Relevant information before reading this early impression article:
I was not given a review copy.
I have no affiliation nor contact with anyone at Warner Brothers, Monolith or Behaviour Interactive.
I am a huge Lord of the Rings fan. I am a huge Arkham series fan.
Gameplay system as follows:
I7-2600K @ 4.2GHz w/ H100i balanced pre-set.
8Gb DDR3 RAM @ 1333MHz
Crucial M500 240GB SSD
ASUS Strix 970 4GB @ 1454MHz Boost Core / 3645MHz VRAM
Logitech Proteus Core g502 Mouse
Vortex KBC Poker II Mechanical Keyboard w/Cherry Reds
At the time of writing this piece, I had played for the game for 20 hours and completed 54% of the story.
My reviews and early impressions will have a set structure, but it may change slightly over time if I (or you) feel it can be improved.
First, we’ll look at the technical aspects of the game – performance, controls, options and graphical fidelity.
OPTIONS & TECHNICAL PERFORMANCE
First, let’s take a look at the options. (Click the thumbnail for full size image. Note, you should be using Imagus to show full size images when your cursor hovers over them! Get it here: http://www.reddit.com/r/imagus)
Resolution options are as you would expect - there don't seem to be any glaring omissions, and thanks to Nvidia's DSR feature I was able to check for support of resolutions up to 4K - they're all there. I'm not sure about ultra-wide resolutions though, as it only showed resolutions matching my aspect ratio. One positive to note is that Shadow of Mordor appears to be one of the few games where the interface does not become microscopic at 4K - but the mouse control sure does suffer when using DSR to downsample, becoming incredibly sensitive.
The FPS limiter - useful in theory, flawed in execution. I would recommend not playing with this enabled as it really messes with camera control for both controller and mouse. The speed of rotation will change massively as you're rotating the camera, making gameplay incredibly frustrating as you never quite know when the camera is going to move slowly or quickly. Sorry those of you who don't like VSync, you might need to use it in this game, as leaving both the frame limiter and VSync off left me with a juddery experience.
This is one of three fairly big technical complaints I have with the game. The second comes immediately - no FoV slider. It can be hacked, but it shouldn't have to be. The default view is extremely narrow when moving around. Thankfully the camera zooms out a bit when you're in combat - but for those that suffer from motion sickness caused by limited FoV, you may have issues with this game.
The engine, an evolution of the one used in FEAR 2, is DX11 compliant so we get goodies like Tessellation, pretty light rays and depth of field - but conspicious by its absense is AA. So a black mark there.
Motion blur can (thankfully) be disabled, but perhaps the biggy here are the texture presets - low, medium (specified for 2GB GPUs), high (specified for 3GB GPUs) and ultra, which specify a whopping 6GB of VRAM as reccommended. I have tried running with the Ultra preset, and it worked OK for the most part on my card with 4GB of VRAM, but there were areas where the game noticeably took a breath to swap out some textures.
It's nice that it shows you what GPU the game is currently using, and how much VRAM it has for those that are less technically inclined, too.
The game runs well. It looks gorgeous but it doesn't seem to be a tease like some other games - offering you beauty that is barely attainable with any setup. With highest-everything-apart-from-textures, my 970 rarely drops below 60 at 1080p/60Hz, even in the middle of pitched battles with a stronghold of Uruk.
It is still a demanding game however, and fairly large compromises had to be made when I tried to downsample from 1440 and maintain 60FPS. Those running at higher resolutions may find themselves struggling to keep an acceptable and consistent frame rate at highest settings without an SLI/Crossfire setup. This brings to another gripe. There is currently (as of update 2) no support for SLI. I don't know whether this is Nvidia's failing or Monolith's, but it's not the only high profile game to lack SLI support on release in the last two months.
In regards to stability, I have not experienced a single crash or glitch - which shouldn't be impressive but given the nature of AAA games at the moment, it sadly is.
Load times are nice and fast, there are no noticeable flaws such as texture pop in or judder when you enable VSync and disable the frame limiter. Cut scenes are noticeably lower in quality though, which is disappointing. They seem to be 30FPS at the very most.
