Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is more than mindlessly killing scores of Orcs.
Sure, there's plenty of that, but more important are the game's main hooks surrounding guerrilla information-gathering and systematic assassination of key targets in a growing military force. Like an undercover cop busting a drug addict on the street and climbing the chain to the top, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor sets players on a course of disruption as they ascend through the ranks of the Dark Lord Sauron's army on a mission of revenge.
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Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor (1/23/14)
After Talion is murdered, he is resurrected by a mysterious Wraith, the spirit of someone who has been killed yet manages to live on as an apparition. This enables Talion to inhabit both the physical world and the spirit world, and imbues him with a host of special powers.
Naturally, revenge is Talion's chief motive, and this is where the drive to topple Sauron's regime comes into play. Sauron employs Orcs as his muscle, so Talion gets to work systematically dispatching key captains as he moves up to war chiefs, each of whom's demise entices Sauron's elite Black Captains to come out of the shadows.
Orcs are procedurally generated, each with their own unique name, appearance, set of fears and strengths. Learning about each individual is accomplished through guerrilla interrogation - Talion tracks down an Orc, grabs him, grills him on his masters and climbs the ladder of information on up. "It wouldn't be impossible, but it would be extremely hard to try and kill them without learning their weaknesses, learning their vulnerabilities and planning," Monolith Design Director Michael De Plater said. "I think, without that, it would make Dark Souls look like a doddle. We want you to strategize and take advantage of that stuff."
At first glance, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor seems to be inspired greatly by Ubisoft's Assassin Creed series and Rocksteady's Batman games. Talion is nimble and graceful as one would expect a Ranger to be, and traverses the landscape and utilizes stealth much in the same way Edward Kenway, protagonist of Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag, does. You can scale structures, hide in bushes and lure enemies in for a silent demise, and even employ an Eagle Vision-like spirit vision mode that allows you to identify and tag important enemies through objects in the environment. Collapsing rock walls and conveniently-placed rope bridges allow for speedy ascension and dropping down onto your opponents for quick kills. There are even tall towers within Mordor that Talion can climb to reveal more of the map and use for quick travel.
In battle, however, the inspirations from Rocksteady's freeflow combat system, first seen in Batman: Arkham Asylum, are clear. Talion has a stun move much like Batman's cape stun, can nimbly leap over enemies to flank and move between targets, and combat overall encourages lengthy chains of successful strikes in order to execute flashy finishing moves. The only real difference is Batman never cut off an Orc's head, though I'm sure there's some choice fan fiction on the internet arguing otherwise.
It's the climbing of the ranks and stabbing through the Orc hierarchy, however that ultimately made my time with Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor so memorable. Learning about and killing Orcs is, simply put, a real treat. And Monolith Productions has cultivated a fresh and original gameplay loop where players will form their own unique stories dealing with the hierarchy of Sauron's army.
An Orc you tangled with in the past, who somehow got away from that conflict, will remember what you did to them during your last meeting. Some will lay traps for you, while others will have bodyguards for fear of your impending attack. Some may bend to your will and become an ally as you ascend the Orc ranks in pursuit of the Black Captains. And each time you encounter a familiar Orc or one aware of your deeds, you'll witness a brief, procedurally-generated cinematic where the Orc in question will recall your last meeting or speak of your latest deeds.
Domination, converting Orcs over to your own personal army, becomes integral to the campaign later on. I was able to witness the mechanic in execution when Talion was able to convert a lowly Orc captain to his side, Ratbag the Meat Hoarder. Ratbag also happens to be a bodyguard for the higher-ranked Orthog Troll Slayer, so Talion is able to position Ratbag as a double agent at the next Meeting of the Orcs.
The entirety of my demo session was proof-of-concept for gameplay mechanics and offered no information or context on the game's narrative. This story is being written by Red Dead Redemption scribe Christian Cantamessa, who regrettably wasn't on-hand for interviews.
De Plater told me after the gameplay demo that the story is all about striking a balance between the familiar and introducing new concepts and ideas. "That first foot in the door, deliberately, is who the most badass, iconic and relatable characters in the lore are. People like Aragorn and Boromir and Faramir, and obviously there is a wide breadth of people who can relate to that," De Plater said of making the protagonist a male human Ranger as opposed to an elf or more fantastical denizen of Tolkien's universe, "but then we push it from there into a wide range of different directions."
The tricky part of using a licensed setting is catering to established ideals while simultaneously putting your own stamp on it and introducing something fresh. More important, however, is that Monolith make a game that anyone could enjoy - even if that requires taking a few chances with one of the most revered universes in the entire world.
"There is a huge amount of attention to detail and authenticity, but the worst thing this game could be is boring," De Plater admitted. "If you go too safe and try not to offend anyone, that's where you're going to end up. Plus, if you're not taking any chances and introducing anything new, to me that's inauthentic to, as a massive fan, the experience I had reading Tolkien and watching the movies. You want some wonder, you want some surprises and you want something that's unexpected - otherwise you could watch a documentary. The balance is in introducing those new things in a way that is authentic to the themes and respectful to both the ideas and the lore, but it is a balance."
The goal, De Plater says, is for this to be a great action game in spite of its source material - a game that could be great on its own without the Middle-earth setting. "Are we going to keep every fan on the internet happy? No. Are people going to love it even if they aren't fans of Lord of the Rings? I hope so."
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor launches sometime this year on PC, PS4, Xbox One, PS3 and Xbox 360. Monolith Productions is handling development on PC, PS4 and Xbox One, while an unnamed team is handling the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions.