The Bestest Best Action: Middle-earth: Shadow Of Mordor

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor‘s moment-to-moment biffing is a trick we’ve seen before, but it’s still impressive to watch your wraith-Ranger shift and flip with seamless animations between punching one gribbly uruk and gutting another. Yet it’s the Nemesis system, which gives the action context within the larger army of Sauron and world of Mordor, that makes every assassination matter so much more and which makes Middle-earth the best action game of 2014.

John: The highest compliment I can pay Mordor is to say it was 2014’s Kingdoms Of Amalur: Reckoning. Which is to say, the game I found the most enjoyable, the most effortlessly absorbing, this year. Yes, it’s vapid, but that’s part of its appeal.

As someone who finds The Lord Of The Rings as interesting as a cotton bud factory’s annual tax returns, it certainly wasn’t the bridging of the stories of Bilbo’s Adventures In Dragonland and The Further Tales Of Some Ring that drew me in. In fact, it was purely bloody-mindedness that saw me stick past its first couple of dreadful hours. I could see the game it wanted to be, and I’d been pre-warned (mostly thanks to publishers Warner refusing to give us a copy before release, despite giving one to many others – great idea, Warner!) that it had a shaky start. I was infuriated by how needlessly difficult it was, and how the game seemed to abjectly refuse to let me play it how I wanted.

Eventually relenting and plodding through its main storyline for a few chapters, rather than running around and having fun as I’d wanted, the game unfurled like a weird black-petalled flower, and came alive. And running around and having fun became extremely possible. And indeed the game’s wonderful nemesis system began to work properly.

Mordor’s hook is some nice, sleek combat, combined with ample opportunity for entertaining stealth. Clearing out enemy bases feels much like Far Cry 3 and 4, but with far more baddies, and far more opportunities to do it. (And indeed also completely nicking the idea of letting you shoot the doors off animal cages and having them take care of the bads for you.) But mixed into this is the possibility of a boss-dude turning up in the fray, and then things get personal. With the game remembering how many times they’ve killed you, revenge becomes incredibly sweet. Then as you progress further, revenge can become much more elaborate. Rather than just killing them, you can mind control them over to your side, set them up to ambush their compatriots for you, or even organise coups.

If every other action-adventure doesn’t copy the nemesis system, then the game won’t deserve to live. It’s a massive shame that Far Cry 4 came out too soon to rip it off, as it’s hard not to find it lacking in the otherwise superb romp. Imagine how good it would be if those red blokes started to care who you were, and you cared about blowing them up with rockets and tigers!

Monolith, after a very long time of being distinctly dreary, came back to life with Shadow Of Mordor. I so hope it’s something that sticks, that refreshes the team, reinvigorates them beyond gloomy grimdark horror. And just as Mordor copied so liberally from so many other games (Arkham and Assassin’s Creed most especially), I really hope so many of those games will copy right back.

Alec: I’ve got this all figured out, right. It’s a game about gardening, isn’t it? You’re hacking away at all these infinite orcs, these weeds, but they grow back faster than you can possibly scythe. Once in a while you clear enough of them away to attack the roots, but even so the choking undergrowth will return in no time at all. Famous gardening abilities such as psychically controlling the weeds to kill other weeds for you, or turning your trowel invisible so that you can remove some weeds without the rest of them noticing, come into play later on, and I for one found it to be a far more authentic experience from that point on.

I was particularly impressed that Mordor even went so far as to include a Gardener’s Question Time character. Rather than a panel of nice middle-aged people in holey pullovers dispensing advice on how to grow bigger tomatoes, this is a sinister Elf spirit who mutters dark wisdom straight into your brain, but the concept is the same. I think we can all also agree that Caragor battle are the most realistic depiction of slug control techniques yet seen in a videogame.

Yes, my gardening analogy is perfect. Mordor isn’t – I didn’t much enjoy the characters, and the icon-hunt structure that’s so in vogue increasingly saw me exhausted at the first sight of the game map – but its minute-to-minute combat is the best I’ve experienced this year. What Mordor does best is regularly drop you into situations which, by the standards of any other game, would be impossible to survive. You don’t just survive – you thrive, growing in force and adrenaline as more and more Orcs wade into the bloody fray. It’s exciting to have a fight, rather than anything like a chore to have a fight.

Apart from when three bosses turn up in quick succession and you have to pause your slaying to watch all their WWE intros, of course. That’s not very exciting. It is jolly nice to have an honest-to-god enemy rather than just nameless henchmen, though. The Nemesis system needs more fleshing out, but I don’t know that I can name a more successful new feature attempted by a big old mainstream game this year.

Back to the complete bestest best PC games of 2014.