Dat texture quality, though.
Here we come to my third major issue with the game. I found the experience using a 360 pad to be frustrating. Again, I was unable to rebind any of the buttons to compensate for the issues I experienced.
Given that this game uses the Arkham series' combat (or, a very slightly tweaked version of it), I naturally assumed that this would be better experienced on the controller. That turned out to be very wrong. Somehow, this game's combat works infinitely better with the mouse and keyboard. The game is far too picky at detecting simultaneous button presses for combat finishers, which often results in your character breaking the hit streak and grabbing at thin air - taking a ton of damage in the process. Elsewhere, it seems to have a hard time detecting sequential button presses of the counter button.
There are still a couple of minor complaints when it comes to playing with mouse and keyboard - sometimes it can be frustrating chasing after a retreating captain or alarm-raiser when there are climbable objects nearby as Talion seems all too eager to channel his inner monkey, often going out of his way to climb walls even if you're attempting to move in a straight line.
They've put bullet-time on as default when you use the bow as well, which is something I wish I could toggle on rather than toggle off.
I've also found that dodging is slow to react, too. There seems to be a good half a second between pressing dodge and Talion's animation. It's jarring in that the reaction to this singular input is several times slower than his reaction to any other input - perhaps worse, it's not consistent. It seems that sometimes he has to wait for an animation to finish, while others can be overridden.
Let us start with the mechanic that Warner Brothers were so eager to push during promotion - the Nemesis system. The game will generate Uruk Captains - each with their own name, appearance, voice, strengths and weaknesses (e.g. A captain may be invulnerable to stealth attacks, but can be killed instantly by a combat finisher). They are essentially mini bosses who will improve over time, gaining rank, fighting with other captains or becoming War Chief bodyguards. They can even become War Chiefs themselves either independently or through opportunities created by Talion's actions. You can find out the location, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of a Nemesis by gaining Intel from certain Uruk (think Riddler henchmen in Arkham), or occasionally from documents left lying around. What's nice is that there are times when this can be vital in planning your attack on key Uruks.
This is where the game can provide some of its most challenging content. War Chiefs at higher levels (20 is the highest, I believe) can have a wicked combination of invulnerabilities, and they're often holed up in compounds with infinite numbers of Uruk. If you're unlucky enough to get one who is invulnerable to ranged, combat finishers, Wraith Stun and does a ton of damage, your only hope is to break off the engagement, attempt to lose the hundreds of Uruk following you and pop into stealth to do the job.
In my eyes, the Nemesis system is a success. It personalises your game in a way that most are never really able to manage - especially when the ones that were able to defeat you, or flee from you remember you (complete with scars or missing eyes) the next time you find them. It's a good way to add some replayability to the game as well - however the game still lacks in this area.
Onto combat. There's no surprise here, Warner Brothers gave Monolith the Arkham series combat, or at least allowed them to copy it - and it's still great. It is not quite at the level of the original, mostly owing to the controller issues mentioned earlier, but it's still satisfying. The combat finishers are nice, and obviously this is where it starts to differ, as Talion and his Wraith (name not used so as to not spoil the story) are blessed with numerous ways to slaughter Uruk - including the exaggerated violence of brutalise executions that send remaining Uruk scurrying in fear.
However, whereas the Arkham games almost encourage you to get into it with massive groups of thugs, this game punishes you for it. As noted previously, dodging is not snugly responsive, and as far as I've been able to achieve you can only counter two incoming melee attacks at once. When you're surrounded by dozens of Uruk, some of whom will be archers and spear throwers, you can quickly end up defeated.
Here is where the game differs somewhat to Arkham. Talion has a ghostly Elf-Bow, thanks to his Wraith - which has the added bonus of bullet-time mode. The aim here is to pin down escaping foes or to go for head shots. Later in the game you can unlock Shadow Strikes - attacks that can teleport you great distances, and which may also be upgraded later into an instant kill version. I've found that aiming with the bow can be frustrating as it is noticeable more sensitive when you're zoomed in than the rest of the game is when you're using the mouse. Attempting to get head shots when you've run out of focus will take some real skill.
