I didn't like Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor at first. In fact, there were times when I actively disliked it. For the first two hours I was so confused and overwhelmed that I just wasn't having fun with the game, and so I stopped playing for a couple weeks. I came back to it later, put another two hours into it, and started getting the hang of things; I could see some of the game's appeal, but it still wasn't catching my interest. I stopped playing for a few more weeks, then came back for another two hours and decided that I just wasn't interested in finishing the game. I was ready to start writing a negative impressions review, but after giving it some sleep I decided to give Shadow of Mordor one last chance. That's when everything finally clicked for me, and I finally started having some fun. I finished the game two days later.
It's safe to say that I liked Shadow of Mordor overall, but I'm certainly not on the "best game ever" hype-train that a lot of people were riding back in late 2014 and early 2015. Shadow of Mordor definitely has its problems, and although the core gameplay is really satisfying and addicting (if you can get into it), it proves to be awfully shallow and repetitive. This is an open-world game where the open world doesn't even matter, and where all you ever do is kill orcs. This is a mechanically-solid game that successfully blends the Assassin's Creed-style free-running parkour and stealth-action systems with the Batman: Arkham Asylum-style attack/counter-attack combat system, that unfortunately doesn't have much character or soul beneath those mechanics. It could've been great, but the end result is a game that's just a little bit better than average, and ultimately still kind of disappointing.
Set within the mythology of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lords of the Rings, between the events of The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring, Shadow of Mordor tells the story of Talion, a Ranger of Gondor who witnesses his wife and child murdered by Sauron's forces, who is then murdered himself. Talion finds himself brought back to life, possessed by the spirit of an elven warrior suffering from amnesia, who was also killed by Sauron. Bound by their eternal state of undying, they vow to seek revenge on Sauron's henchmen, and stop just shy of stopping Sauron himself. The rest of the game consists of discovering the elven wraith's identity by seeking out artifacts tied to his past, cutting through the ranks of orcish warchiefs that lie between you and Sauron's henchmen, and eventually building a small army to attack the Black Hand's fortress beyond the Black Gate of Mordor.
Talion sparring with his son during the intro cutscene.
Part of the reason I had such a difficult time getting into Shadow of Mordor is that the story is rubbish. The premise is pretty much what you'd expect from a Lord of the Rings game; fighting a one-man war against Sauron's army of uruks with a personal revenge story twist to make us care. The problem is, they didn't do anything with the protagonist or his family, the ones for whom we're supposed to be seeking revenge, to make us care. We get a one-minute scene of Talion sparring with his son, followed by a 30-second dialogue with his wife about wanting to move and find a new life elsewhere, and then everyone dies. That's just not enough time to develop any kind of attachment to or connection with these characters -- throughout the whole game I couldn't even remember their names, which, needless to say, meant their deaths gave me no motivation to push forward in the story.
On the more immediate side of things, it's not really clear what you're actually trying to do or what's actually going on. After the intro cutscenes, the game just drops you right into the open world, free to go off and do whatever you want. And I was just sitting there like "Ok, so, I'm a dead man caught in limbo who wants to not be dead? Or, who wants to be dead? So I have to do... something? And avenge my family in the process, somehow?" At which point I just started running around the map collecting random items, doing random challenges, and killing random uruks for seemingly no narrative purpose whatsoever. "This is all pointless," I thought after a few hours, even while doing main missions that look into your wraith-companion's history. If you want any more backstory for your family or the other goings on in and around Mordor, you have to hunt down collectible artifacts in the environment (which are basically just audiologs from a few characters) or sit at the loading screen three or four times longer than necessary to hear audiolog flashbacks of your family. Neither of these are very engaging options for getting the story because they're both so completely detached from the gameplay and the world you actually inhabit.
An artifact with an attached audio/text log.
