Last year might not have been the Year of Dreams, but it's not like developers were asleep at the wheel. Case in point: Monolith Productions kicked Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor out the door. Understand, this was an open-world, third-person action game from a developer that normally did first-person shooters, fleshing out an unknown bit of lore in J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth universe. Shadow of Mordor honestly had no right being good.
It was good though.
Does Shadow of Mordor still hold up a year later? While I reviewed the game on PlayStation 4 last year, I picked up the Game of the Year Edition on sale for PC this year, so I felt it was time to revisit the game on my new beefier rig.
What we said at the time
From my review: "Shadow of Mordor is a great first step into the open-world action-adventure genre for Monolith. It up-ends what's come before with the Nemesis System, which brings the player closer to the game with personalized foes. The game isn't perfect - resurrecting foes can be frustrating - but those issues won't hold you back from enjoying yourself."
Shadow of Mordor blind-sided me last year, mostly due to the overall flow of play and the Nemesis System. On the former point, it's really easy to get into: Climbing around is a bit janky at times, but ground movement is smooth, stealth is a trigger button away, and combat lives up to the Batman: Arkham standard. The Nemesis System is still bar-none, one of the best mechanics a developer has added to any open-world game, giving you a unique and memorable slate of enemies to stab and behead.
A year later on a different platform? Shadow of Mordor is still the smoothest of butter. Getting back into the game was effortless, mostly because they meld the tutorial with the immediate backstory before kicking you out into the harsh wasteland that is Mordor. It's still very easy to grasp the movement and combat mechanics and while Shadow of Mordor is an open world title, Monolith intelligently holds back on the number of towers you need to scale and side missions you need to complete. Of course, they can do that because the Nemesis System is there.
The Nemesis System constantly refills, rejiggers, and reinvigorates Sauron's army, designing a whole host of Uruk Captains and Warchiefs for you to kill. Each one is dependent on the save you're playing at the time and Monolith seemingly draws from a huge list of names, traits, features, and voices to create your foes. Even better, some of the foes you kill return to life; they not only remember you, but they also sport the scars of their past deaths. If other developers aren't outright stealing the Nemesis System yet, they should be.
I had one nemesis, Mogg the Champion, who would simply not stay dead. I think I killed him three or four times and every time he'd pop back up for revenge. Or there was Thrak Who Flees, who was afraid of Caragor. The second time he died, I didn't even know he was around until the notification of his death popped up. Apparently his patrol had run into a pack of Caragor; when he ran, the Caragor killed him. Or there was Feldush the Brown, the bow-wielding Uruk who talked smack before I put an arrow in his head, killing him instantly. These stories are the strength of the system.
That said, the Nemesis system has some clear issues. For one, your sense of accomplishment, of clearing out Sauron's Army, is blunted by the fact that holes in the army are filled in way too quickly. Kill one Captain, do a few quests, and either that Captain has returned to life or someone else has taken his place. You can prevent this by beheading a Captain, but you don't have 100 percent control over being able to behead an enemy since the execution move requires a combo to activate. It's a matter of retuning the respawn rate.
The second major issue is when Uruk return, they return stronger than before. Mogg the Champion? Eventually, he came back so strong that it was a pain in the ass to kill him. The system always makes sure that an enemy has at least one weakness. In Mogg's case it was burning, something I didn't have easy access to at that point in the game. Trying to kill him with without fire was nearly impossible: I fought him straight for around 20 minutes and only took off a sliver of life. When he finally walked near a campfire, I was elated. Prior to that, just running into him was frustrating and he'd appear when I was attempting to kill other targets.
The other problem is the enemies outside of the Nemesis System, Sauron's Captains, stick out. You're fighting Uruk and then these guys just randomly pop up in the story missions. Monolith would be better off finding way to integrate named narrative enemies into the Nemesis System in some fashion. Otherwise, you have Uruk over here, and narrative bosses over there. When you're not fighting them, they're out of sight, out of mind.
These aren't insurmountable issues though. The Nemesis System is more good than bad, much like Shadow of Mordor itself.
The content since release
Since its launch in September 2014, Shadow of Mordor has received two DLC campaigns. The first is Lord of the Hunt, revolving around the dwarf hunter Torvin that you meet in the game's second area. You get new Beastmaster Warchiefs in this content, which are Uruk that ride Caragor or Graug. The second DLC, The Bright Lord, is the better of the two. It details the exploits of Celebrimbor before he became a Wraith and even leads up to a fight with Sauron at the end. Alternatively, you can just pick up the Game of the Year Edition and get everything all at once.
So does it hold up?
Hell yeah. I'd give Shadow of Mordor the same grade I gave it last year. Playing Shadow of Mordor again was like riding a bike. It only took me a moment to adjust to the rhythms of combat and earmark the Uruk I wanted to kill first. Monolith Productions stuck the landing on its first open-world game and I'm looking forward to seeing where they take the mechanics in the future. Sure, I've since played games that do movement better in certain facets, like Assassin's Creed Syndicate's zipline or Just Cause 3's wingsuit, but Talion is still a joy to control. Even if Monolith Productions doesn't revisit Middle-earth, they've earned my trust when it comes to open-world gaming.