A vast, open world, crazy wraith abilities, a deep in-game ecosystem and dozens of orc decapitations; that's what players can expect out of Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor when it releases for PC, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 3 on Oct. 7. The game was shown off in all of its brutal glory at E3 2014, earning a spot as one of my top games of the show.
Walking into my appointments with Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, my goal was to make sure what little time I had available resulted in a look-see at the new Arkham game and Mortal Kombat. Shadow of Mordor had basically flown under my radar up until this point, so I was a little bummed when my helpful PR escort explained that my prime objectives were in the middle of demonstrations, but I could jump into a showing of the new Middle-Earth game if I hurried.
“That'll work,” I said, mentally doing the math and wondering if this unexpected detour would derail my chances of seeing the other games. It did not, it turns out, but what it did do was manage to completely win me over to the game. I got my eyes-on time with Arkham and Mortal Kombat, and I'm excited for both of those games, but I want to play Shadow of Morder right-freaking-now.
As is typical for these types of sessions, the game was being shown off by a pair of folks from the development team at Monolith Productions. The duo explained that Shadow of Mordor actually takes place between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, filling in important story gaps that bridge the two legendary tales.
The player takes on the role of Talion, a ranger who, along with everyone he holds dear, was brutally slaughtered by the forces of Sauron. Our main man is going to get a crack at some good old-fashioned vengeance, however, as he's been resurrected as a Wraith—you know, those ghosty dudes from the LOTR flicks?
As suck, Talion has the ability to use all sorts of nifty abilities, including a sort of boost move that moves him directly to a nearby target with sword planted firmly in belly, as well as the ability to capture certain enemies (and even beastly mounts) and bend their minds to your will. More on that in a moment. Talion's Wraith vision is reminiscent of Batman's detective vision in the Arkham Games, one of two aspect that were similar between that pair of titles.
As stated earlier, the world map is large and you can explore it freely, going after main quests, taking on side jobs or even stopping to free human slaves from their orc oppressors. The heart of the game, though, beats with an intriguing Nemesis System, a sort of hierarchy of orc leadership that will help the player plan out their attacks. This system features “living” models of each orc represented and, thanks to a clever randomization system, neither the orcs themselves nor the missions the individual players undertake will be the exact same. While I might need to head to a certain location to draw out and assassinate Uglock The Snake, for instance, that particular orc won't even appear in another player's game.
Orc culture is constantly evolving in the game, so the Nemesis Stystem is constantly updating, resulting in orcs taking on new leadership roles and dying in battle. In our demo of the game, for instance, the player was killed by one of the lower ranked orcs in a particular tier. When the player took out an orc ranked higher than the one who killed him, the prestige that first orc got for his actions allowed him to move up the ranks and become a new war chief.
This allows for interesting chess-like decisions, as the player begins to control the minds of certain orcs, send them on quests to kill off other key figures and, eventually, create an army where War chiefs are under his personal control. I'm not sure all of that made sense in black and white, and I certainly don't yet grasp the full depth of the system, but it seemed really, really cool in action.
The other comparison I would make to the Arkham games is Shadow's free-flowing combat. Stealth is a viable option with lone orcs who aren't paying much attention, letting you sneak up and take them out quietly with little fuss. If all hell breaks lose, though, the player has a wide array of attacks and abilities at their disposal, slicing enemies, flipping through the air and setting off devastating spells to take out your foes. Blocks, counters and cinematic moments are all present and accounted for and make each battle feel like an action-packed puzzle just waiting to be solved. You can also interact with the environment, making crates fall on baddies, causing fires to explode and even un-caging beasts to have them help out in your slaughter. And then there are those sweet orc decapitations I was talking about earlier. In our short time with the game, I must have seen at least 20 ugly mugs go flying across the screen as Talion hacked his way through the pack.
Also of note are the enemy's reactions to certain events, as several have unique traits programmed in. During one fight, Talion caused a nearby fire to erupt, sending three orcs screaming for their lives. They were afraid of fire, it turns out, and I wouldn't be surprised if their act of cowardice results in their moving further down the Nemesis hierarchy.
Depending on your successes and failures, the world will continue to evolve and constantly move forward. If you fall in battle, you will be once again resurrected and the orc hierarchy will adjust accordingly. If you managed to draw out a war chief, though, he'll still be walking around camp, doing whatever orc leaders do. You can choose to move on with your life and adjust to the game world's changes, or you can head back to where you were defeated and seek a little vengeance. It's entirely up to the player.
The best thing about a trip to E3 are the games that surprise you, and that's exactly what I got out of my time with Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor. I went in expecting nothing and came out eager to boot the game up and join Talion on his adventure. Now if only Oct. 7 would hurry up and get here.