- The Washington Times - Friday, October 10, 2014

J.R.R. Tolkien’s foreboding fantasy universe returns to home entertainment consoles in the third-person adventure Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor (Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment and Monolith Productions, reviewed with PlayStation 4, rated Mature, $59.99).

In a story set during the Third Age of Middle-earth, between the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, a player quickly learns the horrendous fate of Talion, a Gondorian Ranger stationed at the Black Gate.

An intense, computer-generated scene reveals a trio of Sauron’s Black Captain’s murdering Talion’s garrison and then ritually executing the warrior and his family.

A powerful force then intervenes to resurrect Talion and bind his body to the spirit of an Elvish Wraith named Celebrimbor, both unsure of the ultimate meaning but now working together as one while trapped in the hellish lands of Mordor.

A player now steps in to control the Ranger and Elf and helps them take vengeance against Sauron’s minions while leaving a path of death, torture and destruction across the Dark Lord’s dominion.

Armed with the might and guile of a ranger as well as powers of a spirit world, our hero wields daggers, a bow, large sword and some mystical powers to accomplish his missions.

Powers include entering Celebrimbor’s wraith state (a mirky, translucent world just like when Frodo wore the One Ring) to find unseen foes and goodies or use abilities to brainwash enemies to join their side, unleash a flurry of sword strikes or literally explode a bad guy.

The attacks against hordes of slobbering, dunder-headed but deadly orcs are as brutal as they are satisfying as the player controls this combined, calculated killing machine. It’s so over the top at points that I can savagely attack an enemy until his surrounding friends scatter in fear.

When not out to progress the narrative, side missions open up constantly that dive into the minutia of the world. It might be simply picking off a set amount of Uruks using flaming arrows, freeing human slaves, interrupting an Uruk feast or squashing a trio of spiders. It all adds to an experience that will gleefully devour dozens of hours of a player’s time.

Talion arrives with an overabundance of familiar video game mechanics to survive and fight including combat moves (dodges, kicks, blocks, grabs, dropping from structures, dashes, counterstrikes, powerful attacks, counter attacks and hit streaks) similar to “Batman: Arkham” adventures and climbing, acrobatic kills and stealth skills joyously embraced from Assassin’s Creed.

Even more impressive, he can eventually learn to ride wild creatures such as Caragors (a four-legged beast similar to the massive, wolf-like Warg) and the 15-foot tall, troll-like Graugs. Each will attack orcs and offer some of the more memorable moments of the action.

Most notable to the entire Shadow of Mordor universe is the Nemesis system that actually allows members of Sauron’s Uruk army to climb the ranks and become more powerful captains and warchiefs.

If an Uruk manages to kill Talion, he’ll get promoted. A player keeps track of his enemy’s progress, along with each leader’s strengths and weaknesses in a detailed, hierarchical menu.

It’s a fascinating system to watch transpire as the Uruk can even defeat his own power hungry brethren to climb the ranks and, if he gets ignored by Talion in certain side missions, can also ascend.

For example, that darn archer I let kill me within 20 minutes of playing the game, a joker named Tumhome the Meat Hoarder, eventually became an overpowering captain in a few hours since I was dumb enough to continue to let him live.

So, I not only created a problem for myself but my enemies. That’s a pretty slick innovation in gaming, and its value continues to shine the longer a player hangs out in Mordor.

Developers were smart enough to even allow supposedly dead commanders to come back to life (akin to a player’s character dying and coming back, a standard in video games) unless a player is smart enough to cut off their heads. Uruks will return in a state that a player had left them when defeated and that could be pretty grotesque.

The overall adventure beautifully plays out in a dingy, depressing world filled with nasty weather conditions, brutal foes and unrelenting monsters as a player hones his skills in slaughter.

Now toss in a memorable musical score, fantastic voice-over work and constant, often-hilarious banter among the orcs and Peter Jackson would be proud. Oh yeah, Gollum also stops by to further complicate Talion’s objectives.

However, I caution that, early on, a player will often feel overwhelmed with so much to accomplish such as collecting Mirian (the game’s currency), taming beasts, finding Ithildin symbols, discovering memories, interrogating and draining enemies of their will, hunting, poisoning grog barrels, upgrading weapons and powers, acquiring ruins from dead captains, drop nests of flesh eating flies in foes, and compiling a very informative encyclopedia of the current state of Middle-earth.

Don’t give up. The stronger the combined might of Talion and the Elf get, the more exciting and outrageous of an experience opens up.

And here’s a big tip. Don’t just run into the middle of an Uruk compound. Strength in numbers exists often and you will die, or worse, need to run away and get mocked by the brutes in the process. Wait until you can mind control these warriors and then appreciate the fireworks.

Suffice to report, I really loved Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. The open world action often surpasses many a moment in other recently released, big budgeted games (cough, “Destiny”), and thrives just for its sheer visual impact and combined cinematic values.

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