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Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor (Xbox One, Xbox 360, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, PC) review: A simple walk into Mordor

Shadow of Mordor borrows much of its gameplay from other titles, but there's freshness peppered throughout, especially in its impressive web of enemies and the open-ended strategies you can use to take them out.

Jeff Bakalar
Jeff Bakalar Editor at Large
Jeff is CNET Editor at Large and a host for CNET video. He's regularly featured on CBS and CBSN. He founded the site's longest-running podcast, The 404 Show, which ran for 10 years. He's currently featured on Giant Bomb's Giant Beastcast podcast and has an unhealthy obsession with ice hockey and pinball.
6 min read

I'm not exactly what you would call a "Lord of the Rings" enthusiast. I enjoyed the Peter Jackson trilogy and maintain that I read "The Silmarillion" in college -- even if I only understood about 4 percent of it.


Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor (Xbox One, Xbox 360, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, PC)

The Good

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is great action game with brilliant enemy design and a smart "nemesis system" that dynamically impacts your play. There's tons to explore and do outside of the main campaign, sure to provide most players with over 20 hours of gameplay.

The Bad

Its controls can occasionally feel wonky and a few camera issues pop up from time to time.

The Bottom Line

Even if you aren't a fan of the Tolkien universe, Shadow of Mordor is a great-looking and ultra-satisfying action game filled with remarkable villains and countless memorable moments.

I am well aware that J.R.R. Tolkien's universe has captivated countless admirers and, to my surprise, has been the source material for dozens of videogames. Since the Rings trilogy, there have been around 20 games developed from Middle-earth lore.

But a lot of those games have been met with lukewarm reactions. The history of The Lord of the Rings in videogames is as layered and complex as the content on which it's based. Far be it from me to even attempt to encapsulate that complicated legacy. Instead, I can only appreciate this latest offering in the Tolkien universe, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor.

For it's worth, I think Shadow of Mordor has the potential to be 2014's biggest surprise hit. It's not flawless, but it sits confidently as one of the best action experiences I've had all year.

Monolith Productions

In it you'll play as Talion, a Ranger from Gondor who has had a really bad day. The rest of the game plays out as your campaign to strike vengeance upon the army of Sauron, the forces that have wronged you and left you cursed to roam Mordor bound to the soul of an Elvish Wraith.

If there's one theme from the trilogy of films that has stayed with me, it's the amazing costume and makeup design of Middle-earth's ugliest inhabitants. You know, the Orcs and Uruks, with their gnarled faces, bubbling skin and limited but intimidating vocabulary. They all just want to eat, drink and kill men.

Check out GameSpot's coverage of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

Unfortunately for you, Talion is essentially the only non-slave man in Mordor, so you basically have every Captain and Warchief in the land trying to impale you with a spiked battle axe or flaming sword.

Shadow of Mordor's focus revolves around these creatures, and, thankfully, captures their striking variety with extreme detail and creativity. It's what made me want to come back for more -- to relentlessly track down these antagonists. Best of all, Shadow of Mordor introduces a really compelling system of interconnected enemy characters that sit on a chessboard of wickedness. I'll get to that a little later.

Generally speaking, Shadow of Mordor is not unlike most open-world games. It's probably most similar to an Assassin's Creed game. Your map is broken into various sections anchored by a tower. Once a tower is activated, a set of collectibles and side missions is unlocked on the map -- pretty much standard operating procedure these days.

Excursions aside, the main objective in Shadow of Mordor is twofold. Talion must make his way through 20 main story missions, but he must also conquer Sauron's army of Captains and Warchiefs -- the most powerful minions under his rule. Plotting against these rabid characters is where I found myself having the most fun with Shadow of Mordor, not just because it's ultra-satisfying to slay one of these guys, but because they all have different names, personalities, unique behaviors and, get this, memories!

Monolith Productions

When you encounter a Captain or Warchief, the game interjects seamless exposition to acquaint you with the enemy. Warchiefs even have bodyguards that protect them inside a stronghold. When one emerges, the entire stronghold will chant his name (and you can hear it coming from the DualShock 4 speaker if you play on PS4). It's a great effect that reinforces the magnitude of your foes. When a clash doesn't go your way, meaning your opponent retreated or killed you, he'll remember the last time you battled and will likely reference it at the start of your next fight.

I approached an Uruk captain I had previously engaged with earlier in the game. He had retreated like a coward, likely because I blew up a nearby camp fire that burned him pretty badly. When our swords clanked again, he said something to the effect of, "That'll be the last time you set me aflame!" All I could do was think: "Oh man, this guy remembers I set him on fire the last time we met! He is clearly not happy about that at all!"

And that's why Shadow of Mordor is so much fun. It makes the enemies so realistic and feel so important that you take pride in strategically taking them down. But just killing them is only the start. Talion can "brand" Captains and Warchiefs and have them betray their hierarchy. This allows you to design your own campaign against Sauron's army -- corrupting it from within and pitting ambitious soldiers against one another.

Making his way through Mordor, Talion will need to use a lot of stealth maneuvering to get around. However, I found that as I gradually leveled up and unlocked new perks, I had a much easier time taking on numerous enemies at once. Because he's bound to a Wraith soul, Talion can also make use of a time-slowing bow and enter Wraith mode to see enemies through walls and uncover hidden items.

Monolith Productions

The progression of character improvement is really fair and satisfying. About halfway through my time with the game I began to realize just how powerful I was becoming, and started to gradually change my strategy from stealth to offensive. The sense of empowerment is just awesome.

Of course Talion has a collection of melee strikes in his arsenal. There's a thorough number of sword, dagger and bow attacks to master and upgrade. Combat feels very similar to the Batman: Arkham games, with a specific button for countering and dual-button hits for special moves.

There's even a familiar combo-strike counter that will activate your abilities. It's not always as refined as the Batman combat scheme, but it's nearly as fun to execute, allowing Talion to take on hordes of Orcs and Uruks at a time.

There's a lot I loved in Shadow of Mordor, but there were a few moments when I felt frustrated. Controlling Talion can be dicey at times, especially when you're trying to be as stealthy as possible. Traversing the world can make for a few forehead-slapping missteps, like when he doesn't connect on a jump to a ledge or when he gets tripped up by terrain he rightfully should have no trouble with.

I also found a few instances where camera placement became troublesome, specifically whenever I was pinned in a corner within a stronghold. Also, the game's frame rate can take a noticeable dip when a lot of characters are onscreen at once, especially if you blow them up. I also tried Shadow of Mordor out on an Origin EON17-SLX gaming laptop and was blown away at the jump in visual quality and frame rate bump. If you have the means, playing the game on a PC might net you an overall better visual and performance experience.

Luckily, the list of issues is short. Shadow of Mordor is a great-looking action game that's filled to the brim with gruesome action and slow-motion cinematics. Best of all, these elements don't detach you from a seamless gaming experience.

I was able to complete the main mission story campaign in just under 18 hours, but had only completed 51 percent of the game's total content.

Monolith Productions

CNET Verdict: Tremendous fun, highly recommended

Even if you aren't a fan of the Tolkien universe, Shadow of Mordor is an ultra-satisfying action game filled with remarkable villains and countless memorable moments.

Shadow of Mordor borrows much of its gameplay from other established titles, but there's a steady amount of freshness peppered throughout, especially its impressive web of linked enemy combatants and the open-ended strategy you can use to take them out.

Check out GameSpot's coverage of the game
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