The world itself may be the most disappointing thing about Shadow of Mordor. It's an open-world sandbox type of structure with two wide-open maps to explore (you unlock the second one halfway through the main missions), but very little of what you do in the open world actually matters. You can find random artifacts (with audio logs for fleshing out some of the side-characters, who get zero characterization through the actual story missions), random plants (part of a series of 'survival challenges' where you have to find X number of specific plants), random animals/monsters (part of a series of 'hunting challenges' where you have to find and kill X number of specific animals/monsters), and random elven glyphs, all of which are in the game purely for the sake of achievements and padding the game length with extra arbitrary tasks. Anything worth doing in this world happens inside a mission, which moves you from the main map to a separate, instanced version of it which only exists for the purpose and duration of that mission.
So really, all you do in the open-world sandbox is search for random collectibles, encounter random uruk patrols (which you'll eventually ignore because it's so pointless fighting random uruks), and run to the next mission starting point. There's no sense of structure or purpose to the world itself -- it's just a shallow backdrop for spreading the mission points apart. There's no point in exploring, and no reason to pay attention to your surroundings or learn the layout of the maps, because when you're "exploring" you're just watching the mini-maps and following waypoints to any icons that show up. You simply run past everything, only stopping to investigate pre-marked points of interest. It's pretty clear that there's no point to the open world when you can go into a cave that uruks have human slaves excavating, liberate the slaves by killing every uruk in sight, turn a corner, then turn back into the main section of the cave and find that it's been instantly repopulated with new uruks and new slaves, because you liberating those slaves did absolutely nothing.
The only thing redeeming the open-world sandbox structure is the so-called Nemesis system, a sort of process running in the background that generates special mini-boss uruks called "captains" by randomly combining visual components, stats, names, and features to create a bunch of unique enemies that will be different every time you play, and that will change and evolve as you kill or are killed by these captains. Different captains are generated with different traits -- one might be easily frightened by wild beasts, while another might be adept at killing beasts; one might be a really good fighter and prevent you from vaulting over him or stunning him, and get special attack bonuses that make him attack faster while requiring you to counter every attack in his flurry individually, while another might be an expert marksman with poison-tipped arrows who will call in reinforcements if he survives a few hits, but can be killed in one-hit by stealth tactics.
An example uruk captain with his strengths and weaknesses.
Each captain will be randomly assigned 6-12 of these strengths and weaknesses, meaning every one that you fight may require a slightly different strategy to take down. The catch is you don't know any of these traits until you interrogate an uruk to learn more about a certain captain, or gain intelligence by finding documents lying around uruk camps or by talking to freed slaves. If you've learned about a specific captain, then you get that fun planning phase followed by a cat-and-mouse phase where you figure out how you're going to exploit the environment to take him down, and then try to lure him into different traps and scenarios; if you're randomly being ambushed by a captain you know nothing about, then you get that thrill of improvising on the spot, trying to figure out what works and what doesn't work.
If a captain kills you, he'll increase in power, possibly gaining new attributes and even moving up the ranks of Sauron's army; if you defeat him (without decapitating him), he may recover and come back later with scars and a memory of your last encounter; if he runs away and escapes, he might come back with new attributes that he learned during the fight. Captains spawn and randomly patrol the world map, so you never know when you'll run into one (unless you're specifically hunting one, and even then, there might be others around that you didn't anticipate), and they can even have random events that occur outside of your presence. They go on beast hunts, hold executions, recruit more followers, host feasts, duel one another, and so on -- if you know that these events are going on, you can crash them to not only kill the captain, but also disrupt Sauron's army further. If you let too much time pass (say, if you die) then these events can happen on their own, and you watch a screen that shows how the power hierarchy shifts as time has passed.
Infiltrating a stronghold and branding uruks to obey my will.
In the second half of the game, you gain the ability to dominate and brand uruks, turning them into loyal subjects that you can command or kill at will. If they're captains, you can tell them to go places, help you out, attack other captains, have them become bodyguards for higher-ranked warchiefs, and then betray that warchief to assume his position. You can start attending their random events and, instead of killing them or thwarting the event, you can help them out to have them grow stronger. This is how you build your army for the game's finale -- by branding uruks and working them up the ranks. There's a lot of fun, creative stuff you can do with this system if you really get into it, like grooming the perfect candidates to ascend the ranks, or having Pokemon-esque battles where you "catch" captains and train them to go up against other captains for sport.