Your ammo is limited and carry capacity is upgraded - but like most games, the ammo limit is a paper one. Elf-shot is so prevalent in the world that you'd have to go out of your way to avoid it, and it is refilled after the successful completion of every main or side mission. There are also runes that you can add to your weapons to recover Elf Shot with certain actions. The bow can also be used to release captured Carragors (think Wargs with Armadillo armour) onto unsuspecting groups, detonate barrels of Grog, camp fires or release a hive of angry insects to cause mayhem.
Stealth is the best part of the combat. There are enough buildings and ruins to hide around that make sneaking up on Uruk, or climbing above them and slaughtering from them above immensely satisfying. Alternatively, for some Machiavellian scheming, you can sneak around branding Uruk, creating a massive civil war. Compounds are designed brilliantly in that there's always some way to pick your way around even the most heavily of populated areas without being seen.
If I have one complaint though, it's that the AI is really not up to par in this regard. It's not outright broken - once they find corpses they'll raise the alarm, it's relatively hard to lose them once they know where you are - but to be blunt, the Uruk are blind. You can run at them slightly to the side, and as long as you're crouched they won't see you. You can even run straight at them and perform a stealth kill as long as you're quick enough. I think the difficulty of the game would be improved immensely if they were a little but quicker to spot you.
There are many times when Shadow of Mordor reminds me of Far Cry, and the upgrades and talent tree is a good example. You can spend currency, found by completing missions, side quests and finding artefacts to improve your health, focus time, arrow capacity and the number of slots on your weapons. The talent tree on the other hand will grant you access to abilities such as the afore mentioned Shadow Strike, allow you to take a hit without losing your hit streak, allow you to perform two finishers rather than one and so on. This is more Arkham-esque, down to certain abilities being gated by story progress. Talent tiers and points are earned by defeating Captains/War Chiefs and competing story missions.
The weapons themselves can be upgraded with runes which you'll receive when you defeat a captain or War Chief. They come in three flavours - common, rare and epic. Common and rare runes have levels assigned to them that affect their power, and you can combine multiple copies of the same rune - so if you want to recover Elf Shot every time you brutalise an Uruk, you can equip your dagger with three runes that offer a percentage chance to do just that, giving you an almost guaranteed arrow every time.
One thing this game has that Arkham doesn't have, is the ability to mount Carragors and the fearsome Graug (Bigger, badder versions of Trolls) and use them in combat. You can also brand them and have them fight for you even if you dismount.
A lot of the movement in Shadow of Mordor is based on free-running and parkour. You'll spend most of your time scaling walls, buildings and structures and in this way the game seems to emulate Assassin's Creed. It's very responsive, if not over eager to latch you onto something, it's very satisfying and the design of the various compounds and ruins are good enough that you never feel like you should be able to grab onto something that the game won't let you.
The design of Mordor is excellent. You start off in the characteristic gloomy wasteland, split into different areas each with their own side missions and goodies to find. The world does feel authentic, and in this regard it appears to have borrowed heavily from the films. There's nothing wrong with that. Later on you move into a more lush, green area that has not yet been completely ruined by Sauron's influence (as one of the characters says, "this is the land that will feed Sauron's armies"), and it makes for a welcome departure. It's an open world game, and as such there's a great deal to explore and find if you want to do something other than the main storyline missions.
Part of exploration is completing various challenges - hunting and survival. Yes, if this sounds like Far Cry to you, you're not wrong - right down to the various herbs that you need to find on to complete survival challenges having very similar mini-map icons. There aren't many hunting challenges, but they're much in the same vein - pick off little ambient creatures to start with, then you move onto the more dangerous stuff - Carragors, Graugs and stronger variations. You're rewarded for completing these challenges with currency that you can spend on character upgrades.
