With the release of The Bright Lord on February 24, it would seem that Warner Bros. has finally finished the run of post-release content for Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor. This DLC story takes players back to when ring-forging elf Celebrimbor was still alive and follows him as he completes ten missions on the way to a final confrontation with Sauron. And that final battle is, undeniably, the highlight of this add-on. The build-up to this confrontation, though, is a bit underwhelming.
After a pretty enjoyable DLC story in Lord of the Hunt – which had you palling around with the wisecracking dwarf Torvin, stealth-killing uruks with the new caragath, and steering a massive projectile-vomiting graug through packs of enemies – the Bright Lord adventure seems a bit stripped down. Other than some voiceover conversations with Galadriel and Sauron, there are no other characters to interact with besides the orcs you slay. The missions present you with the typical challenges to blank this many blanks, either in blank minutes or without being blanked. (There are also some more fetch quests that reward you with a bit of lore.) The missions are each unique in some small way, and provide ample challenge, but it’s basically more of the same. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; Shadow of Mordor is a great game, and its basic mechanics and mission templates are a lot of fun to play over and over. Having a new set of missions built on the same framework with just some minor tweaks is a welcome addition. On the other hand, the base game continues to repopulate its world with captains and war chiefs even after you’ve finished it, so if you just want to just keep fighting uruks, you can do that ad infinitum without spending a nickel on DLC.
One of the most noticeable and jarring things about this expansion is the way it seems to back off of a lot of what made Shadow of Mordor great. The focus here is on dominating uruks and bending them to your will. So far so good – I enjoyed that mechanic the first time around. The problem is that everything is a lot more prescribed this time around. For example, in the main Shadow of Mordor campaign, there’s a series of missions where you have to dominate five war chiefs who will eventually serve as allies in the final cutscene battle. As is often the case, though, you can accomplish this any way you see fit. When I was four fifths of the way there, I killed the fifth war chief and then went around fighting and dominating all of the top-tier captains so that when I advanced time, one of those captains would get promoted to fill the vacated war chief slot, and, presto change-o, I’d have my complete set of loyal war chiefs. It was a lot of fun, largely because I was able to figure out my own way of getting to the goal. The strategic possibilities of the nemesis system aren’t exactly deep, but just having some options makes the game that much more engaging and rewarding.
In The Bright Lord, though, inexplicably, these options are gone. You’ll have to dominate the five given war chiefs; killing them and dominating their replacements is not an option. Whenever a war chief’s health is almost depleted, it triggers a little cutscene/QTE moment where you’ll dominate the uruk. So, not only is the choice to either kill or dominate gone, but so is the challenge of trying to bring a war chief to his knees without killing him while also fending off any other uruks in your area so you can buy yourself the few seconds of peace you’ll need to perform the domination. Now a war chief encounter is just a fight that will end with what is essentially an auto-dominate.
Gone, too, is the ability to manipulate a war chief’s underlings. There is, as always, a full roster of twenty captains to hunt down, but the captains directly tied to each war chief are locked away in that particular quest. You can’t kill them in advance or dominate them and turn them against their chief. You just jump into the mission, and when it’s time to fight the war chief, he’ll have a few captains in tow. This did make for some challenging fights; in addition to these uruks, I sometimes had to fight an additional captain or two who just happened to wander into the fight. It was nice to see that this, one of Shadow of Mordor’s most entertainingly punishing features, was still intact. But still, it’s weird to see the expansion put an increased focus on domination while simultaneously removing most of what makes domination a fun mechanic.
Combat offers another weird incongruity. Celebrimbor comes armed with a few new skills – mostly centered around domination – that replace some of Talion’s skills, and is also limited to three runes per weapon. The effect is that he’s not as good at melee combat as Talion was. This isn’t necessarily a problem, just a character choice, but where it falters is the way it handles archery. The game explains to you that Celebrimbor, being an elf, is better at archery than Talion. The game manifests this skill by getting rid of focus mode, which makes no sense. Because Celebrimbor is so good at archery, using archery in the game is now harder. This is exactly backwards. Celebrimbor may be better at archery, but I’m not.