34 Comments

  1. Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

    I actually like that it pauses for an introduction when another named orc joins the fight, even if it happens a few times in succession; otherwise the first I’d know about their presence is when a super-orc steams into my face. The presence of a powerful Captain, or two, or three, can turn an easy fight against you, and unlike so many other games, Shadow of Mordor allows you a second to consider the threat level and either high-tail it, or knuckle down and beat faces until you’re the only one left standing.

    • El_MUERkO says:

      “Can turn a fight against you”, surely you mean ‘Can make a fight infinitely more awesome’.

      The greatest achievement of Mordor was making me feel like a god among rodents, no matter then number of enemies on screen I know if I time my attacks right and target the right enemies with the right skills at the right time I will be the last god standing and I’ll be waist deep in decapitated heads and shorn limbs.

      AND I’LL FEEL ABSOFUCKINGLUTELY AMAZING WHEN I DO.

    • TheBloke says:

      Yeah, cut scene to introduce new big boss: good idea.

      But, inability to ever skip them is something I find inexcusable. When five captains appear in a short space of time, it’s very annoying having to sit back and wait a minute or more for all their dialogues to complete – a lot of which quickly becomes repetitious. Annoying primarily because it’s so unnecessary – allowing a tap of Escape to skip would be so easy. Hell, even hide it behind an option if they really think it’s a niche request (I’m sure it isn’t.)

      But yeah apart from that, the game is really good fun. The difficulty is deceptive – it starts out seeming to be really hard, but within a few hours the majority of combat becomes really easy except when dealing with multiple captains. Another missed opportunity for configurability – I would so much prefer it if there was a difficulty setting, with at least one, or ideally two more notches available above default. If normal orcs could be made as challenging as low-level captains are now, the game would take on even more depth.

      As it is, I felt that I lost something after a few hours; at the start of the game, forewarned as to the difficulty by this and other reviews, I had a great time sneaking around, darting from bush to bush, jumping out to take out orcs individually so as to clear a path to my destination. It was really good fun. So much so that I reached 6-7 hours of gameplay having only completed the first of the main missions, and therefore lacking many of the key abilities.

      But once I got a few upgrades and, more importantly, really got the hang of the combat, a lot of that changed. I now run blithely through the middle of groups of orcs not caring who sees me, and when I avoid combat it’s rarely from difficulty, but usually because I know I’ll take them all down without breaking a sweat and I can’t be bothered to take the time.

      But the game is still great fun, and I am still getting a decent challenge from tackling multiple captains in large groups of ordinary orks.

      I’d strongly recommend that most players take a maximum of one health upgrade, and most importantly turn off both combat notifications (“Prompt + FX”) – meaning that you don’t get any visual indication as to when you’re about to get hit, so you have to watch carefully to know when to block incoming attacks, and arrows/projectiles can come out of the blue and most likely hit you. This adds a new dimension to combat; you have to pay much more attention, because you can’t just wait for a trivial notification to tell you when to block. That combined with the low maximum health means that some challenge remains for a lot longer. I still sometimes have to run away from challenging bosses in groups, and I still use stealth to get myself in a good position to attack them in the first place.

      I’ve taken one health upgrade out of the max five, and plan to take no more. I’ve upgraded to 4/5 max runes on bow, sword, and dagger, and probably won’t take the fifth. I’ve also avoided some of the Ability upgrades that I worried might be over powered, in particular the reduction in Kill Streak from eight to five.

      It’s a shame that I’ve found it necessary to do all that in lieu of a real difficulty setting. But at least I’ve been able to tune it somewhat regardless, and it’s been well worth doing so – it’s a really great game overall, very deserving of this award!

  2. padger says:

    A fine game. I did get upset with some of the captains and their invulnerabilities. And their teleporting. And their camera-in-facing-I-was-doing-somethinging.

    AAA games, eh?

    If this had been made by a smaller studio I actually think it would have been a better game…

    The … was unnecessary, I know.

    • TheBloke says:

      I love the captain invulnerabilities – this is what adds most of the challenge, I find.

      The other day I came across a captain who was invulnerable to stealth, ranged, and combat. That last one I’d never seen before – he couldn’t even be hurt by slashing him with my sword!

      On top of that he was in one of the strongholds, one of the ones that’s got a big set of platforms that the orcs/captain stand on top.

      Killing that captain turned out to be one of the more fun mini-challenges I’ve had with this game – and my approach to it was reminiscent of the fun I had at the start of the game, when even basic orcs were deadly to me and I had to be very careful and sneaky.

      His Intel screen gave a hint that he could be hurt by explosions. And his weakness was to Caragores. I approached his area stealthily, darting from pillar to pillar of the platform, carefully making my way up to an area where I could look down on him. My plan was to lure him near to some explosives, and blow him up. I was able to do that using the bow lure thing, marking an arbitrary point on the ground that caught his attention, and slowly leading him right up to a big pile of explosives that I duly blew up with an arrow.

