The Joy of Shadow Of Mordor’s combat

Shadow of Mordor [official site] has one of the most satisfying combat moves in gaming. It’s a simple double counter, performed by tapping the counter button twice when separate enemies attack you at the same time. You, the ranger Talion, block one attack. To deal with the other you summon an undead elvish Lord called Celebrimbor, who springs out of your body in wraith form to parry the shocked orc’s sword and pummels them into the ground. Every time it happens part of me wants to jump from my seat and whoop.

It’s easy to dismiss the game’s combat system as just another Arkham Asylum clone. It shares similarities with Batman’s beat-em-up style, in that you’re bouncing between enemies, switching between attacking and parrying when the relevant button prompt appears. But it has enough variety, fluidity and – perhaps most importantly – gore to set itself apart.

Seriously, Batman is a wimp compared to Talion. Sure, Bruce Wayne can send a man flying with a single punch to the chest, but would he have the guts to plunge a dagger into an orc’s belly while looking the creature dead in the eye, wrench that dagger around a bit and then rip it back out again? Nope. The overblown lethality, in such an almost-cartoonish fantasy setting, means I’m never sure whether to smile or wince.

Shadow of Mordor is also far more forgiving than the Arkham games. You can interrupt your own attacks with counters, which you can’t in Arkham. Combo juggles are hard to drop – even if you press the counter button erroneously when nobody’s about to attack you, you can still keep your hit streak. Same for dodging enemies. Basically, it’s not hard to rack up a 60-70 hit streak, and you get a lethal, gruesome combat finisher on every 8th strike that you can unleash whenever you want.

But hang on, I hear you cry, doesn’t that sound a bit…easy? Well yes, it is easy, in that if a group of 10 grunts gang up on you you’ll have no problem taking them out. But that just means you get to enjoy roaming Mordor all the more, feeling like a virtual Aragorn as you flow in and out of counters, beheading Uruk left and right. And that’s probably how it should be, given what the heroes of the Lord of the Rings films are capable of.

And you’ll soon come across hardier opponents. When that group of orcs is accompanied by archers, four-legged caragors, spearman, shielded Uruk, and Captains, things start to get interesting. The combat remains silky smooth, but you have to be more tactical. You need to take out the archers and spearman first. You need to roll out of the way of un-blockable attacks from Uruk war chiefs, and hurdle over shields to stab their wielders in the back.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed: if you plan your attack wrong you’ll soon be surrounded by 20 enemies, with a layer of ranged attackers behind them. One missed counter and you’ll be pounced on and killed. And, because of the game’s ‘Nemesis’ system, your deaths matter. They give the orc captains you’ve been killing a chance to regroup and replenish their numbers, potentially undoing hours of work.

This escalation is excellent. I’m always left wondering whether I should risk going for the next war chief or spend more time building up my skills and abilities. And there’s plenty of those: you’re drip-fed a seemingly endless pipeline of tools and techniques. If you’re bored with a sword, switch to a bow and pop a few Uruk in the head in slow motion, or shoot their legs to pin them in place when they’re fleeing. If you’re tired of that, sneak around and ‘Brutalize’ an enemy with a violent stealth attack that sends other Uruk running a mile. Or simply slam down a wraith flash to stun any enemy in sight if you’re caught in a crowd.

My favourite ability is one that doubles and later in the game triples your combo score if you time your strikes right. It’s nothing flashy, but it turns Shadow of Mordor into a rhythm game where you’re expected to tap the attack button just as the last swipe connects while keeping an eye out for chances to counter attack.

I’m only a quarter of the way through the main story in my current replay but I’ve already cut down most of the war chiefs – think uber-orcs with massive clubs that hit really hard. I’ve given up on the plot, and left Gollum to wander through Mordor alone. Because all I want to do is stab waves and waves of orcs through the throat, and Shadow of Mordor lets me do that in style.


  1. Splyce says:

    I felt in this game, and the Arkham games that inspired the combat style, that this was one of the weakest parts. I guess it was the repetitive nature of the attacks, and lack of creativity in positioning or targeting. It ends up feeling like a protracted QTE minigame most of the time, like the worst parts of God of War combat scenes.

    For Batman, I think it works, as he is not a lethal killer, and uses martial arts to subdue foes and fight defensively. Even then, I found using gizmos or other abilities in combat clunky,and just alternated between X and Y buttons 95% of the time without thinking. It is harder without button prompts, but not much once you get used to the slowmo before countering.

