Lugdash Broken-Shield. Now there was a tricky orc to assassinate. Until I discovered he was scared of fire. Once I set his minions ablaze, Lugdash dropped everything and fled. I wasn’t going to lose the kill, so I chased after him. We both ended up running for a long, long time.
I chased Lugdash out of the rusty metal fortress he’d laid claim to as one of the elite warchiefs in that region of Mordor. We sprinted up a verdant hill, Talion’s dark blue cape billowing behind him. He dodged his way through the small orc encampments peppered across Mordor’s lush yet barren landscape. I tumbled into muddy ditches and crawled feverishly up moldy ladders in pursuit. We skirted around stone ruins, past vicious, lion-like mountain beasts known as caragors. Other characters gave us passing glances. Some even tried to attack us. We blew past all of them.
I wasn’t quite fast enough to catch him. But I wasn’t slow enough to lose him, either. The chase went on. And on. And...on.
I started to wonder if I should give up, reload Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, and try again. But I’d been trying to kill Lugdash for a while at that point. Every time I met him face-to-face in his stronghold, I was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of henchmen and lesser orcs he had at his disposal. And every time I died, Lugdash would become more powerful—as would his bodyguards and whoever happened to land the killing blow. The next time our blades met, then, Lugdash would sneer and remind me of how awkwardly I’d stumbled during our last fight. This made the first step of just infiltrating his stronghold harder every time, and the sting of failure more embarrassing in turn. Now, I finally had Lugdash on his own—away from his pesky underlings and anything else that could stand between us.
I needed this kill. And there it was, so close to me. But he was still sprinting away. So I kept running too. The heat of battle gave way to a palpable silence.
I eventually caught Lugdash because, in his terrified state, he ran straight into a cave on one side of Shadow of Mordor’s first map.
Ohhhhh, I sighed, tensing my shoulders. I’ve got you now, you little piece of shit.
You should’ve heard how Lugdash and his orc bros were teasing me a few minutes ago. He deserves this, for all those times he wouldn’t let me forget how I royally fucked up and ended up with an axe (or several) sticking out of my head. Now, it was my turn.
I took a few swipes at Lugdash, knocking him to the ground. He struggled to get back up before sprinting in the other direction. But I had him. I kept hitting him, and hitting him, until finally he stumbled and stopped trying to get back up. His body heaving as he gasped for breath, my character strode over and pulled him into a kneeling position for one last killing blow. But Lugdash still had one last word he just had to get in.
“Is any of this going to bring your family back?” the orc asked. One final twist of the screws, to get my blood pumping all over again. A moment later, his decapitated head was spinning in mid-air, soupy globs of black blood swirling around in slow motion.
I’d achieved something, right then and there. But I didn’t feel triumphant. There were still a lot more orcs and uruk-hai outside of that cave, just waiting for me to slip up and reveal a weak spot they could exploit. I had to do something else, something bigger, to show all of them who’s boss. I had to keep trying.
I strode out of the cave feeling restless enough that I attacked the next group of uruk-hai I came across. Things were going well, until a small pack of caragor showed up and started chomping on all of us. We all scattered in different directions. The commotion attracted the attention of another group of orcs nearby. My health precariously low and the entire situation officially out of my control, I decided to make a run for it. Before I could, the camera swung around to center on a massive oaf of an orc who’d decided to show up.
“Is this a bad time?” he asked. Well, yes, I wanted to say. Yes it is, Mister Giant Ugly Orc With An Unpronounceable Name. But I didn’t say that, and I wouldn’t have even if there was some way to make Talion kvetch in Shadow of Mordor.
The challenge had been laid down. It was time for another fight.
There’s a lot to praise about Shadow of Mordor. There’s stuff to nitpick, too. But above all else, I’m going to remember this game because of the relationship I had with all of the orcs and uruk-hai that were my main adversaries. They all served that role, and did so masterfully. But they also become something more than that. Something warmer and fuzzier than their sickly green and blue-grey exteriors let on. I hated them so much that my eyes lit up every time I saw Talion lop one of their heads off or plunge his sword into their skull with a rich, satisfying squelch.
Once one was gone for good, however, I couldn’t help but think: Hey, I...kinda miss that guy.
The love-hate relationships I’ve built with the orcs in Shadow of Mordor aren’t just the best part of this fantastic new game. They’re also one of the most intriguing and original elements I’ve come across in an open-world adventure like this in a long time. Collectively, the structure of Mordor’s hierarchical orc community is known as the “nemesis system.” Messing around inside it feels exciting. And new. I can’t stress that last point enough.
