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I have never hated a character like I hate Tumug the Lookout. That’s partially because Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is a really smart game, and that’s also because it’s broken.
Warner Bros. decided to take a chance with The Lord of the Rings. After decades of terrible movie-licensed games and the publisher’s own success with the Arkham series of Batman releases, the company gave Monolith Software the freedom to do what it wanted. And this turned into Shadow of Mordor, an open-world action game that borrows from the other megahits in the genre while forging its own path.
Going in, I had little doubt that J.R.R. Tolkien’s superfans would find a ton to love here. But that’s not me. I read the books. Harry Potter is more my speed. I watched The Lord of the Rings movies. They sure do walk a lot in those. I caught The Hobbit on HBO a few weeks back. At least it didn’t wake me up once I started napping.
I’m not the kind of person who’s gonna show up to this and freak out over fan service. And without that aiding it, can Shadow of Mordor deliver?
The answer to that is yes … but we’re gonna have to talk about Tumug.
What you’ll like
Amazing enemy system
Every Uruk-hai enemy in Shadow of Mordor has the potential to turn into a boss. That’s because of the fascinating system that Monolith built to make the world of Middle-earth feel more alive.
It works like this. Every Uruk character in Shadow of Mordor has its own name and distinct look (you’ll come across regular Orcs as well, but they don’t rise in rank). If you go into a battle and a grunt kills you, that weak soldier will move up the ranks to captain. This makes him tougher to kill the next time you face him.
This system is completely dynamic and it works. It creates emergent moments and storylines that will belong to you and only you, and it is just such a smart way to make a big, triple-A open-world game feel more alive. Mordor feels like a real place to me because it has a memory. It knows what I’ve done, and it throws the results of my success and failures back at me.
Uruks who continually best you in combat continue leveling up and getting perks. That means certain enemies become impervious to ranged attacks. But they all also have at least one weakness.
Of course, Shadow or Mordor doesn’t tell just tell you that info. You must hunt down intelligence. You can do this by interrogating Uruks for information. You can find the identity, whereabouts, and more about the characters in Sauron’s army through this method.
This loop, of finding and fighting captains as well as the higher-ranked warlords, is the core of Shadow of Mordor. It’s the most exciting feature and it does a lot to counter any issues I have with the game.
I honestly love this, and I think gamers should experience it if only because it is such an interesting new idea from a major publisher.
It gets even better as the game goes along
Once you get the hang of the enemy system, you start to get the feeling that maybe things could get repetitive. But as the game progresses, as your hero gains more powers, your interactions with enemies completely changes.
For example, you eventually get the power to “brand” enemies. This will make them fight for you. You can take over an entire camp before going to face off against one of the tougher captains. This completely changes the balance of every engagement. What’s even better than overtaking an entire garrison of enemy soldiers is that you can brand the captains once you defeat them. If they are a warlord’s bodyguard, they’ll make what is typically a very tough fight feel like a brilliant plan all coming together and ending with your victory.
This arc of builds over the entire game is such a smart way. It is very rewarding.
Open world that feels large but not too big
In Shadow of Mordor, you play as Talion. An Aragorn-like ranger, Talion also has the power of Sauron’s Ringwraiths thanks to his body getting mushed up with Celebrimbor, the Elf prince who forged the Rings of Power from The Lord of the Rings books.
I bring all of this up only to point out that while you ostensibly play as a human man, you actually have what amounts to superpowers. You can leap from any height. You can leap up walls. You can teleport to surprise attack enemies. This makes traversing Mordor a breeze.
On top of your movement, the map fits in that just-right zone in terms of size. Things look like they’re far away, but you’ll get to them in no time.
Shadow of Mordor manages to simultaneously feel lived in and large while never making you feel like getting around is wasting your time.
What you won’t like
Tumug the Lookout’s escape
In my time with Shadow of Mordor, I came across a particular Uruk that turned into what I can only describe as my mortal enemy.
In our first battle, Tumug the Lookout killed my mount. It was an epic battle that included maybe a dozen soldiers and three captains. One of Tumug’s comrades dealt the finishing blow on my character. In the chaos, I thought I had killed Tumug. But that apparently wasn’t the case. Instead, he got a healthy power boost.
I forgot all about Tumug until I decided to go after one of the big-bad warlords. When you go after one of these top-rated foes, you want every advantage you can get. I noticed in the menu that the particular boss I wanted to take out had a white line connecting him to Tumug. I’m pretty sure that line was indicating that Tumug was the warlord’s bodyguard, so I decided to go after the lesser Uruk first.
Our first meeting did not go well. I died fighting him pretty quickly because he was able to call in a ton of reinforcements using one of his special powers. I decided to dig up the deets on Tumug, so I went out and got some intel. Well, as it turns out, Tumug was a super-high level. He had just about every perk you could imagine, and his only weakness was fire.