    While it does replicate the choreography of battle from the films some, I don’t feel especially powerful as Talion while whipping out canned animations and interrupting attacking to fend off the hordes. While enjoyable to strike down row after row of nameless, faceless orcs and encountering some toughies along the way, I guess it never felt very inspired.

    • DuncUK says:

      I liked the combat system despite its simplicity… it subscribes to the same school as the Arkham games in that it’s less about fighting and more about situational awareness and crisis management. I’m not sure what difficulty level I played on but I would contend that taking on the War Chiefs is still hard. They’re always flanked by 2 lieutenants and in the middle of a big orc encampment with infinitely spawning Uruk. That said, for this style of 1 vs many game combat I still think the crown goes to Sleeping Dogs. That managed to combine the same basic attack/counter combat style with a few ‘special moves’ and combos that were useful enough to actually be worth using.

      I reinstalled SOM last night and played a bit of the Nemesis Forge so that I could at least gain some familiarity with my Nemesis. I didn’t recognise him from my playthrough of the game and he wasn’t even especially high level, which was a bit disappointing. I decided to try to kill him or make him stronger and in the ensuing battle I managed the former… but soon after I was dispatched by a chance encounter with another Uruk captain, a much larger and formidable looking brute that was already level 19. He got promoted into the new vacancy, is now a level 20 war chief and is someone I’ll remember. I tried to take him on and died as his hands a second time, his remarkable list of immunities managing to counter my playstyle perfectly. So if you’ve got a disappointing Nemesis to carry through to the next game, it’s worth playing the game a bit more and the game should create you one that’s more memorable.

      • DuncUK says:

        Having said that, for this style of 1-vs-many open world combat I still think the crown goes to Sleeping Dogs. That managed to combine the same basic attack/counter combat style with a few ‘special moves’ and combos that were useful enough to actually be worth using. Add in the combatant weaponry, environmental kills and the genuinely challenging fight club minigame and you have a very satisfying combat mechanic. I used to start fights in that game just for the sheer joy of fighting.

  2. Gothnak says:

    It’s one of the few games i’ve played where the game makes it easier the longer you play. I found the beginning quite brutally tough and stopped playing it for a year or so. I went back to it this year, and in the whole last two regions i only died trying to mount Caragors (ooer). The number of (admittedly cool) abilities you unlock in the latter part of the game makes combat a doddle.

    Most games have a difficultly curve in the other direction, i wonder why they decided to do it this way around.

    • BlankedyBlank says:

      Have you tried X-Com?

      • Gothnak says:

        Indeed i have. In that although you get more stuff, so do the enemies. Apart from guys with shields (Not very scary), the Orcs don’t really get tougher.

  3. DanMan says:

    Story wise it makes kinda sense. You improve, until you’re an unstoppable killing machine. For that bad-ass feeling of domination.

    • typographie says:

      They wrote the story around the Nemesis system. You’re already dead, your failures are canon. Being an unstoppable killing machine makes even less sense in this game than usual. You’re supposed to lose sometimes and return and the enemies even react to that. But in order for the Nemesis system to have any impact at all, enemies actually have to be a threat.

      The system sounds great, but I don’t think the game poses enough challenge to actually have a meaningful back-and-forth rivalry develop. On the occasion that I died, it was because the group of spear-throwers was too large and the one lucky random enemy that got the eventual killshot became my new Nemesis. And then they died when I got around to it. That was the story that the system always created for me.

      • Ibed says:

        Yeah, in the end I just ended up throwing my body at named orcs to create more interesting nemeses, because the game had gotten too easy. It’s kind of too bad that the most interesting part of the game (Orc-Facebook) lost its connection with the moment-to-moment gameplay at that point, given that I didn’t feel any tension in combat halfway through the game.

        I had the complete opposite reaction to the ways the difficulty escalated compared to Samuel, by the way. I also liked the combat system, making you more a manager of the fight than the fighter himself (“go here, now hit that guy” and let the game take care of the specifics) and that made it all the more frustrating when I couldn’t just focus on prompts anymore, and had to look at the grey surroundings at who was throwing a spear, which didn’t always feel easily dodge-able.