It’s important to emphasize, though, because I’m anticipating that wary gamers will ding Shadow of Mordor for its apparent lack of originality. At face value, that’s a valid concern: this is a game that looks like it doesn’t have an original bone in its body. The structure of its world, and the way you explore it, are pulled directly from the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Combat, meanwhile, is copy-pasted from Warner Bros. Batman: Arkham games—down to the little zig-zaggy alerts that pop up over bad guys’ heads to signal when you’re supposed to block and dodge. The system of infiltrating strongholds, setting off traps, and taking out select targets, meanwhile, is heavily reminiscent of sneaking into camps in Far Cry 3. And the setting and story? Well, the game is called Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor. But we all know the shadow that it’s living under has been cast by Peter Jackson’s dualling trilogies of the Lord of the Rings films.
If the harshest criticism I can muster against Shadow of Mordor is that it’s not a revolutionary or groundbreaking experience every single step of the way, though, then I think this game is in good shape. Everything about the way Talion moves through Mordor’s world and fights its enemies just feels right. Combat is fun in a methodical, tactile sort of way. The game is visually stunning, too, which makes poking and prodding at everything inside all the more rewarding. That is: once I manage to pull myself back from gawking at the seductive, velvety texture of its scenery.
Can you blame me? Just look at the thing:
I’ve played inside a lot of open-worlds over the years. Ones that are a lot larger than Mordor’s, ones that allow me to do many more distinct things than figure out the best way to kill an orc and then execute on that plan. But rarely, if ever, has a world felt this alive.
Because Shadow of Mordor has all of its fundamentals in place, the game’s many strengths provide it with a rock-solid foundation on top of which its most provocative ideas can take shape.
The Nemesis System Is Great
Shadow of Mordor is an extended revenge fantasy. The game begins with Talion, a familiar sort of stubbly, white beefcake, trying and promptly failing to defend his family against an attack by Sauron’s forces. He’s a ranger sent from Gondor to make sure evil stays on the right side of Mordor’s black gate, so his failure has some political implications as well. He doesn’t end up dying in the attack, however, thanks to a mysterious wraith-like elf who shows up at just the right moment to jump inside Talion’s body and revive him.
Once the spectral elf has lodged himself into Talion’s meatspace, he’s not going anywhere. The guy has his own axe to grind in Mordor, it turns out. He gives Talion access to his otherworldly powers so they can both better challenge their foes. Complete with some new supernatural abilities, Talion returns to his stomping grounds to make everyone with bad teeth pay for what they’ve done.
That’s just the surface-level plot, though, which is the least interesting part of Shadow of Mordor. “Revenge” works on another level once you get control of Talion and start pounding away at the game’s many orcs and uruk-hai, which is where the fun truly begins.
Like the Arkham games, Mordor’s eponymous setting is an open world that’s filled entirely with violent, chaotic elements. Pretty much every character you encounter wants to kill you. But they don’t want to just kill you, which is key. You start Talion’s quest at the outer fringes of Sauron’s empire, and it quickly becomes clear that the super-villain doesn’t have an especially strong hold over his minions. The orcs and uruk-hai are a combative, balkanized people. Your first step in getting to Sauron is manipulating these different factions and internal rivalries to your advantage.
The entire first section of the game, for instance, is devoted to a single task: kill all of the warchiefs in the area in order to get the attention of some higher-ups in Sauron’s army. How you actually go about killing them is up to you. You can head straight for the warchiefs, which is what I tried to do and would not recommend because it landed me in several predicaments like my extended chase sequence with Lugdash. You can also start from the ground up, chipping away at the lesser orcs in Mordor’s fiefdom. Or you can target a warchief’s specific bodyguards, who are high-ranked orcs themselves, thus weakening the chief’s defenses for your ultimate show-down.
No matter what approach you choose to take, things probably won’t end up going quite the way you expect them to. Nearly every time you’re killed, the entire power structure in that region of the game gets reshuffled. Your killer usually lands himself a promotion, and the other ranked opponents you were in direct confrontation with at that point all level up slightly. Orcs being orcs, they quickly use these new assets to their tactical advantage—challenging rivals to duels or invading their turf. Walking around Mordor without a specific mission, I’d often see little alerts on the game’s map inviting me to intervene in one feud or another that was erupting just over the next hill. And if I didn’t want to bother with any of those, there were plenty of other orcs just going about their business as well—their business being itching for a fight.
“I’ve survived longer than anybody here, and I still haven’t gotten a promotion!” One orc would whine to another as I passed by. And then I’d happily jump in to try and solve that problem for him. More often than not, these passing encounters would escalate into full-on turf-wars. Caragors or giant ogres known as graugs would show up at to wreak havoc on both me and my foes. Or a ranked member of Mordor’s finest (or several) would be passing through the area and see a good chance to get some new bragging rights.
