This evaluation was originally published on AlienBabelTech by this same author in mid-October and was subsequently lost from their database in December when their host’s drives crashed.  It has been completely restored here and it was also updated to include FXAA screenshots that was included in a massive December 4.3GB patch which also installed the latest DLC Season Pass content including “Lord of the Hunt” that this author is enjoying now.  MiddleEarth: Shadows of Mordor is this reviewer’s Game of 2014 (GotY).

ShadowOfMordor 2014-10-07 15-08-51-59Middle Earth: Shadows of Mordor has been out for ten days.  This editor is an unabashed fan of everything “Lord of the Rings”, and we have spent over 70 hours in the first week, completing the Main Quest along with most of the side quests.  It can be completed far more quickly, but this is a game to be savored by LotR fans. This game grabs you and takes you into Tolkien’s world like no other.  It has been years since a game has moved this editor to stay up past 3 AM for several nights in a row, only to wake up early to play again.  And when we were not playing, we were thinking about the game and planning to get back to it as soon as possible.  After some comments about the gameplay, we are going to look at expanded performance testing, now including Radeon and GTX 980 SLI results, and a closer look at Image Quality (IQ).

ShadowOfMordor 2014-10-07 15-08-02-78Middle Earth: Shadows of Mordor is darker than the movies, and it captures the spirit of the book very well. Tolkien purists won’t like it any more than the movies, but the story doesn’t really contradict the books and the game integrates a brand new story line into the time between “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings”.  You play a Ranger named Talion who was cursed, and you are now possessed by an Elven Lord Wraith that denies you death.

You are cursed to be tied to this Wraith and to return to life again and again after dying unless you both can break your related curses.  Finally here is a game where dying makes sense, and each time you die, it affects your game, and your opponent NPC that killed you not only levels up, but he remembers you in the next encounter and may even become your nemesis if he kills you again and again.

ShadowOfMordor 2014-10-06 23-02-54-19Each gamer has a unique experience as they create new characters and customize Talion as he starts his journey through Middle-earth by using Monolith’s “Nemesis System.” It remembers a player’s interactions with Orc Captains and Warchiefs they encounter and it adjusts the way they react to the player throughout the game.

NPC enemies also develop and level up as your Ranger interacts with them.  You can use this to your advantage as you can effectively “promote” certain Orcs with weaknesses you can easily exploit later, and you can even force them to become allies through “branding”, or mind-control.

The player has the option to level up Talion both as a Ranger and as a Wraith through two skill trees. Ranger abilities allow Talion to move silently as well as to interact in combat, while Wraith abilities allow him to impose his will on Orc Captain NPCs and you can order them to even assassinate their leaders, the Warchiefs.ShadowOfMordor 2014-10-07 00-17-27-04

It appears that Monolith has taken the very best elements of the Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag gameplay and mechanics, along with an improved combat system pioneered in the Batman: Arkham Asylum series, and they  tossed out the boring bits and what doesn’t work. The result is a fast-paced, huge open-world game with a great story, superb voice acting, awesome music, and relatively large battles to delight even the most jaded gamer.

The Shadows of Mordor plot is developed very well and the gameplay supports it.  You get to travel to land of Mordor before Sauron returned, as it is becoming filled with evil.  At first, you have to run away from huge beasts you will later hunt, dominate, ride, and you will even hunt enemy Orcs from atop them.ShadowOfMordor 2014-10-05 18-09-04-59

The writing is well-done and the voice acting is superb.  You get to meet Gollum, and he assists you because of the “Bright Master” Wraith inside you – and you even get to fight Sauron!  One of the very best written parts is when you get to meet and interact with a Dwarf and learn to hunt 30 foot tall Graugs with him.  His story as told in a rich Scots brogue is fascinating, and you learn the details about his motivation, his life, and his relationship with his now-dead brother.

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The main quest can probably be completed in 10-15 hours if you just rush through it, but many of the side quests are written as well or better than the main story line, and they deserve exploration.

ShadowOfMordor 2014-10-07 10-06-45-47There are quests to rescue human slaves being tortured by the Orcs, and you can complete the quests for your named Sword, Arrow, and Dagger which make your weapons become much more powerful; your sword becomes a flame that slices through the toughest enemies if you complete all ten parts to that single quest.

You get to meet characters that are mentioned, but not particularly well-developed, in the “Lord of the Rings” and in the “Silmarillion”.  For example, you feel the effects of Saruman’s spell on Queen Marwin and her daughter; and you are warned by the Wraith against a potential love interest.  You also are on a quest for artifacts which enrich your knowledge and they also give you some currency to put toward increasing your powers.

ShadowOfMordor 2014-10-06 23-18-39-76Of course, the game ends with a set-up for an expansion and/or a series, which we are looking forward to.  Middle Earth: Shadows of Mordor is an amazing game that is our Game of 2014, so far.  We played it from start to finish with a single GTX 980 which ran it very well with all settings completely maxed out at 2560×1600, even though it has 4GB of vRAM and the game recommends a minimum of 6GB vRAM for 1920×1080!  Is it that demanding?  Well, check out the performance review on the following pages, and we shall also look at IQ, although it is very difficult to get identical screenshots.  There was no AA available in game at the original time of writing although FXAA was able to be forced in Nvidia’s control panel, and SuperSampling was always available, and we shall look at each setting in depth.  We will also add a FXAA screen shot and performance information as it was added in a massive patch in mid-December,

One thing to note.  We didn’t just run the benchmark.  We actually played with each card that we tested so as to give you an idea of what gameplay feels like.  And we especially wanted to look at the Devs’ claim that 6GB of vRAM are required for Ultra Textures at 1920×1080. Well, this appears to be overstated, although you do not want to be playing with Ultra Textures on any 2GB card, including the GTX 770, GTX 690 or GTX 680 SLI.

Besides playing with the GTX 980, we tested with GTX 980 SLI, GTX 780 and 780 Ti, as well as TITAN (6GB vRAM), GTX 770, GTX 760, and GTX 690 (SLI).  The Radeons that we tested were the R9 290X, 280X, and 270X.  And we used our Core i7-4770K at 4GHz supported by 16GB of Kingston’s Predator RAM at 2133MHz for all of our benching.

Let’s first look at our hardware and software testbed before we head to the benchmarks and IQ comparisons.