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Plugged In

The Lord of the Rings goes dark in Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

Plugged In

This is not The Hobbit.

There’s nothing cherubic, homey, charming or inviting about Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. It doesn’t have adorably furry feet. If you asked it for stew, you wouldn’t get a hearty mix of carrots, potatoes and mushrooms with a side of Lembas bread.

You’d get people parts, and you wouldn’t want second breakfast.

If this all sounds surprisingly grim, that’s by design. Set between the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Shadow of Mordor weaves an open-world tale of bloodlust and vengeance. And for millions of LOTR fans, it might be just what Dr. Bombadil ordered.

The game’s mature take matches its setting. Forget exploring the treetops of Lothlorien or the plains of Rohan -- Shadow of Mordor is set entirely in Sauron’s blasted lands. You play as Talion, a ranger from Gondor who spends most of his day guarding the Black Gates. That is to say, he doesn’t do much, because Mordor’s been pretty dormant for a while.

That all changes when Talion finds himself -- and his loved ones -- on the pointy end of an orc sword. As luck would have it, he’s met at the brink of death by a mysterious Wraith who saves his life and imbues him with crazy new powers. He’s a low-rent Aragorn with some very high-rent magical abilities.

The result is a game that has more in common with Assassin’s Creed and the Batman Arkham games than any past Lord of the Rings experience. A touch of the button sends you into the same spooky wraith-world that was so alluring to Frodo and Bilbo when they wore the One Ring; you use it as a sort of sneaky detective mode. You’ll scramble up towers and pounce on enemies, or take on gangs of baddies with timing-based combos.

No matter what you do, however, you won’t be doing it pleasantly. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is a dark, mature game rife with decapitations, lost limbs, and other gruesome spectacles. It’s a bit jarring, frankly; the look and style is very much based on the PG-13 movie trilogy, but it’s awash in fountains of blood. While heroes like Aragorn and Gimli had their explicit moments laying waste to orcs and goblins, Peter Jackson expertly kept the violence intact while keeping the gore to a minimum. Shadow of Mordor strikes no such balance, instead insisting on showing you exactly what happens when you hit something with the sharp edge of a blade over and over again.

But look past the gratuitous yuck and you’ll find some inspired design here, specifically in the game’s Nemesis system. Talion’s goal is to work his way through the orc hierarchy in order to snuff out its most powerful captains. That experience will be different for every player, however, as the enemy ecosystem is procedurally generated. Each orc has a name and skills and likes and dislikes, though you’re really the one who shapes how they evolve. Fail to kill a certain bad guy and he’ll grow stronger, remembering your encounter and taking steps to deal with you later, perhaps by laying traps or hiring bodyguards. Defeat a particularly nasty enemy and the orcs will try to fill the gap in the political ladder by promoting from within. Developer Monolith aims to turn the Achilles heel of many open-world sandbox games -- enemy repetition -- into its mightiest asset.

It’s compelling stuff, made even more so thanks to the involvement of Red Dead Redemption writer Christian Cantamessa, who will be handling the story. Exactly how that plays out will be key to how well the game is accepted in the wider Tokien community, and while the game’s makers have confirmed that you’ll bump into a certain wily, ring-obsessed creep along the way, you won’t be traipsing around with Legolas and Gandalf. It’s a far cry from most Lord of the Rings games, and that could work to its advantage when it releases later this year for the PS4, Xbox One, PS3, Xbox 360 and PC.

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