      However that only took off half his health. I searched in vain for another set of explosives. But in doing so, I suddenly realised I’d overlooked a single Caragore cage. I dashed over to it, dodging orcs who by now were alerted and had lit the beacon. I got myself above the cage, opened it with a quick arrow, jumped down onto the Caragore and tamed it, and then rode it straight at the captain and finished him off with a single Caragore bite.

      I then had a go at dispatching as many of the normal orcs as possible, but as it was a stronghold there were dozens of them piling constantly in, and I was fighting in a restricted area with multiple archers around, and quickly I started to lose. So I made a dash for it, with 20 orcs in hot pursuit and more appearing all the time.

      I jumped down to the ground, and was sprinting away, planning to leave the area, when I suddenly realised that in doing so, I’d just vaulted over a campfire.

      Suddenly, a flash of evil inspiration! I stopped running away, and instead ran in circles around the fire, getting as many orcs close to me and to the fire as possible.

      When I felt I had enough – and my health was getting worryingly low from the occasional arrow hitting me – I pulled out my bow. I had four elf shot remaining, and 30 seconds of slow-time focus. My problem was the swarms of orcs between me and the campfire, blocking my aim. I dodged back and forth in slow time, focus ticking away. First arrow hit an orc’s shoulder. The next, a leg. The third, an unintentional head shot. This finally opened up a small but accessible sliver of flames. With my final elf-shot, and my last five seconds of slow-time, I unleashed a fully charged arrow into the heart of the fire.

      Boom, 38 orcs dead in a single shot! A burning mass of diabolical death and destruction! The death of every single surrounding orc celebrated with a simple sheathing of my sword. It was glorious.

      As must be obvious, all of this was really rather good fun, some of the most fun I’ve had in an action-y game in a long time :) Two very different fights back to back: stealth and strategy bringing a sneaky single kill, immediately followed by mayhem and a moment of inspired mass murder.

      It’s this sort of stuff that makes this game very deserving of this RPS award, and I’m really pleased I read the RPS review a week ago and was persuaded to buy it.

      And the best thing for me is that, some 20 hours into the game, I still haven’t got to the second half of the map with the orc branding and all that!

      Regardless of my wish that the game was more difficult overall, I’ve found a constant stream of fun situations like these, and it’s kept me coming back over and over, and with the promise of lots more still to come (especially with the DLCs, one of which – Lord of the Hunt – was just released yesterday. I just read the features, and ‘Beastmaster Warchiefs, powerful new Uruks who have the ability to ride monsters and engage in perilous mounted combat’ sounds most interesting. I’m picturing mounted jousting against orc captains. Yummy.)

  3. Premium User Badge

    Godwhacker says:

    Bought this in the Steam sale a couple of weeks back and it’s been the best thing I’ve played this year. The characters are surprisingly well drawn and well acted- Ratbag being a particular highlight- and there’s some delightful stabbing animations.

    Moreover, stabbing orcs is much nicer than stabbing humans.

    • AXAXAXAS MLO II: MLO HARDER says:

      I dunno, I’d prefer to stab humans, as an Orc. My dream game is this plus Styx: Master of Shadows, with stabbing instead of shadows.

  4. AutoShotgun says:

    As good as this game is i still would not recommend buying it full priced. I love the system with the chiefs and such but after all once finished it doesn’t really offer anything, and even though people say it is pretty hard I had a rather easy time with it. But since this year wasn’t the best for gaming I can totally agree with this being your favorite. I would still recommend buying it at link to bonavendi.com or somewhere similar where it is cheaper

    • skyturnedred says:

      We’ve seen this style of combat so many times now it does get rather easy. I don’t know if is possible to turn off the icons telling you when to counter etc, but that would make the combat much harder. Perhaps even too hard, since some attacks need to be countered and others dodged.

      • Towny says:

        It is possible to remove combat prompts and fx, also I have not upgraded my health and elf-shot to add more difficulty and it makes the game even more fun!

    • kilkol says:

      I bought this game for about 13 €. Perhaps this is the best price.
      Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor Steam Key

  5. Bradamantium says:

    I kind of don’t want to see other games steal the system. That leads me to worry it’ll become another rote feature of these kinds of open world, map-populated-with-pips kind of games that turns a great idea into a bland, expected one. I *do* want to see someone lift the system and go absolutely wild with it, plumb its darkest depths and center a game on it. I enjoyed Shadow of Mordor, but only because of the nemesis system, not alongside it. The same idea as the sole high concept, deepened and broadened, would lead to a damn fine game.