There are several different types of side missions available. There's a category for each weapon (the storyline here is that you're forging the weapon of your various weapons) that focuses on improving your use of each of them - stealth missions for the dagger, large melee battles for the sword and ranged attacks for the bow. Then there are missions to liberate enslaved men. Again, for completion you're rewarded with currency. For the most part these are well designed, however some can be a little on the frustrating side. It's nice to see that some effort has been put into them and that they're not as repetitive as side missions in some other open world games.
In another emulation of Ubisoft games, spread around the map are various ghostly Forge Towers. Scale these, and your Wraith will be able to unlock side missions and the locations of artefacts in the surrounding area. It serves a purpose. This mechanic is a bit worn out, though.
In the intro I said that fans of The Lord of the Rings were worried that this game would not be kind to the lore. Those fears for the most part were misplaced. While some will argue over the attitude and personality of one of the key characters, I think everything else is respectful. It's nice that the story branches off into three different paths, allowing you to pick your own way through them or leave one that you're not sufficiently interested in doing.
The story arc itself is capable thus far. A lot of plot devices are borrowed from The Lord of the Rings (minor spoiler, including the key figure possessed by Saruman) and there's one too many times where a character utters "may come to pass." - but for the most part it is engaging and varied enough, thanks to great voice acting in the part of Ratbag (Phil LaMarr), Gollum (Liam O'Brien - I had to check it wasn't Andy Serkis) and your Wraith (Alistair Duncan).
What really helps with the story is the way that your interactions with Captains and War Chiefs changes the world to some extent - making encounters and the completion of certain missions different each time you attempt to play them. For instance, if you're having a particularly hard time branding a certain War Chief, you can recruit his bodyguards to double cross him, putting one of them in his place and thus achieving your goal.
Similar to the Arkham games, there isn't much of a multiplayer aspect to speak of. The best you're going to get is Trials of War - much like the leader board challenges in Arkham. A co-op mode would have been nice here - the characters are in the game to allow it to happen, and the stealth mechanics especially would have made this a lot of fun. Perhaps in the sequel?
REPLAYABILITY AND TIME-FOR-MONEY
As I alluded to earlier, the Nemesis system will help the game from feeling identical should you play through it again. There's also the ability to focus on different combat strategies, however the way in which talents are unlocked as you progress through the game will limit this somewhat. However, there aren't any alternative characters, there's a few different ways in which you can complete some of the story requirements but nothing that will dramatically alter the game, and there is only one ending to the story. I'm not entirely sure that this is a game that you'll finish and then start playing through immediately after.
That being said, there is lots to do. As I stated, I've played so far for just over 20 hours and I've completed only half of the story. If I were to attempt to complete everything, including the hunting and survival challenges, I would probably be looking at around 35-40 hours of play time. That's not bad. It's not Skyrim, but it's not bad. Of course, this hinges on you enjoying the side missions and Nemesis system. If you don't and you just want to play for the story, I can't see there being more than 10 hours of content for you.
- Familiar and capable Arkham style combat with satisfying finishers.
- Great voice acting for key characters.
- Gorgeous looking game with a capably designed world and movement system.
- Choice in how you approach combat.
- Plenty of content
- Full key rebinding with secondary assignments.
- A setting that evokes memories of the films.
- No FoV setting. This should be mandatory as it makes the game unplayable for a not insignificant number of people.
- Playing with a controller is often frustrating.
- No ability to remap controller functions.
- Buggy implementation of the frame limiter, almost made VSync a necessity.
- No AA setting in the options menu. The game still looks fantastic, but sometimes the ability to add extra AA wouldn't go amiss.
- Free running will sometimes go out of its way to latch you onto an object when you don't want it to.
- Dodge and block can sometimes be unresponsive or inconsistent.
For me, Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is a game worth of its AAA price as it is. There aren't any shows topping issues, there's plenty of content available and the story is capably written with good character development. It's a fantastic looking game that will push those that have high-end rigs, but it will also run well and still look decent at lower settings.
At the end of these articles I will finish with a single line that sums up my recommendation - Worth a buy, wait for fixes, wait for sale, wait for more content or avoid.
Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor gets the 'worth a buy' recommendation from me.