So, er… I've never watched the Lord of the Rings movies.
Okay okay, I've watched about half of The Fellowship of The Ring – but other than that, nada.
I'm not exactly the target audience for Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor then, taking place in the Lord of The Rings universe. But you know what? After hours of playing I'm glad I didn't fob it off to another reviewer.
Upon first seeing Shadow of Mordor's trailers, the game looked an awful lot like Assassin's Creed, thanks to the drop kills and emphasis on parkour.
Fortunately, that's where the comparisons end.
No way Altair of this game (sorry)
Shadow of Mordor sees you playing as Talion, a man who was murdered, along with his family, by the Uruk forces of the Dark Lord Sauron.
However, you're resurrected as a human/ghost type of entity - and you have the convenient ability to come back from the dead whenever you're slain.
Anyway, the game is a third-person action title with an emphasis on sword-fighting, archery and a touch of magic. And the combat is easily the strongest part of Shadow of Mordor.
It uses the ever-popular counter button popularised by Batman Arkham Asylum, allowing for seamless hack-and-slash combat with multiple opponents.
You're able to grab your opponent too, throwing him into other enemies, repeatedly shanking him prison-style, interrogating him for information on powerful warchiefs and captains, branding him to make him fight on your side or using them as a human Uruk shield during combat.
Throw in a fleshed-out skill tree for unlocking new moves/abilities, and you've got a wonderfully satisfying combat system to play with.
A new take on bosses?
Speaking of warchiefs and captains, the so-called 'Nemesis System' is one of the better things I've seen in a videogame. The game's large environments are littered with regular Uruks as well as elite members of Sauron's Army – Uruks that are more powerful than the regular grunts.
These powerful enemies have a variety of strengths, weaknesses and other personality traits, making a big difference to your combat approach.
For instance, one warchief made use of poison arrows, was able to inspire other grunts to attack me en masse and was invulnerable to ranged attacks. But he had a weakness to burns and could be dealt a good blow with a combat finisher. Another enemy was quick to counter and wasn't affected by my magic stun attack, but a stealth finisher would work on him.
Some of these captains and warchiefs can be tackled head-on, but more often than not, you'll want to find intelligence on their strengths/weaknesses before fighting them. Intelligence can be obtained by interrogating specially marked grunts or finding intelligence papers scattered across the world. Or you can be like me and come back from the dead five times to fight the same captain, with said captain telling me to "go haunt someone else".
And these overpowered enemies won't just fight you either – they'll duel against each other, ambush one another and engage in a variety of other activities. And all of these actions have an effect, with some members dying while others grow in power. And you can often invade these events too.
Hell, if you brand the right Uruks, you can essentially make them sleeper agents, forcing them to take out their kin or high-profile targets.
And if you get killed by a regular Uruk, they'll become a captain too, which means you'll pretty much have an endless cycle of bosses to fight against.
Tons to do
Those expecting a GTA-sized map might be disappointed at first glance, but the world is large nonetheless and loaded with activities.
Aside from the 20 story missions, which will take you about 30 minutes to an hour to complete each, you also have the aforementioned Uruk events to invade, Vendetta missions (killing a captain who killed one of your Xbox Live friends), herb-gathering, artifact collecting, beast hunting and three types of legend missions (essentially challenges requiring you to use either the stealthy dagger, arrows or your sword).
In other words, the game will keep you busy for at least a dozen hours - and about double that if you're a completionist.
If anything, the weakest part of Shadow of Mordor is probably the audio and video side of things.
The visuals are great, with Talion looking detailed (a rain-soaked Talion is pretty cool) and the Uruk captains all being varied. But the game could definitely use a wider variety of colours, instead of the mostly earthy hues.
The audio is decent too, with great voice-acting by the Uruk captains and solid performances by the main characters. But I did find that some of the lines would get repeated pretty often - I can only tolerate hearing "what are these pillars of light?" so many times.
I'm not a Lord of the Rings fan, but that hasn't stopped Shadow of Mordor from being one of my favourite games of the year.
Whether it's the slick combat system, the innovative take on bosses or the sheer variety of activities, you really owe it to yourself to play it.
Score: 9 out of 10