Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor Review

Richard Walker

Dying in Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor isn't the end, apparently. Upon death, time marches on unabated until your return. You are Talion, and you're already dead. In fact you're “banished from death”, and that which is dead cannot die, right Game of Thrones fans? Except it can, before coming back with a raging spirit of vengeance. Quite literally. For it is the concept of revenge that is at the centre of Shadow of Mordor, as well as the main thing that keeps you coming back for more every time you bite the dust. The masterstroke? Monolith's rather smart and much-vaunted Nemesis System.

The concept behind the Nemesis System means that no two games of Shadow of Mordor should ever be the same. They'll be similar, but which Orcs and what events occur around the enemies you fight all unfolds dynamically. The entire thing sounds like one of those ambitious game mechanics that over-promises but fails to deliver; but in this instance, the Nemesis System is the glue that holds Shadow of Mordor together, making it much more than the sum of its parts.

It takes twoooo, babay!

Boiled down to its essentials, Shadow of Mordor sounds like a fairly vanilla third-person action adventure, albeit one set in an open-world Mordor with the nefarious and ever-present dark lord Sauron at the centre of the game's tale. The story is a simple one. You play as Talion, whose family is murdered in a disturbing ritualistic fashion while he's made to watch, before being put to the sword himself. He returns to life when he's possessed by a vengeful Wraith spirit, who also happens to have seen his own family killed long ago. The two share a quest for vengeance and a symbiotic relationship is born.

It's kind of like a buddy movie, except Shadow of Mordor is a game and features none of the japes that you might associate with Riggs and Murtaugh or Tango and Cash. Instead, what ensues is a rather dour, serious yarn, in which Talion and his Wraith buddy, Celebrimbor, embark upon a journey to weaken the marauding Uruk army and exact their revenge against the Black Hand of Sauron. That means you'll be killing Orcs. Loads and loads and loads (seriously, loads) of Orcs.

As such, the game employs a robust combat system, inspired in part by the free-flow brawls in Rocksteady's Arkham. And while Shadow of Mordor's combat is a lot more heavy handed and not nearly as refined, it nonetheless feels incredibly meaty and versatile, especially once Talion begins levelling up and unlocking abilities within his Ranger and Wraith skill trees. By the time you're approaching the end of the game, you'll be shadow striking, executing a flurry of attacks and punctuating it all with an exploding Orc head. You can even pull off Arkham-style finishers when your hit counter reaches a certain number, lopping off heads in slow-motion or dealing area-of-effect damage that stuns dozens of enemies at once.

Often, you'll find yourself struggling through a huge mosh pit of Orcs too, fighting for space as you're completely swamped. At times this results in a bit of nasty slowdown, but it's nothing too crippling; it's just slightly irritating. Executing the right moves to deal with the Uruk hordes is vital, as is knowing when to cut your losses and retreat to either pick a replenishing herb or to simply run and lick your wounds. Such cowardly behaviour will be remembered next time you run into the Orcs you fought, however, so expect to have a few insults hurled your way upon your return to the fray.

No, it's not the Rancor. It's a Graug!

This kind of permanent memory of your deeds amid the game's Uruk hierarchy is what injects lifeblood into Shadow of Mordor's encounters, creating grudges between some of the unique Orcs that you'll come across during your quest. We had several run-ins with an ugly fella named Garfel the Poet, who'd talk in rhymes and elude us at every turn. Garfel fell to our blade a few times, but managed to always escape, only to return bearing the scars of our previous skirmishes. He survived to the end and the game's final battle, as he'd grew to become our ultimate nemesis. It's incredibly clever stuff, transforming what could have been standard fighting with cookie cutter enemies into personal vendettas against individual antagonists with unique personalities.

You'll come to know which Uruk Warchiefs to target, who their bodyguards are, how to push their buttons and draw them out, as well as their fears, strengths and weaknesses, as you dominate them using Celebrimbor's Wraith powers. Doing so will enable you to pump lowly Orc captains and footsoldiers for intel to reveal what you're up against. You're then able to cause rifts in the Uruk ranks later in the game once you unlock the ability to 'brand' the savage creatures, bending them to your will to create betrayals, uprisings and feuds between Orc factions. It's truly fantastic fun.

Around all of this engaging Nemesis System stuff are numerous side-missions to engage in too, as well as other fare like collectibles, runes to collect for your sword, bow and dagger, hunting quests, fast travel towers to unlock and more. You can also free slaves from brutish Orc masters, embark upon a hunt for the mythical Great White Graug, build the fearsome legend of your weapons by completing challenges, intervene in executions and much more. There's a wealth of content to dive into outside of Shadow of Mordor's central narrative.

There's even a mild online component too, as you're able to avenge the death of online players at certain - seemingly random - intervals. It seems that Monolith has thought of practically everything, even drawing upon more obscure parts of Tolkien lore that you can leaf through and read up on at your leisure in the game's appendices. It's something of a shame, however, given the strength of Shadow of Mordor's gameplay wrapper, that the story reaches a point where it builds to a head and then spins out its climax over the space of what seems like a few minutes.

"Would sir like a close shave?"

You'll come to a juncture where events escalate and then a quick series of rather simplistic and anti-climactic boss battles ensue, before Monolith decides to wrap everything up rather abruptly and roll the credits. It's like someone suddenly remembered that the game had to end eventually, and after 8-10 hours, the story is over before you know it. Still, it's a decent ride while it lasts, and you're able to go back in to the open-world of Mordor and continue to explore and complete anything you missed, upon finishing the game.

Shadow of Mordor's achievement list also encourages you to do just that, tasking players with completing and unlocking everything that the game has to offer. It's a fairly typical list, truth be told, but one that will ensure you stick with the game for the long haul. Chances are you'll probably want to wring everything out of Shadow of Mordor anyway, thanks to all of the Uruk slaying fun to be had.

Another clear indication that Monolith has a firm grasp on the Tolkien canon, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is one of the best games based on the literature and movies that we've had the pleasure of playing. Granted, it's somewhat derivative and casually plucks some of the best bits from other action games, but then that would be doing the Nemesis System an enormous disservice. In short, it's brilliant, making each battle mean something while lending an otherwise rather slender story a dose of variety and intrigue.

Without the Nemesis System, Shadow of Mordor might be less of a game, but with it, Monolith has crafted something well worth getting lost in that I'm excitedly playing through for a second time. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is quite simply, one game to rule them all.

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor

At a glance, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor seems like an ill-inspired Tolkien action game. Delve deeper beneath the surface and you'll find an exciting game with fantastic production values, thoroughly enjoyable gameplay, a good dose of variety and a killer hook in the Nemesis System. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is simply the finest Tolkien game we've played in quite some time.

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The full force of a booming orchestral score lends Shadow of Mordor some real movie-level gravitas. The vocal and mo-cap performances from lead actors Troy Baker, Alastair Duncan et al. are also superb.


A little inconsistent. For every stunning vista, there's the occasional lack of character detail and on Xbox One, even the odd instance of texture pop-in. Shadow of Mordor could look better.


On paper, Shadow of Mordor might not seem like the most original concept, but the execution is almost sublime. Combat is strong, but lacking the refinement of the Arkham series it's inspired by. Most importantly though, SoM is great fun.


The narrative portion of SoM is relatively short, clocking in at a not entirely ungenerous 8-10 hours, but there's plenty of side questing to be done making for a fully-fledged open-world experience. The Nemesis System gives the game legs.


A decent enough list that ticks almost all of the right boxes, tasking you with completing all of the game's numerous missions and a lot more besides.

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