There are two Captains and half a dozen grunts still standing as Thrak enters the battle. We've managed to work away at the health bar of the captain we came there to fight. He's a bodyguard to one of the Warchiefs and needs taking out before we confront one of the Black Hand's closest men to draw him out. We got more than we bargained for in this fight. The Black Hand is responsible for our current predicament - caught somewhere between life and death and unable to join our family in the afterlife. To add injury to insult Talion's body is now also playing host to a Wraith - which grants him the handy combo of a Ranger's physical combat skills and the supernatural abilities of a Wraith. Plus that element of immortality the Wraith brings.
Talion's story takes place between the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and it would be easy to assume that an afterthought meant to bridge the gap between a prologue and a trilogy would come across as watered down and without consequence. However, the story of Shadow of Mordor surprises us and we find ourselves captivated by the events and characters. For natural reasons Talion's adventure has a more personal angle than those of Bilbo and Frodo, and equally engaging are the Wraith's search for his identity and past. Minor spoiler here, the Wraith who Talion is bound to is Celebrimbor - the Elven smith who forged the rings of power. So that's an indication of how central the plot is to the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
As you may have gleaned from the opening paragraph, this is a challenging game, at least in parts. This is mainly due to the ingenious Nemesis system that sees your enemies level up and challenge each other for power. If a normal grunt kills you (and you will die a lot, especially in the early stages) he will be upgraded to a captain and will start levelling up. In theory he can rise to the top of the hierarchy and the two of you can have a back and forth rivalry going for much of the game. Captains have various traits, things they are scared of, attacks they are immune to or susceptible to, and knowing your enemy is half the battle. Some of these procedurally generated captains are really tough and you may have to base your decisions in the ability tree and on what runes to equip based on the traits of your most challenging foe. One example of this was when we faced off with Rug the Skinner, who was afraid of burns (but we never found him near those lovely exploding barrels of grog) and open to damage from ranged attacks. It made our melee focused Talion somewhat ineffective and we were forced to grind side quests for a while in order to upgrade our ranged elf-shots and unlock fire arrows. When a Captain is scared he leaves himself open to more attacks and can be finished off swiftly.
As a whole the Nemesis system adds intrigue and character to fights that would otherwise not be nearly as interesting. As with all procedural and random content it can cause issues with game balance and difficulty spikes (after we'd taken out Rug the Skinner we had an easy time with a lot of the subsequent story quests, for instance). It does make your enemies more interesting, and while most are the kind of aggressive and smug scumbags you'd expect, we came across at least one very friendly Orc who asked us why we couldn't be friends while he was trying to bash our heads in with a club (the Orc Captains naturally also come with different attacks and weaponry). During the first half of the game the main reason to pay attention to the Nemesis system is that you have to take out Captains and eventually Warchiefs, but once you've unlocked Brand (around halfway through the main story you gain the power to dominate Orc minds and have them fight on your side) and you can gain control of Orc Captains, it becomes more a game of positioning Orcs under your command so you can eventually overthrow the Warchiefs and have an army of your own.
When Shadow of Mordor was first announced the game was often compared to Assassin's Creed and it's easy to see why. The sneaking, the unlocking of areas by climbing forge towers (only visible to you as a Wraith), even the way the story plays out with a lot of focus on characters, it's all very similar. But the combat feels closer to the Arkham series, and strongholds filled with Orcs running for alarm bells made us think of Far Cry 3. But the setting, the Nemesis system, and a well crafted progression and runes system means that it very much feels like its own game at the end of the day.
But all is not sunshine in the world of Mordor and one thing that really disappointed us (initially at least) was the size of the sandbox world. Once you gain the ability to mount and ride Caragons (wolf-like creatures) you can traverse the length/width of the map in no time at all, and there are even main quests where you sneak after another character that will take you across the entirety of the map. Perhaps telling then that distances are referred to in feet as opposed to metres and yards. It really is a small, small slice of Mordor we get to play around in. Halfway through the game another area (about the same size) opens up with a Nemesis hierarchy of its own. And perhaps the size of the maps favours the Nemesis system and the intimacy means frequent encounters with your favourite Captains. While the first area (Udun) is much like the Mordor we'd imagine, the second area sports green pastures and trees along a coastline. A welcome change of scenery after ten hours of depressing greys and browns of the corrupted plains.
Other issues we found are things Shadow of Mordor has in common with Assassin's Creed - the contextual actions aren't always great at anticipating your next move (we've dodge rolled into a lot of walls during our time in Mordor) and what walls you can and cannot climb isn't always entirely clear. We did spot some technical issues with the PS4 build (some clipping) and overall there's the feel that some concessions have been made to fit this onto old-gen consoles (those versions arrive later on in November).
Some of the main quests were less than stellar (tracking and sneaking around behind another character for long periods bordered on boring), and collecting herbs (for instant healing) also felt like only half of a game mechanic (why not allow players to collect herbs and use potions?). We did appreciate some of the other side quests such as weapon-specific challenges and finding artefacts and Ithildum (ancient symbols). All of these tie in to a multi-tiered progression system that sees you gain Power to unlock ability tiers (mainly by defeating Orc Captains), gain XP from almost everything (to unlock skill points for the ability tree) and Mirian for things like more health, additional elf-shots, focus time or rune slots for your weapons. Add in the runes (dropped by Orc Captains and Warchiefs) that can compliment your play-style in a lot of different ways.
We mentioned the story and it is both enjoyable and captivating. For the most part it's well told in brief and to-the-point cutscenes. We appreciated the appearance of Gollum, the Dwarf hunter Torvin, and Ratbag the coward (our "friend" among the Orc ranks).
At the end of 20-odd hours spent in Mordor we have to say that we thoroughly enjoyed the time spent in the company of Talion and Celebrimbor. Riding Caragons and Graugs, plotting to overthrow Orc Warchiefs with your branded Captains, and honing our skills with the brilliant combo-based combat system, were among the highlights in what is easily the best Lord of the Rings game released in the last decade.
Sadly we did not have the opportunity to try the Trials of War leaderboard-based Challenge Modes for this review.