Shadow of Mordor is, quite simply, an Assassin’s Creed clone. Forgive me for going straight for the punchline like I could only afford five minutes with a prostitute, but the fact that Monolith Productions spent ten minutes alone with the Xerox machine in Ubisoft’s office is actually more of a starting point than a final judgment. See, creating a clone of a well-known game tends to present a problem when that game already has a nasty habit of cloning itself. What exactly can you do when trying to emulate a game known for glitches, repetitive meaningless tasks, combat that ramps up the difficulty so slightly that old men race their wheelchairs across it, and a story that aspires to be the novelization of it’s own movie adaptation? Turns out, you can make a halfway decent game.
I say halfway, though because that’s about as far as they got. Monolith cleaned up a lot of the trash lying around Ubisoft’s apartment, but one can only do so much after the carpet has developed a healthy substrate of mycelium and the mushrooms just keep growing back. The story, for example, reads as eloquently as a Trump tweet and contains about as much Tolkien lore as one can glean from finding a copy of the Silmarillion during an especially problematic bowel movement. It opens on Talion, a ranger of Gondor (a job description about as endemic to Middle Earth as “LGBT Bible Salesman of Kansas”) who suffers the obligatory wife-and-child-murder scenario in the opening scene, thus absolving him of any pesky responsibility that would prevent him from romping through the Mordor countryside murdering orcs (because let’s be honest, the one thing we took from the Star Wars Holiday Special is that Chewie is a deadbeat dad who neglects his family as long as it’s not Life Day). He then gets himself possessed by an elven wraith whose true identity will both momentarily amaze die-hard Tolkien fans and confuse anyone who didn’t feel like reading the Bible of Middle Earth. Together they romp through the Mordor countryside, shoving Talion’s sword into so many Uruk-hai that if his blade doesn’t kill them, they’ll probably contract Uruk-HIV and die of Uruk-aids anyway. Rinse and repeat for thirty hours, then kill Sauron in a climactic boss battle that makes Inglorious Basterds look like an introduction to European History course.
Gameplay closely resembles Assassin’s Creed, except Shadow of Mordor doesn’t need to dig up a steady supply of Borgias to assassinate—instead you declare genocidal war on all things green and smelly and you have no end to the supply of Uruks to break your falls from high places. Literally. There’s no end. Many of the monsters you kill come back to life, which gets frustrating when you’re trying to whittle Sauron’s army down to nothing, but to be fair, you come back when they kill you, so I’ll allow them the handicap. Shadow of Mordor also trashes the combat from Assassin’s Creed, so gone is the feeling of trying to beat your way out of a refrigerator with a tire iron, and instead you get more of a feel for how Batman would get on in Middle Earth—both combat and stealth seems to have been lifted straight out of Arkham Asylum. It skews the stealth unrealistically, to the vein of assuming Sauron’s entire army is recovering from Lasik surgery over the same two-day period. At times, Talion would run full-bent towards them, stab them in the face, and then sneak around behind the orc who just witnessed the death, only to hear that orc say, “What was that? Did something move over there?” Absurdly unrealistic as this may be, I wholeheartedly approve of the change. Assassin’s Creed went the route of realistic, which broke the mechanics—sitting on a bench or pushing your way into a gaggle of whores sounded like a really cool assassin stealth technique, but most guards were still smart enough to figure out that there weren’t too many giant hulking men in huge white cloaks carrying more cutlery than a Ginsu commercial through Renaissance Italy.
When you’re not punching holes in the Uruks like you expect to find a prize inside, you travel around the Mordor countryside picking up trash and cleaning up graffiti. These mini-quests do nothing other than give you minute amounts of experience points and, of course, to clean up the place a bit and make Mordor great again. While it sounds useless, again, it’s an improvement over Assassin’s creed where you chase after boxes of useless cash. At least the XP gives you access to new abilities, and while many games grant you abilities that end up being longer, more complicated ways of accomplishing what is easier gained by punching enemies in the face, I actually found myself using almost all of the skills I unlocked by the end.
Mordor apparently isn’t big on diversity, and you only really fight four different monsters throughout the game. But that’s fine, right? After all, Tolkien used excruciating detail—sometimes so excruciating that his readers actually felt right there, suffering Gollum’s torture—but he didn’t invent more than a handful of species of monsters. So it’s okay if we only get to fight orcs and uruks, wargs, spiders, trolls, dragons and balrogs. Except we never fight anything nearly as interesting as a dragon or a balrog…the swarming, skittering monsters are zombie-like ghuls instead of spiders, the giant hulking monsters are called graugs, not trolls, the bipedal wolf-like monsters are carragors, not wargs, and the game doesn’t mention orcs other than to say, “these ain’t them.” But don’t worry…there’s literally no end to the supply of Uruk-hai willing to fight you, and each one of them has a nice little speech to deliver before you get to start the battle.
Apparently the version of the game I played is not the one I was supposed to. The PS3 and the Xbox 360 editions are, from what I read online, the PS4 edition after being dragged through a mud puddle and then stored for a week in the rotting carcass of a sperm whale. But what it lacks in aesthetic value, it more than makes up for in loading and saving times, making Shadow of Mordor a great game to play when you have a few dozen small chores around the house, but you’re only willing to use the time going in and out of menus to do them. When you account for menu transitions, listening to each uruk tell you its life story, reloading after it kills you, and watching the WWE of Mordor as the uruks kill each other and level-up during death transitions, a 40-hour game quickly turns into about eight or nine hours of gameplay.
The game touts its Nemesis system, which as far as I can tell is a fancy way of saying “we randomly generate enemies, then assign them a name.” Although this feels to me like Monolith’s main selling point is something I did with Lego guys when I was six, the enemies do feel like they have a little more personality than the goons in other games, and the names sound Tolkien-esque (One notable uruk goes by “Ratbag,” clearly inspired by the orcs from the book, Shagrat and Gorbag), even if I have to ride whatever the hell a caragor is in order to kill them. Supposedly, the PS3 version’s Nemesis system functions about as well as a cassette tape in an MRI machine, but I suspect the nearly three-hour update required when I first booted the game fixed some of that. Just add that to the game’s non-play-time counter.