All this stuff going on means two people playing side-by-side can have vastly different experiences, with completely different stories to tell about their time with the game. The Nemesis system lets you shape a unique gameplay experience based on the actions you take within the world, and it creates this feeling of being in a living, breathing world with emergent qualities. It can be a lot of fun, but it can also start to feel shallow and pointless after a while. Eventually it doesn't matter what captains you kill, because there's always going to be another randomly-generated captain stepping up to replace the one you just killed, so it stops feeling like you're making progress cutting through the ranks of Sauron's army, and unless you have repeated encounters with the same captain (because he keeps killing you or running away), then all the new replacements start to feel like soulless, generic, random mashups -- they stop feeling like unique mini-bosses with their own stories and personalities and just become another tally mark in your kill count.
Combat is a chaotic but relatively simplistic affair, the type of thing introduced in Batman: Arkham Asylum where you press X in-rhythm to attack and build a combo chain, and press Y to block and counter enemy attacks. Some attacks can't be blocked, meaning you have to press A to dodge them. Those are the basics, but as you gain experience and ability points you start unlocking a ton of other options: press B to wraith-stun an enemy, and then spam X to do a flurry of attacks; hold B to drain an enemy and recharge focus and arrows; hold RB to grab an enemy and press A interrogate, X to shank repeatedly, B to brand, Y to command; press A to jump over an enemy and stun them; press LT to throw daggers; hold RT and press A to teleport behind and stun an enemy, or press X to teleport behind and assassinate an enemy; hold LT and press RT to aim and shoot an arrow; when your combo chain is high enough, press Y+B to do a one-shot execution move, press A+X to do an AOE wraith stun, press Y+X to kill stunned enemies or frighten enemies in an AOE, or press A+B to do an instant combat-drain and domination.
Fighting uruks, Press A to dodge incoming attack.
That's not even everything you can do. There's a ton of other stuff I haven't even mentioned, like upgrading basic abilities to do extra stuff, and dominating beasts to use as mounts in combat, among other things. It's relatively simple, but you have so many options available to you, which is kind of essential for a game where basically all you ever do is kill orcs. Unfortunately, it takes time to unlock all of this stuff, and so when you're just starting out you only have the most basic options available to you, meaning combat can be a really tedious slog fighting an entire group of uruks basically one-or-two-at-a-time, slowly building that combo chain so you can execute a finisher, slowly whittling their numbers down one-by-one. It's bog-standard, unexciting stuff at first (yet another reason why it took me so long to get into the game), but as the game progresses and it starts introducing new types of beasts and uruks (and stronger and stronger captains), and as you start learning new abilities, the combat starts becoming a lot more fun and engaging.
I really like, for instance, how caragors (warg-like beasts, except based on cats instead of dogs), graugs (giant troll-like creatures), and even certain captains are basically unkillable until you get stronger, learn new skills, and get better at the combat system. Having those really tough enemies occasionally present to knock you back down a few pegs gives you a good sense of the hierarchy, makes combat somewhat tense knowing that there's always a stronger enemy somewhere out there, and gives you context to measure your growth and improvement, making it really satisfying when you finally kill that one captain who kept giving you so much trouble, or when you can finally stand up to a graug instead of running away.
Fighting a graug while mounted on a caragor.
It does, however, get incredibly repetitive after a while. There may be two dozen or more different ways to kill orcs in this game (and that's really not an exaggeration), but the reality is you only ever need two or three of those ways at any given time. As you get stronger you unlock new abilities; a lot of abilities simply upgrade and/or effectively replace abilities you were already using (ground executions become almost pointless once you unlock combat finishers, for instance), while others are so situational that you won't be using them very often, and may even forget that you have those abilities when you run into situations when you could actually use them. And since you can unlock every ability and upgrade well before the end of the game, you'll be dumping points in skills you'll probably never use, because once you find combinations that are both effective and fun, there's no reason to branch out and try something else, especially when you realize other methods aren't as efficient as what you've been doing and you just want to get to the end of the game faster.
