Trailing and trolling orcs in Shadow of Mordor

I'm perched on a building's wind-hewn skeleton, overlooking a lake. It looks like the sun has just woken up, its warm yawn creeping over the waters. It's a pretty nice day in Mordor, which, if you're unfamiliar with The Lord of the Rings, is the forbidden domain of orcs, dark lords and standoffish volcanoes.

Somewhere else in Mordor, I imagine, an orc warchief is just waking up. He's stretching out, making sure he hasn't lost any warts in the middle of the night, brushing his tooth, pleasantly unaware of the nightmare that awaits him today. His greatest fear will find him, and I'll be riding it. In developer Monolith's Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, you're planning masterful executions before you even know it.
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Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor (May 2014)

But let's back up first, because there's a lot of explanation getting in the way. I think even the game's marketing is having a tough time conveying concisely just what happens in Shadow of Mordor, or why it's interesting. The points of comparison are obvious, without giving you a sense of how interesting their configuration is. See? It's not like they can use that sentence in a trailer.

Is Shadow of Mordor a bit like Assassin's Creed? Sure, because it's a big, bloody open world, pierced with structures that are easy to climb and even easier to descend from, blades drawn. As Talion, a vengeful Ranger of the Black Gate left for dead, you can end orcs with grace, from any angle, or by engaging them directly with swords or a well-placed arrow. You can sneak around them, counter their incoming attacks, finish them off on the ground, toss daggers with a flick of the wrist or bounce over them with a boost from your spectral powers. Yes, you're also a ghost, but that's not the real twist.

Shadow of Mordor is really about the dynamics of power, particularly as they spread throughout the army belonging to the game's grand villain, Sauron. At the lowest level of influence, you can dominate the minds of weakened orcs in the middle of battle, turning them to your side if the odds are looking grim. And at a higher level, you're attempting to control significant figures in Sauron's army, and install them into higher positions where they'll remain loyal to you. In other words, you're picking hideous thralls and making sure they get a nice promotion.

This manipulation all falls under the "Nemesis" system, which doesn't really cover how dynamic it is. At each major stage of the story, you'll be able to target top figures in Sauron's army, or warchiefs, and mark them on your map. The designers of Shadow of Mordor have handed a bucket of traits to each of these snarling, slobbering guys: they may have loyal bodyguards, they may be old, young, weak or strong, they may be vulnerable to certain attacks, or resilient against others. They may be afraid of things.

From a storytelling perspective, this is wonderfully presented, with each war chief getting a short introduction to highlight their villainy and presumably wretched odor. A few of them threaten me across the battlefield or in towns, while one simply bursts out of a door, shakes his head like a dog shedding water and screams like a full-blown lunatic. My polite reply, in the form of an arrow, kills him as suddenly as I had met him. He's especially vulnerable to pointy marksmanship, I learn, and I had just gotten lucky.

And this is a game where you can, sometimes, just get lucky. I have an entire maneuver planned out for one of the warchiefs, for instance: find one of his body guards, bludgeon him a bit and then convince him to betray his master. Wanting to see my puppet succeed and improve my influence of the army at large, I would join him at the showdown and help him win. That's a valid, effective strategy in Shadow of Mordor.

But that's before I see the cage, and in it the Caragor, a stout, four-legged beast with a thick hide. I push the attacking warchief back and fire an arrow into the lock - just to see what happens. The beast stomps out of its cramped home and sees me, the assassin, and an orc that seemed much bigger just moments ago. The orc is running away, because the programming gods made him deathly afraid of monsters.

There's only one way to play it when you find out your assassination target is scared of Middle-Earth's Rottweiler equivalent. You mount it and hope the orc looks back at what's chasing him.

It's a pretty nice day in Mordor.
[Images: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment]
Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is coming to Xbox One, Xbox 360, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3 and PC on October 7.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.