I've already talked about the the history of open-world games in a previous article. The idea has been around a very long time and we've begun our next console generation, which also means the PC baseline can move forward. Developers are now beginning to explore what they can do with the additional power and their experiments are carrying them in different directions. This series of previews will cover how these developers are bringing their own spin to the open world genre. Yesterday's preview covered Batman: Arkham Knight, so today we turn our attention to another title.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is an odd game for me. On one hand, I love the idea of open-world Assassin's Creed-style gameplay in the universe of the Lord of the Rings. On the other, I feel as if Tolkien himself would have bristled at the commercial juggernaut the story he created has become. Then again, that feeling is based on assorted quotes from Tolkien and I never knew the man, so I'll trust his son know him better and carry on with the first feeling.
Shadow of Mordor tells the tale of Talion, a ranger tasked to guard the Black Gate of Mordor for the kingdom of Gondor. Following the events of The Hobbit (TA 2941 for you Tolkien fans), Sauron leaves Dol Guldur and returns to his old haunting grounds in Mordor; in the process he stomps out the skeleton crew of soldiers Gondor has left to guard the area. Talion and his family get killed in the conflict as Sauron enslaves men and grows his orc army.
But hey, it'd be a pretty short game if our protagonist stayed dead in the beginning. Talion is resurrected as a Wraith by a long-forgotten spirit with ties to Sauron and together the pair go on a roaring rampage of revenge against the Dark Lord.
Talion's new Wraith abilities in the narrative are tied directly into the gameplay. Unlike most soft, fleshy humans, Talion can run faster: when you hit the ground you can hit a button for a boost of speed. Talion is crazy tough; he can go toe-to-toe with huge orcsand fall for most heights without suffering any damage. (More games should do this.) Talion can't even die, part of his curse as a Wraith. Most importantly, Talion can use his Wraith abilities to dominate the minds of those he comes across.
Shadow of Mordor's primary gameplay is linked to this mechanic. As you're questing across Mordor - which looks far nicer than its Lord of the Rings incarnation - Talion is looking to subvert Sauron's orc army and turn it into his own. Outside of the main running-around, stealthy-stabby viewpoint into Talion's world, you'll generally be looking at the Sauron's Army screen.
This menu shows you the general makeup of Sauron's orc army, the warlords at the top, the captains and lieutenants below, and the connections between them. Every orc on this screen is randomly generated; their look, their stats, their fears, and the things that make them stronger. One orc may be afraid of fire, while another gets stronger when he feels pain. Perhaps an orc is a runner, or more vulnerable to headshots, or has a propensity to use a huge hammer in attacks.
From here, where you go in Shadow of Mordor is rather freeform. You can attack one of the warlords right away if you want to, but they'll be backed up by their lieutenants in that case, each of whom bring some benefit to the table. Maybe you want to start with the weakest lieutenant. Then you have to decide how to approach the situation. Do you kill them outright? Do you use your Wraith power to dominate them? If you go with the latter approach, you can have them lead you to the warlord and help you in the assault against their former master. Dominating an orc also means gaining control over the orcs that follow it, which is great for an advantage in pure numbers. You can also send your dominated orc to join the camp of another warlord to gain information.
Orcs remember Talion as well. I died in my demo and instead of choosing another target, I decided to stay in character and get my revenge. When I encountered my murderer again, he yelled in astonishment that I was still alive. Another orc remembered me from the time I scarred him with fire before he got away. They react to Talion's persistent presence, as long as you don't kill them outright. If left to their own devices, the orcs will even fight each other in duels or riots.
Talion's navigation of the orc society is the defining strength of Shadow of Mordor and elevates it from another open-world world into something special. Every encounter has choices that spiral out into the rest of the game, like taking down certain grunt orcs for intel. Every player will have a different experience with Shadows of Mordor, which leads to more water cooler moments; as I said in my article exploring the open world's history, part of the strength of the genre is the emergent gameplay. Shadow of Mordor has it in spades.
We know Talion's quest will ultimately fail, as Sauron is still alive and Mordor isn't the best place to live in The Lord of the Rings. But even knowing that his quest will be for naught, there's a lot of fun to be had in the journey. Monolith Productions, developer of F.E.A.R. and Condemned, isn't who I would've picked to bring this game to life, but I'm glad they did. Shadow of Mordor is coming out for Xbox One, Xbox 360, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, and PC on October 7, 2014. (Yes, that's in the middle of the Octobergeddon release schedule. Sorry.)