of bloody stabs happen in this adventure. I was not comfortable playing this in front of my kids, and I'd guess that it's too graphic for most young ones. Caution!
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: The story dialogue is subtitled and the on-screen map displays quite a bit of information. However, the game shunts non-subtitled flavor audio through the PS4 controller that has no visual accompaniment. None of it is crucial (I could barely understand it anyway) but it's there. In general, I'd say it's fully accessible.