We’ve been hearing about Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor and its innovative Nemesis System for a while now, but we’d be lying if we said we weren’t skeptical of the game living up to its potential. Delivering a brutally violent and relentlessly grim look into the Lord of the Rings universe might alienate too many fans of the franchise, and we couldn’t help but carry a concern about whether or not this decision to indulge in graphic imagery was an ideal one. The good news is that Shadow of Mordor is a pretty great game despite its blatant borrowing from the industry’s defining third-person franchises. While it does pack oodles of Orc blood and slow-motion beheadings, the tasteful concoction of familiarity and freshness, along with careful execution, make this a licensed game done right.

In Shadow of Mordor players take on the role of a ranger named Talion. After he and his family are ritualistically slaughtered by the armies of the Dark Lord Sauron, Talion is saved from death by merging with a wraith (a ghost or spirit, to the layman). As Talion seeks revenge for the murder of his loved ones, the wraith must piece together his fragmented memories to remember who he is and understand how he met his demise. It’s an intriguing plot that’s handled well, even if it does meander on occasion. Part of that could be to blame on the open-world freedom potentially leading to uneven spacing between slices of story, but there's not that can be done about that other than not getting too sidetracked by optional activities.

There’s no need to spend too much time detailing the open-world aspects of Shadow of Mordor, because it’s pretty standard stuff. To summarize, Mordor consists of two large valleys that can be explored at will, and they contain story missions, side quests, and other less-significant tasks to engage in. The landscape where all these activities take place is rampant with fields, rolling hills, Orc camps, and decrepit structures. The scenery here isn’t super memorable or gawk-worthy like you’d find in other open-world games like Tomb Raider or GTA V; instead the purpose seems geared more toward offering a playground for players to track and kill Orc within. Depending on what you’re expecting to get out of Shadow of Mordor, that may be a negative mark on the scorecard, considering there isn’t a whole ton of variation here.

Combat mimics the Batman: Arkham series to a T. From landing hits to countering, ground takedowns to combos, pretty much everything is the same, even the button layout. As far as the stealth and traversal elements go, Mordor clearly rips a page from Assassin’s Creed. As you run along and scale war-ravaged castles and other crumbling structures, take cover in brush, and stealthily assassinate unsuspecting Orcs, you’ll probably feel right at home if you’ve spent any time in the iconic assassin’s hoodie. There are even towers in each zone of Mordor that need to be scaled and reforged before the missions and events in that area will be shown on the map, just like the viewpoints in Assassin's Creed. This level of familiarity can be both comforting and distracting, but fortunately it's so well-done and fitting that it's hard to not be satisfied with the results.

One of the things that Shadow of Mordor really nails is the sense of freedom it gives players when they’re approaching an objective. When heading into an Orc stronghold to kill off an Uruk Captain located within, you may be told where you need to go but you’re not given instructions on how to carry out of the task, which leads to careful observation and planning. Creeping along rooftops while assessing the best way to use the environment to simplify the opposing circumstances, is typically the way to go. Should you release those Caragors (panther-like creatures that will attack any living thing in their vicinity) from their cages and let them work for you, shoot a beehive that will clear enemies from the surrounding area, or lure Orcs around explosives and send in an arrow that will set them ablaze? There are numerous tools and options at your disposal. About halfway into the game, you even get the ability to brand enemies, which means they join Team Talion for a short while. All of these dynamics and this degree of strategy make the confrontations in Mordor as cerebral as they are electric.

The much talked-about Nemesis System also plays a big role in injecting personality and connecting the player to the game world. That's because the the land of Mordor and its Orc inhabitants are managed by a hierarchy of Uruk leaders, each with their own distinct personalities, combat styles, and strengths and weaknesses. Killing one of these Uruks will cause a lower-ranking Uruk to take its place and increase in strength, or if you're the one that falls in battle, the responsible Uruk will receive a promotion. In the latter instance, upon repeat encounters with that particular enemy, they'll even mention the history of your relationship together. Even though there are obvious limits to how deep these relationships can build, they do work to make the adventure feel personalized to you. Your actions affect the world around you, and that's awesome.

Building upon the strategies briefly touched upon, Uruk leaders can also be branded and sent after another leader of your choosing. It's almost like a game of chess that unfolds, and these layers on top of familiar core mechanics help establish Shadow of Mordor as something definitely worth experiencing. Additional abilities empowered to you by the wraith also help to spice things up. Not only does Talion have access to a detective vision-like function, which highlights enemies and interactive elements in the surrounding area, but he can even temporarily slow down time to shoot his bow and arrow. While a head-shot will instantly quash nearly any common foes, there are Uruks that aren't vulnerable to long-ranged attacks, and you'll have to react on a situation by situation basis. If you don't want to find out the hard way, it's possible to hunt down particular Orcs and get them to spills the beans on an Uruk's strengths and weaknesses by interrogating them.

But Shadow of Mordor isn’t forged to perfection. While we’ve clearly expressed our fondness for majority of what is brought to the table, there are certain elements that don’t always hit their mark. The first is the clumsiness and unpredictability when climbing and jumping around. When trying to proceed in a sneaky manner, Talion can sometimes have a mind of his own, grabbing ledges that you don’t want him to or getting hung up in unexpected ways. And when on foot, the slightest protrusions and softest objects in the environments can sometimes momentarily hinder your movements. This wouldn’t normally be anything worth bemoaning, but given that even a minor snag can mean Talion ends up exposed and/or spotted during mandatory stealth segments, well, it can seriously interfere with your chances of success. Match that with the occasional difficulty spike or overly-complex mission and there is a soft shadow cast over an otherwise top-tier adventure.

Because the Nemesis System and Uruk-hunting agenda are the core focus of the game, some people might not find the same level of variety — both in activities and scenery — that you would in definitive sandbox experiences, but what's here is substantial and satisfying enough that it's not all that noticeable. Length-wise, the story content can be wrapped up in about 10-12 hours, which is definitely on the shorter side. Still, there are plenty of activities to get involved with, as well character abilities and attributes to unlock/upgrade, ensuring there's enough value for anyone that prefers to thoroughly explore and 100% their open-world games.

Conclusion

That's right — you can add Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor to the growing list of stellar licensed games that deserve your consideration. While it does blatantly borrow from both Arkham and Assassin's Creed, there are enough meaningful and innovative layers — like the Nemesis System, wraith abilities, and mission freedom — piled upon familiar mechanics to keep things feeling fresh. And with a dark fantasy setting based on the Lord of the Rings universe, the open world has a distinct presence, even if there isn't much environmental variation. We can easily recommend Shadow of Mordor to fans of either aforementioned franchise, action-adventure lovers, and to anyone that won't mind spilling gallons of Orc blood. It's one of the year's biggest surprises.