Unfortunately, the combat tends to undo much of the satisfaction for this clever system, at least if you're the kind of dedicated gamer who mastered games like Bayonetta or Dark Souls. At times, it is enough to simply pound away on one button.
Super Gamer Dude
First things first, if you're such a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien's defining masterpieces of fantasy fiction that you call them the "legendarium," Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, with its bro dude plot of a ranger who fights for revenge after a botched sacrifice attempt lets Celebrimbor possess his body as a wraith, is likely to make you give an evil eye to the game that can rival Sauron's. However, if all you know of Middle-Earth is general approval of the movies, and you're the type of gamer who can remember the days of the 90s when you could rent nondescript action games like Chakan or Journey to Silius to win them in a weekend, never looking back, then Shadow of Mordor might be a brief ride of fun before you feast yourself on the other main attractions coming out.
It certainly plays the role of an action game with slight RPG elements well enough, liberally poaching from popular games of recent years. You've got your Assassin's Creed-like movement and stealth (courtesy of aforementioned Celebrimbor). You've got some combat ideas literally stolen from Rocksteady's Batman games. You've got your fast travel here, your level up skills there, and combo-based fighting everywhere. At least there's not much "bring me my helmet, I forgot it at the brothel" type of side quests common to this type of game.
Instead, a great bulk of the game's play revolves around playing political mind games with Orcs and Uruk (who are like super orcs). Imagine that Mordor, the deadly, vile land of Sauron is like the United States, with Orc Democrats and Uruk Republicans fighting for control and honor whether you fight them or not. They upend districts or take the reins of the Orc Senate or House one by one. This means that there is a constant shifting of power behind the scenes. The Big Bad who remains at a fixed portion of the game to become a boss battle is little seen here.
Against this backdrop, you can affect the balance of power by using stealth to gather information, and set up ambushes, which will then have the effect of putting somebody else into power, and so on. It's the one shining original element of the game that is genuinely compelling to follow and play with. One time, just to play around, I intentionally lost and redid a section of the game, only to find a different set of Orc chiefs to feast upon, even with different dialogue!
Unfortunately, the combat tends to undo much of the satisfaction for this clever system, at least if you're the kind of dedicated gamer who mastered games like Bayonetta or Dark Souls. At times, it is enough to simply pound away on one button. All the automated combos and evasion techniques come into play so easily that your enemies can't touch you. This gets worse as the game continues, and Talion becomes stronger than any force in Middle-Earth. If there was more of a challenge to influencing the power dynamics, the game would be a great deal stronger. Still, for players who tend to die a lot in a Mario game, this one might provide a strong enough play experience.
While they draw heavily from the movies and it is littered with references to the source material (oddly enough, for how it walks all over them), there is also little to distinguish it from dozens of other grim hack and slash fantasy games. The aesthetics of the game are lovely and intricate, but The Lord of the Rings ended up influencing the creators of Dungeons & Dragons, whose own creation served as inspiration for countless video games. It takes a lot more than just sprinkling bits of Tolkien here and there to make the experience stand out. Very few of the many iconic parts of Tolkien's fantasy are at play here. Indeed, some of the downloadable for-pay extra missions are likely to enrage fans who take the appendices seriously.
In the end, if renting were as popular as it once was, it would be worth a good weekend and not much else. Shadow of Mordor just can't escape the shadow of its betters, which include the source material.