Whenever a potential nemesis dropped in to pick a fight, a voice in my head would say: “Well, killing him now would be an efficient use of my time and energy, both of which are precious resources both in and outside of this game.” A much louder voice would then cut in with: “Oh, now that we’re alone and out in the open, I’m gonna let this fucker have it.” That’s how strongly Mordor and its unique form of creative antagonism seized me.
The world’s always-shifting dynamics play out on-screen whenever you kill a ranked opponent or die by one’s hand with a boardgame-like effect. It’s a neat visual flourish that ends up lending the game’s many violent episodes—even the most passing ones—a sense of dramatic heft. You might be a supernatural immortal being, the game seems to say, but life and death still matter in a way that’s tangibly, immediately consequential.
Not always in a direct, immediately apparent way, either—which is what makes it such a brilliant system. Mordor’s world is a chaotic one, after all. Talion’s immortality might be certain. But whatever the series of events leading up to one of his deaths may be, there’s no telling what might happen after he kicks the bucket.
Let me give you one small example of how this plays out. There I was, playing Mordor one day. Pretty far into the game at that point. Just walking through the forest, as a Ranger of Gondor does. Then a caragor showed up and decided to have me for lunch:
Well, that was sort of...painful. But it’s not like I was just decimated by some high-level warchief...right?
Cue the board-game:
Ok, so it turns out there was a crazy-looking (and appropriately named) orc “Krimp the Fanatical” nearby, and he was hunting the caragor who decided to take a big bite out of Talion. Now he’s leveled up. That’s no good.
But wait—there’s more!
So apparently Zunn Thin Bones, an orc I had under my control, decided now was a good time to ambush another captain I didn’t even know yet. Wait a minute. Zunn, didn’t I mind-control you or something? Hmmm...
It keeps going.
Well, this is just fucking great. I’m not sure I even understand what a “trial” is yet, but apparently its something that’s given Kuga the Gorger another leg up. I hate that guy. He just always—you know what, I’m not even gonna go there.
Ok, that was the last of it. For the moment. But still: all that, just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time and getting eaten by the wrong caragor? Try and imagine how complex and interwoven this web of inter-orc relations gets when you’re actually, you know, not just getting eaten by wildlife.
The “nemesis” part of the nemesis system refers to the way that your orc opponents evolve over time depending on how worthy an opponent you’ve proven to be. I love this part of Shadow of Mordor because it adds a fresh layer of strategy that almost instantaneously alters the facts on the ground—the mechanical realities of how much trouble facing down one foe will cause for me. It would’ve been so much easier for developer Monolith to just make the orc hierarchy function in some disembodied, statistical way like the assassination missions in Assassin’s Creed so often do. Instead, they came up with a way to keep challenging me, to force me to think on my feet after every misstep or small gain.
In the case of Lugdash, for instance, I’d died so many times when trying to infiltrate his camp that I’d begun to realize I was going to have to try a less direct approach. Luckily, he ended up solving that problem for me. Many other orcs didn’t, though. And as Talion’s adventure carried on and I unlocked more of his and his elf friend’s powers, I had to become ever more calculating to remain a step ahead of my foes. Or recover after the many, many times I fell several steps behind them.
These Are Some Quality Orcs
Shadow of Mordor’s nemesis system is mechanically sound and uniquely interesting. But it still needs a strong supporting cast to feel like something more exciting than a game of Risk being played in the background of Assassin’s Creed. Thankfully, the game delivers in this regard with its rich collection of orcs and uruk-hai.
These are unkempt, jocular beasts in the Warcraft and Warhammer tradition: colorful monsters that tease and jab at you with the perfect balance of menace and good humor. They often sound dumb, but the dialogue itself is smart. The way they butt heads when you manage to trick two warchiefs into a direct duel is particularly delightful. One such encounter I coordinated began with the two facing off in an open field. As the minions rattled their swords in anticipation, this is how the two brutes sounded off:
Orc 1: My boys are gonna enjoy watching me kill you.
Orc 2: My boys have been taking bets on me killing you!
Not exactly heart-rending material like Samwise’s plea to Frodo that “there’s some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.” Sure. But would waxing poetic be appropriate for thugs like this anyway? There’s a rhythm and beauty to Mordor’s most random bits of orcish dialogue that grows on you over the course of the game.