    • Guvornator says:

      I mentioned this before, but I’d love to see it in an Assassin’s Creed game. It’s thematically a great fit – imagine bounding around Florence assassinating or bribing Knights Templers to your cause. It’d be good if someone could do the same to your side, too

      • Premium User Badge

        DelrueOfDetroit says:

        It would work well in a super-hero game. You generally don’t kill the baddies and they always break out of whatever. The game can then allow a system where you build relationships by stopping villains getting up to no good. The villains power up based on whatever crime you don’t stop.

        Somebody needs to take Spider-man away from Treyarch and make this game.

        • jonahcutter says:

          Indeed. SoM’s nemesis system is pretty much a perfect fit for a Batman game. Instead, it’s bat-tank vs robot-tanks in the new Arkham.

          The student has surpassed the teacher.

        • Caelyn Ellis says:

          No. Nononononononono. Nope. Nopity nope. Nein. Nicht. Nyet. Narp.

          Spider-Man and Batman already have huge rogue’s galleries with existing relationships that have been built up over decades. What’d be absolutely awesome would be using the nemesis system for an open-world superhero game that lets you create your own hero. The one that is really, really obvious to anyone who thinks about superhero games for more than three seconds and I can’t believe hasn’t been made yet.

          Imagine a superhero game where you’ve just started your career. Your starting costume options are very much in the “balaclava and spray-painted hoodie” range. On your first night out, you duff up some random mugger and he gets sent to prison. You don’t give him a second thought and carry on your merry way, becoming quite the local hero and obtaining a much better class of underpants-over-your-trousers. All of a sudden, it looks like a new villain is on the scene and he seems to be gunning for you. You race to confront him in the middle of a hostage situation during a bank job and it turns out he’s the first guy you ever put away. Except that he volunteered for some dodgy medical experimentation in order to shorten his sentence and is now huge, blue and covered in spikes. And he hates you.

          Pretty good, huh?

          • Blackcompany says:

            This seriously needs to happen. It really does. We could use some new Superheroes any way…the current ones are getting sort…tired. Probably due to over-exposure.

          • AXAXAXAS MLO II: MLO HARDER says:

            I’ve been waiting for someone to make an open-world superhero game since Yahtzee described his idea for Manking Has Yet To Recognize My Genius.

  6. Azagthoth says:

    Only minus was the ending. It brought me physical pain to endure.

    • Guvornator says:

      The only good thing about the ending was it’s the kind of ending a company tosses out when they’ve just got a better idea and need to get the game out so they can start making it. After all the joy of the Nemesis system – QTEs? Really?

      • Azagthoth says:

        Still not the worst ending of 2014 though. That award goes to Thief, the last 10 min of that game were simply bizarre.

  7. DanMan says:

    Justified IMHO. It made me come back to it, day after day, which is a rare thing these days.

  8. Jonnyuk77 says:

    No, no, no, no, no. I’m not having it, best action game of 2014? It’s the best game of nothing.

    Go and try freeing a slave. I did this over and over again before accepting the fact that they were better off in captivity. Follow a free slave, there’s slim opportunity for a happy life for the newly liberated chaps (were there any female slaves… just came to me that one, don’t know, odd). The joyously unshackled will either run into more Orcs and be killed, run into some wolf/beasts and be killed or (and I did watch this) run across the bridge into a big Orc Stronghold… and be killed.

    I thought the graphics, movement, physics and feel to the game were all good though. The violence became a bit tiring towards the end when I realised the vast majority of it was pointless. Why stab an Orc in the eye when it means nothing, why?

    • mechabuddha says:

      You make an interesting point, though! It’s not enough to merely offer freedom — you have to also offer proper support and resources. Otherwise, you will be shanked by an orc.

    • Premium User Badge

      DelrueOfDetroit says:

      Stop chasing after them then ya bastard!

      • jonahcutter says:

        Seriously, the key to successfully freeing the slaves is to release them, then run as fast as possible in the opposite direction they are running, so they despawn before they pull more aggro and become an Orc lunch.

    • Lars Westergren says:

      Sometimes eye-stabbing is it’s own reward.

  9. Stepout says:

    The combat is just so much fun. I’ll jump in every now and again just to do shadow strike chains. I usually lol while doing it just cause it’s so awesome. Kudos to Monolith!

  10. Premium User Badge

    Skabooga says:

    The last paragraph of Jonnyuk77’s comment and Stepout’s following comment are perfect juxtapositions.

    (I realize it reminds me of this particular set of panels from ‘DM of the Rings’: link to shamusyoung.com

  11. colossalstrikepackage says:

    Gardening metaphor is firfect!

  12. mpk says:

    That top pic really needs the caption “OH HAI DIDNT SEE YOU THERE”

  13. TheRealHankHill says:

    What do you guys mean this was hard? I can’t be alone in thinking this game was one of the easiest things i’ve played in a long long time… It’s a great game but not challenging in the slightest to the point that I am playing without upgrading anything to make it harder. Sure is pretty though