If Shadow of Mordor were being ranked off a single system, it would be a runaway success. Oh boy, would it. The Nemesis system is easily the most "next-gen" feeling thing we've seen so far from the new console hardware. While others have made use of better graphics tech, Shadow of Mordor really drives new systems forward, and that's fantastic.
Unfortunately it is not a single system. It is a game, and as a game Shadow of Mordor just doesn't really hold together.
Let's hit it on the sequel
For all the "Assassin's Creed in a Tolkien world" comparisons that Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor received pre-release because of the free-running aspects, I feel it's an especially apt comparison to make in the full game also--for entirely different reasons.
Assassin's Creed was one of the first big open-world games on the previous generation of consoles, and as such it was this incredible technical achievement at the time. "Look at the size of these crowds! Look at the size of the map! Look how fluid the animations are! Amazing!" All these traits helped distract a bit from the fact that the story was nigh-on nonsensical and the core gameplay loop had you performing the same exact actions for fifteen or so hours. And then Assassin's Creed II came about and turned a bunch of disparate systems into a real game.
The nemesis system is a great start. The main characters--a dynamic duo consisting of Gondorian ranger Talion and his possessive ghost-elf of legend Celebrimbor--are a great start. Shadow of Mordor is a great start. There's a lot of promise left on the table, though.
The main story, taking place between The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, is at its best boring. It's no fault of the characters, who are universally well-written: Talion and Celebrimbor, the dwarven hunter you befriend, the two women ruling over a band of outcasts, they're all strong.
But the tone of the game oscillates wildly and unpredictably between "This is serious business" and "This is a wild romp." It's all-too-similar to the lackluster Hobbit films more than the grim-dark apocalypse feel of Lord of the Rings, and it's not particularly great at either end of the spectrum. The emotional, dark parts of the game never approach the complexity nor the depths of despair plumbed by Tolkien's source material, and the silly parts of the game just feel out of place.
And while it's interesting to learn about Celebrimbor, Sauron, and the forging of the Rings of Power, we end up too often in a Star Wars prequel or Force Unleashed situation where the source material is just too strong. Whereas something like Knights of the Old Republic managed to escape the binds of Star Wars canon by jumping into the past, in Shadow of Mordor I kept getting that weird uncanny valley feeling of "Well if all these characters existed between The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings how have we never heard of them?"
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