So the next time I went in with a plan. At this point, I had no way to create fire. I had to use what I could find around me in the environment. My arrow shots had the capability to make barrels or bonfires explode, so I led Tumug around until he got close to one. Then I blew him the hell up.
This didn’t kill him. Instead, fear overtook him, and he started running. I chased him. I attacked him. He started running. I chased him down again. Repeat the process over and over.
I did this for a while. When he was nearly dead, he got away again. This time, he ran out of sight and around a corner. It wasn’t more than 50 feet away — I could sprint that in no time — but it’s too late. The game notifies me: Tumug the Lookout has escaped.
I cursed, and started tracking him from scratch.
The exact same thing happened again. He ran away as I’m about to kill him and vanished into thin air in a cave.
This happened four times.
Shadow of Mordor is this living, breathing world with dynamic enemies. How does it make sense that they just disappear if they get out of sight. It is probably a technical thing. But that’s of little comfort.
In fairness to the game, I later realized that, once afraid, I could grab an enemy and kill him more easily — but it is still difficult if enough enemies are around. And I had to check the publisher-provided reviewers guide to learn about this ability. Maybe you’re smarter than me and won’t have this issue. I’m completely willing to admit that is a possibility — but it was a pretty rough experience for me.
Eventually, I killed him. On my final run, I felled the level-20 Uruk by sticking on top of him everywhere he ran. It was difficult but worth it.
The story of Tumug doesn’t end with his death. In the time it took me to kill him, his warlord boss was able to attract a second bodyguard. I went through the process to find and take him out, and I succeeded on my first try.
I hopped back into the menu to check on Sauron’s army and set a waypoint to direct me to the warlord I’d been aiming to kill for a couple hours when the bottom of my stomach fell out.
To my absolute horror, there he was: Tumug the Lookout back in action as if I had never killed him at all.
Here’s the worst part: This isn’t a bug (I thought it was at first).
As it turns out, I did kill Tumug that first time in the epic battle. He just has the ability to come back. And in the reality of the game, it makes sense. Hell, my character comes back from death over and over. It’s only fair that the bad guys get a second (or third) chance as well.
Here’s the problem. I’m a human being, and humans hate losing things once they earn them. Killing Tumug felt wonderful, but this sense of accomplishment doesn’t even close to the disappoint I felt at having that success ripped away. We have a name for this, it is called “sunk cost” or “loss aversion.” It’s the natural human response to losing something, and it means that going forward, all I’m going to think about are the hours I spent trying to kill Tumug that didn’t amount to anything.
I despise this design choice. I think maybe the idea was to create the possibility for a longer back-and-forth relationship between your character and powerful enemies, but it doesn’t work. All it does is pull the floor out from underneath the climax of my emergent story, and it is a new kind of backtracking.
I’ve gone on about this for a long time, and I bet you’re assuming that I hate Shadow of Mordor based on the way I’m writing about it. But I don’t. I would never feel this strongly about a game one way or the other if I didn’t love what it is doing at its core. And I have to acknowledge that your experience in this dynamic game could end up so completely different from mine that you’ll never end up with an issue like this.
Bland, boring narrative
Hey, remember how in The Lord of the Rings movies they have that Gollum creature and one character really hates and distrusts it and the other is willing to give it a chance? Yeah. That’s in Shadow of Mordor.
Remember how in everything that one guy is tormented by the murder of his wife and child? Shadow of Mordor has that covered.
Remember how in fantasy books you have to remember a lot of names and places and vague character motivations? Yeah. Shadow of Mordor.
As exciting as the emergent stories that pop out of Monolith’s nemesis system are, Shadow of Mordor’s actual narrative is very lacking. I don’t care about the goals of these characters. I don’t really know why I’m doing anything that I’m doing. Like a shadow, you can see it, but it has no substance.
Maybe this is all different for fans of The Lord of the Rings. I hope that it is. Again, that’s not me, and I won’t pretend to know what Tolkienites would enjoy.
At its core, Shadow of Mordor is a fresh, exciting game. I love what it does to make every enemy feel special. Open-world games like Assassin’s Creed and Grand Theft Auto haven’t really done much to expand on the possibility for emergence in the genre. They look like a pair of Casio digital wristwatches compared to the complex moving parts of Shadow of Mordor’s intricate cuckoo clock.
But like any complex system, it’s easier to notice the effects of one misplaced component. The resurrecting bosses undo some of Shadow of Mordor’s magic, and the story and characters don’t do a ton to help.
I don’t want to turn everyone off of it. I think Shadow of Mordor deserves a huge audience. I like it bordering on loving it. Had Monolith tightened up a few things, I’d probably love it bordering on considering it one of the best games of the year.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is due out Sept. 30 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC. Warner Bros. Interactive provided GamesBeat with a physical copy of the game for the PlayStation 4 for the purposes of this review.
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