The orcs grow with you as you play, too. There might be some lore-specific reason why Talion never actually dies. But the way it plays out in the meat of Mordor’s gameplay is as a way to invite the orcs in on the fun. They all come to know who Talion is, and understand that he’s the persistent human who won’t stop trying to kill them. “Trying” is the key word there, because they also never let you forget the countless failed attempts you’ve made in pursuit of that goal.
“Young man!” one spry, crabby-looking orc named Mugluk I stillhaven’t managed to kill calls out every time I pass within shouting distance of him. The camera zooms in on his face for a moment as his sickly greenish lips peel back into a cruel smile. Oh god, I always think. Not this asshole again.
“I’ve lived a long time,” Mugluk might say. Yeah, you sure as shit have. (Mordor is the kind of game that makes you curse a lot, if that wasn’t already clear). “You’ve lived many times. That tells me one of us is careless enough to die.”
I might hate Mugluk more than anything in Mordor right now. But I’ve gotta hand it to him: the orc’s got a point. I haven’tmanaged to kill him yet. I spent a good part of last Sunday afternoon trying to, and fell prey to one thing or another every time. It wasn’t always Mugluk who killed me. But every time I returned, he was the one waiting there to chide me all over again:
Other times, you’re the one doing the chiding. There’s another orc named Dush (pronounced like the feminine “hygiene” product, which is just perfect) in Mordor’s first map who’s ended up on the wrong side of my sword a handful of times, because he keeps showing up out of nowhere—even in the middle of fights with other nemeses—to try to kill me again. At this point, he bears many recognizable scars from our past fights.
“Surprised to see me again?” He chuckled the last time we locked blades.
I was, actually. But I was also strangely happy to see him return. At that point, his entire face was covered in a matted black cloth from the time I’d set set him on fire by detonating some grog barrels next to him with my bow and arrow. If only Talion had a way to look this poor orc in the eye and say: “Oh, Dush, what happened to you?”
The Story Is Dull, But The Tone Is Perfect
Shadow of Mordor’s orcs are so deftly drawn that they soon become the most important characters in this game. Avid Lord of the Rings fans might be disappointed to hear this, because for a game that’s set in one of the most iconic fantasy worlds out there, Middle-Earth doesn’t put much stock in its fiction’s most recognizable set-pieces. There are bits of lore available to collect and peruse throughout the game, and Gollum makes a notable appearance. In terms of overarching Lord of the Rings mythology, a factsheet for the game tells me that its story takes place somewhere between the events of The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring. Wherever and however it fits into Tolkien’s original universe, the story is about as generic as you’d expect one to be when it begins with a guy seeing his entire family murdered by bad guys and survives long enough to exact his revenge.
You don’t have to fret over the details of Mordor’s plot if you don’t want to, though. I often found myself wondering what, exactly, was going on in the main story throughout the 20-odd hours it took me to complete it. But it never bothered me when I couldn’t answer that question especially well. If I wasn’t playing this game to review it, I’m honestly not sure it would’ve occurred to me at all.
The fiction is there, in other words. But it’s not essential. The textual plot-points are not the “story” that matters here. Sauron, Gollum, and any other Lord of The Rings staple cast members aren’t the most important characters in turn. The game is about you and your unique cast of orcs—how you challenge one another, test each other’s limits, and ultimately grow together. Predictably, then, the actual boss fights and scripted moments end up being the least interesting ones here, because they impose arbitrary limits on the best systems in this game.
To compare Mordor to the Arkham series one more time, Lord of the Rings offers this game a familiar setting and a strong undercurrent of emotional urgency. But the game gracefully manages to keep the fiction of its own universe at arm’s length throughout. This gives Mordor welcome space to breath and have fun with itself. And even as a Lord of the Rings fan, I’ve gotta say: I’m glad that they did that. I mean: I can’t remember a single orc from Peter Jackson’s trilogy. Ok, maybe that one with a head like a gnarled potato. But I know I’m not going to forget the invigorating rush of meeting Mugluk on the battlefield any time soon.
“Young man!” He shouts every time, sounding like a gruff but lovable wrestling coach as much as an idiosyncratic villain from a fantasy novel. He threatens me, but it feels like there’s a wink at the end of his every snarl. It’s menacing, all this unbridled masculinity sparking off. And at the same time, it’s also sort of adorable. Like Mugluk is glaring so intently just to stop himself from letting slip: “And here comes the tickle monster!” Mordor wants to be great game more than a satisfying bit of fan-service, so it invites you and its orcs to buy into its campy fiction together. That way, you can both have more fun.
I think that’s the sort of youthful exuberance The Lord of the Rings universe needs rights now. As the Hobbit movies wind slowly to a close, Shadow of Mordor boldly asserts itself as a new beginning.