The combat changes don’t matter much, though, once you get the hang of them. The skill tweaks basically force you to rely on domination. Celebrimbor’s skill tree makes hit streaks harder to build up, and his rune limit makes it harder to stack health-regenerating perks. So you’ll dominate a bunch of uruks via your new shadow brand skill, and, while they do your dirty work, you’ll run around branding even more of your enemies, which will charge up your new One Ring ability and temporarily transform you into an unstoppable killing machine. Challenge here is pretty all-or-nothing: you can play the game the way it wants you to, relying on domination and the One Ring, and deal with most challenges pretty swiftly, or you can take your chances as an underpowered swordfighter squaring off against four captains at a time.
I miss the more open-ended, choice-filled gameplay of the main campaign, but I will admit that watching an army of dozens of dominated uruks taking down enemy captains on your behalf is pretty satisfying. It might just be the effect of all the extra branding involved in the mini-campaign, but it seems that Monolith has tweaked the domination system a bit to make your branded uruks more persistent. By the time I got to the last few missions, Middle Earth was crawling with my branded uruks, while wandering enemies were few and far between. I really felt like I was amassing an army rather than just temporarily disabling a few enemies in a brawl.
The amassing of this army, the gradual spread of Celebrimbor’s power across the face of Mordor, is perhaps the most compelling narrative element of the DLC, but it is mostly squandered. Throughout the game, you’re treated to little voiceover conversations in which Sauron and Celebrimbor talk smack about ruling over Mordor and Galadriel frets about this power’s corrupting effect on Celebrimbor. But it doesn’t much matter. Nothing is affected by this corruption. Your goal at the outset is to build an army of uruks and lead it into battle against Sauron, and that’s exactly what happens; your goals aren’t changed by your increasing thirst for power. Nor is the gameplay affected. There are no consequences for relying on the One Ring to give you easy victories. What could have been a compelling, classically Lord of the Rings-y narrative, what could have been an engaging interweaving of story and gameplay mechanics, is squandered and reduced to a series of exposition dumps barely more engaging than what passes for a story in Destiny.
But all of that is (sadly) window dressing. The bulk of The Bright Lord is Shadow of Mordor proper with cosmetic changes, and is more-or-less as fun as the rest of the game. What sells tickets is that final showdown with Sauron. After the glorified QTE that concluded the main game, this is the final battle you’ve been waiting for. Whether or not Monolith deliberately under-delivered on the main campaign’s ending in order to sell you this DLC is a judgement you’ll have to make for yourself, but know that what awaits you at the end of this rainbow is a darn good boss fight. It’s challenging in exactly the right way: you won’t have to die dozens of times to beat it, but the fight feels hard while you’re in it. And when it’s all done, despite the fact that you know you’re obviously not going to kill Sauron, and despite the fact that the narrative leading to this point is somewhere between bland and absent, the story wraps up in a pretty satisfying way.
As with most DLC, the decision to buy this pack or not will come down to how much you enjoy the main game. What you get here is mostly more of the same. The main formula is tweaked a little, and while the tweaks don’t necessarily make it better, just having a tweaked formula makes this batch of missions more interesting than just plunging into the infinite pool of enemies waiting in the completed main campaign. And then you get to fight Sauron. That’s it in a nutshell.
I picked up the season pass when it was on sale and I had some gift card money in my Microsoft account, so I spent something like three bucks on it. That was a great purchase. But at $9.99, The Bright Lord is probably on the edge of Worth the Money. I was really hoping that playing as Celebrimbor would feel more different than it does, and I was hoping the Mordor of Celebrimbor’s era would feel distinct from that of Talion’s era. The Bright Lord misses these marks, but it does let you fight Sauron, finally, and, though it’s a bit of a disappointment, it disappoints in that it falls short of the game from which it was spawned, which was one of the best games I’ve played in recent years. In other words, an underwhelming bit of Shadow of Mordor DLC is still pretty good.