Stealth is a nice way to mix things up, and was actually my preferred way of playing the game; going in to melee-kill dozens of uruks at a time Dynasty Warriors-style got to feel mindlessly tedious at times (more frequently so as the game went on), where you're just spamming buttons on the controller and hoping to have faster reactions than your opponents. Stealth a little bit more cerebral, the type of deal where you're studying patrol routes to slink behind obstacles or along rooftops to get past enemies, watching and waiting for the right opportunity to swoop in and execute a stealth kill. Whereas you can kill hordes of uruks by just charging in and spamming X and Y, occasionally hitting A or some other button combination like Y+B when your combo chain gets high enough, stealth gives you time to think and be strategic, and there's some actual tension involved in avoiding detection.
Spying on an uruk stronghold from above.
Missions do a pretty good job of putting you in different situations with different objectives. Besides main missions, you also have various side-missions and challenges to complete for extra experience. These fall into four main categories: combat challenges, stealth challenges, ranged challenges, and slave liberations. There are multiple missions within each category, spread evenly between the two maps, and each one consists of its own scenario with unique twists on the usual gameplay format, as well as a bonus objective that challenges you to try to complete the mission in an unusual way. One stealth mission has you trailing a messenger across the map, and you're supposed to kill each of his informants along the way without being spotted, with bonus rewards for using shadow strikes a certain number of times. A combat mission might tell you to survive and kill 50 uruks, and give you a bonus if you can set 15 of them on fire. The bonus objectives are a nice change of pace that force you to act outside of your usual comfort zone, and they help keep the game feeling somewhat fresh from moment to moment.
Some missions suffer from idiosyncratic logic, however, with really tedious fail conditions that abruptly end the mission and force you to walk all the way back to the starting point to try again. In some stealth missions where they say "avoid detection," you're fine if an uruk spots you, as long as you kill him before he can alert anyone else, while other stealth missions with the same "avoid detection" objective fail instantly the moment a single uruk catches a mere glimpse of you. I had one mission fail because I walked too close to the edge of the mission zone, without actually leaving the mission zone, and had another mission fail because I killed the target I was supposed to kill before the game flagged him as my actual target. One of the main missions moves you to the edge of the second map, and I thought I had free reign at that point to start running around exploring, but then suddenly had the main mission fail and send me back to other map, as if I'd never even started the mission, because I was apparently supposed to be doing a specific thing in that instance and was wandering out of the mission zone.
There's also this weird logic where a lot of the game's tutorials and instructions for how to actually play the game, how your abilities work, how the Nemesis system works, and so on, are all explained to you through main missions, which are spread all across the map and are sequence-locked behind mission progression, restricting many until later on, thus requiring you to go through a ton of other things just to get to them, such that you encounter a ton of game mechanics and situations long before the game actually tells you about them. It's like being a new swimmer and getting thrown straight into the deep end of a pool, and the instructor tells you you have to make it to the other side before he'll teach you how to swim -- you have to already know how to swim to learn how to swim. The game throws you straight into the open world without teaching you hardly anything, and expects you to figure things out for yourself and to contend with being ignorantly frustrated over things you can't possibly learn until the game teaches them to you several hours later.
A pretty simple tutorial, one of the few ones in existence.
And let me tell you, there's an overwhelming amount of stuff to figure out in this game, in terms of why this stuff is in the game, how it works, and what its significance is supposed to be: hunting down ithildin and artifacts, completing survival and hunting challenges, the three different stats (experience, power, and mirian) for leveling up and getting stronger, unlocking abilities, the difference between ranger and wraith abilities, the difference between being in ranger mode or wraith mode, runes for weapons, unlocking rune slots for weapons, focus, elf-shot, restoring focus and elf-shot, the whole Nemesis system (captains, attributes, power rankings, strengths and weaknesses) random captain events, gaining intelligence, the difference between draining, interrogating, branding, dominating, and commanding uruks, taming different types of beasts, freeing slaves, spawning and triggering side-missions, plus the dozens of input combinations for stealth, combat, ranged, special abilities, executions, assassinations, finishers, blocking, dodging, stunning, charging, and so on. You're not bombarded with quite all of this at the start, but you're exposed to most of it with little to no explanation.