  4. VCepesh says:

    Yes, I do find the Arkham-style combat quite satisfying. I wish Witcher 3 used it instead of the somewhat clunky and inelegant system it has – CDPR definitely had the budget and the skill to pull it off satisfactory and with some beautiful animations.
    But there is a caveat indeed, that it is quite easy and can get repetitive. It’s nearly unchanged since Arkham Asylum and needs further development, without the ungainly, awkward-to-use gadgets they used to diversify it. Worse, those gadgets were unnecessary, almost never really required to get through the encounter.
    When the combat got actually interesting and somewhat more demanding, is when you had several different types of enemies who could not be brought down with simple left clicking and timely counters. Shield-bearers, whom one had to jump over; knife-wielders, requiring more precise dodging and using the movement keys to actually disarm and counter; enemies with shock-batons, heavily armored, martial artists, unblockable chargers… Everyone requiring their own approach to quickly – and, what’s important, stylishly – dispatch. Unfortunately, a lot of the enjoyment was spoiled by the Special Takedown button, that allowed one to ignore the those special requirements.
    So, yes, the system in my opinion is good, but it’s got a tad stagnant and needs to be evolved. Maybe place more importance on distance to the enemy or their current “stance” (parry, defensive, aggressive…)? Maybe one can even experiment with a stamina bar of some kind, though I’m less certain here.

    Also. I can understand the complaints that it sometimes feels like a QTE, but I do not agree with them. At its best, which is, I admit, not always, it’s context-sensitive and one has to be aware of their surroundings and not just button prompts.

  5. Stone_Crow says:

    Yeah, the difficulty curve is all backwards in this game. Like some other on this thread I played this game for about 6 hours when it came out, got sick of being overwhelmed by the never ending crowds of Orcs every time I took on a captain and shoved it to one side, writing it off as a slightly naffly balanced Arkham/AssCreed clone.

    Came back to it last week, played it all the way through (about 20 or so hours having done the main story and about 1/2 the side quests) and once you get over the difficultly hump at the beginning it get’s easy pretty quick and lots of fun being a ethereal badass (those looking for a ramping up challenge are out of luck I’m afraid, the ramp is all downwards). By about 10-12 hours of play time, the once overwhelming crowd of orcs (who never get any tougher really) are mostly working for you after about 30 seconds of fighting and the ones you don’t brand you’re deliberately leaving as playthings to batter with satisfyingly graphic execution moves.

    The nemesis system is neat enough (though personally I didn’t see it as some Damascene moment in game mechanics like other do), but the end fight was “how to not do an end fight” in an action game. I was expecting to have to put all my funky moves to the test and finally get my arse handed to me a few times and… well… just don’t expect much. I’d still recommend it, especially for the cup of coffee price it currently is. It’s a laugh, and it looks pretty.

  6. orionite says:

    I really enjoyed the combat, but got completely turned off by the absurd respawn. You methodically work your way into a stronghold and engage the boss only to by steamrolled by a bunch of formerly slain Orcs from behind… Killed the game for me.

  7. Jmnea says:

    It would honestly be cool if you could have a challenging fight with an orc warboss, and midway between you both get kind of horny and you can start kissing

  8. TotallyUseless says:

    I bet Arkham just copied their own combat mechanics from Assassin’s Creed, but hey they polished it way better than AC.

  9. something says:

    I picked this up in the Steam sale and something just occured to me: this is the most sexual combat system I’ve ever played. You build up your energy with rhythmically timed strokes until your sword is throbbing with power which you then unleash in one climactic thrust that leaves you (briefly) spent. I know you can make these comparisons about most games but this one’s on another level. Don’t get me started on the homoerotic relationship with the Uruk captains.

  10. Muzman says:

    A rhythm game was exactly my thought about it at various points. Especially in a crowd of about 10 baddies (without shields). You can just hit a groove and ride it. I’ve never played the Batmans but but my time with Ass creed and it’s ‘push the stuff happens button’ play was fairly disappointing. SoM is doing the same kind of thing but they’ve tweaked it enough in those areas that I was somehow entertained. There’s probably a GDC talk in it about just how subtly different it is from other things (although I’m told Batman is “Tight”).
    The thing I recalled that they might have learned a thing or two from was One Finger Death Punch. Which is one of those concepts that shouldn’t work but somehow does, and in ways that have nothing to do with how limited the controls are.

    It’s mainly not skill based combat, in a manner of Severance, or Dark Messiah, or The Witchers, even though a wished it was at first. They do add some skill later when the shield carriers and such come in. The keyboard control scheme is pretty terrible so this really messed up that joy. There’s no real way to deal with those guys like hunters and defenders except for the old running away and kiteing and so on, isolating people/orks. You’ve really got to get upgrades to help you there. That’s where it started to fall down for me, but maybe I was missing the trick. Still, I would go and dive into the midst of some low level camp just for the holiday from those later fights with a whiff of Dark Souls to them (big impregnably armored dudes with moves you can’t counter and have to almost magic them to death. Yawn). There’s only so much they can do without altering the challenge completely, but I wish they’d somehow managed to keep it more in the same vein of tightrope direction tapping.