The controls may be the worst offender of the above list, as they get progressively more and more convoluted to the point where one button can do five different things depending on what stance you're in, the status of the enemy unit, and what your combo chain is at. It's already bad at the start of the game, when RB is both "grab enemy" and "use/interact" (making it impossible to pick something up if there's an enemy nearby) and A is all of run/jump/climb/dodge, but as you unlock abilities it gets to a point where you press a button expecting Talion to do one thing, and he ends up doing something completely different. If you're stealthily shimmying along a ledge and want to drop down a few feet to another ledge, you might drop down a few feet and grab onto the lower ledge or launch into a leaping stealth drain on an uruk 60 feet below you that you didn't even realize you were targeting. You might also be stealthily trying to run along the rooftops and be intending to jump onto a tightrope running from one roof to another and instead find Talion doing a swan dive down to ground level in the middle of the group of uruks you were trying to avoid.
It's equally frustrating how there seems to be an infinite stream of orcs spawning around you and moving in towards your position at all times. I've already alluded to the insane respawn rate, where you can kill an entire cave of uruks and find them all respawned mere seconds later, but this same thing happens with captains you think you've killed, who then show up to ambush you again five minutes later. There's just, in general, so much random crap going on at all times with random orc spawns and patrols that you try to do one, simple thing like grab an artifact or eat a plant and get stuck fighting hordes of uruks. I remember one time I was just trying to kill one captain for an event, and had five other captains spawn on top of me, each with their own entourage of minions, while a thousand more grunts continuously streamed in from nowhere because of the active stronghold alarm. And it's just such a pain in the ass trying to pick up runes dropped by dead captains, or interrogate orcs, or command captains, or anything like that in those situations because either the controls won't let you do what you want, or there's always another uruk present to interrupt your actions, since all of that stuff takes seconds at a time to do.
Lurking on the shore, working towards my objective markers.
After a while, I just got tired of it all. I hated the game at first, but as I gave it more time it started to grow on me until I found myself hooked by how satisfying it was swooping along rooftops and descending on unsuspecting uruks for brutal stealth kills and finishing off a platoon of reinforcements through clever manipulation of the environment. The varied mission objectives and new abilities kept the game fresh for a while, but by the midpoint it became somewhat routine. I still had no reason to care about the main character, or the story, or the world itself, and really all I was doing was finding new variations on killing orcs. Seriously, this may as well be called Killing Orcs: The Game. The Nemesis system seemed like such a cool idea at first, but once I'd gotten the hang of the game and gotten a little stronger, the system stopped having any kind of real effect on me, and once I got to the second map and found out there was a whole separate Nemesis system in place for a whole separate army, I just said "no thanks, I don't want to start all over again with a new army" and stopped caring. I maxed out all my skills and abilities well before the end of the game, which meant I stopped caring about completing side-missions or optional objectives because the rewards were worthless to me. And let's not even get into the fact that the final boss is a goddamn quick-time-event.
When all is said and done, Shadow of Mordor is a good game with a lot of interesting ideas and solid mechanical execution of its gameplay. Unfortunately, once you dig past that appealing surface (or rather, get past the overwhelming, tedious start of the game, and then get past the fun part when the game starts making sense), you find that there's really not much substance beneath the flashy top layer of its packaging. The open world is completely pointless, the Nemesis system loses its luster way too quickly, uruks are all mindless cannon fodder waiting to die, missions and things stop rewarding you after a while, and there's no reason to care about the story or the characters. There's a lot of stuff going on and a lot of stuff to do in this game, but it all essentially amounts to killing orcs over and over again for 20-30 hours. There's a lot of quality polish and solid mechanical systems in place, but there's no soul beneath it, no spark or touch of humanity to make it worthwhile. It could've been great, but the end result is a game that's just a little bit better than average, and ultimately still kind of disappointing.