Set in the uneasy period between the events of the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, Monolith Productions’ Middle-Earth: Shadows of Mordor is a third-person action game that feels almost like a fellowship of industry titans.
Watching the game being played at a recent press event in a rather nifty downtown San Francisco boutique hotel, my immediate impression of this Tolkien-inspired epic was that it's following in the footsteps of Skyrim. SoM’s protagonist, a rather unfortunate ranger called Talion, certainly has all the hallmarks of your average RPG adventurer as he truduges across the grim-looking, windswept landscapes of southern Mordor.
But as he approached a small fort, I was surprised to see him shimmy up a wall and swing under a parapet in a fashion that wouldn’t be unfamiliar to players of the Assassin’s Creed series. That similarity continued as he deftly swung up to confront an ugly-looking orc on the walkway, who he quietly dispatched with an evil-looking dagger. There were three orcs talking in the courtyard below, and after drawing his sword, he jumped down to take them on in a style that reminded me of a certain caped crusader. Now that was a surprise. No wafty sword-slinging here. This was crunchingly staccato, fast-move-slow-mo-hit, combo-driven combat that ended with a couple of heads rolling along the ground. Each successful maneuver was accentuated by pop-up data delivering xp details and combo numbers in true arcade fashion.
At this point I realized I’d unconsciously shifted from my pre-demo, post-lunch nonchalant slump into a forward and upright position. I’d deliberately avoided prepping for this game going in, as I wanted it to be a surprise, and a surprise it most certainly was. And we were only about 5 minutes into the demo.
Before we go on, however, let’s take a quick step back and set the scene proper. SoM takes place in Mordor at a time when Sauron’s just returned. He’s not started redecorating the place yet, so it’s not quite the fiery hellhole described in Lord of the Rings. It’s not exactly a vacation destination, either, but during Sauron’s two- millennia absence, people have moved in and been settling and working its lands as best they can. Talion was one of those people, and as a Ranger was posted at the Black Gate of Mordor to stand watch – which is exactly where you don’t want to be when Sauron’s orc army sweeps in to reclaim his homeland. Unfortunately for Talion, that's where he is when they do. The Black Gate is swiftly overrun, and everyone is killed – including Talion’s family, who he watches being brutally slain one by one before he too is put to the sword.
But as he dies, his being mysteriously merges with a wraith and he’s reborn as a sword-slinging, arrow-shooting, fancy-spell-casting super-ranger-wraith, replete with tattered cloak fluttering heroically in the early evening Mordor breeze. And he isn’t going to waste his second lease of life on anything other than using and abusing his newly acquired powers to avenge the death of his loved ones.
The way his journey of revenge plays out is largely dependent on the player – and it’s something I found really interesting. SoM has something developers Monolith call a “Nemesis” system, which is a fancy term for what is basically procedurally-structured gameplay. The ultimate objective is to take out the uruk warlords that preside over the different orc factions within Mordor – but your path to them can be as direct or convoluted as you want. As you encounter in-game characters and complete missions, the game modifies itself around you to create a story that's essentially your own.
Being a wraith enables Talion to learn some quite handy skills – the most interesting one being the ability to terrify orcs by grabbing them and slapping his glowing blue palm to their forehead. While their knees knock in horror, you can interrogate them for information, or even mark and turn them so that you can control their minds. This adds a hugely strategic aspect to the gameplay. For example, if you craftily fear an uruk’s bodyguard, not only can you interrogate it to learn useful information about the weaknesses of its boss, you can also mark it and, at a time of your choosing, dictate its actions. Perhaps doing a little remote control rabble-rousing to precipitate the kind of infighting that orcs are only too happy to participate in, so they thin their own ranks for you, or even making said bodyguard stab his boss in the back as a prelude to your own assault.
Talion’s wraith skills aren’t just limited to bending orc minds to his will - he can also control animals, which, when you see the size and ferocity of some of Mordor’s fauna, can lead to much mischief and mayhem - and a few chewed-up orcs. Talion also has some offensive wraith magic skills. Annoyed by that runaway orc? Cast a root spell so you can catch up with him and terrify his ass. Or if you don’t have time for such unpleasantries, just go the classic route and shoot him in the knee, perhaps using your time slowdown spell to make it easier to line up your shot and hit your target right where it hurts.
The wraith-powered fun doesn’t stop there either. While Talion’s no slouch when it comes to climbing up, over, around and hanging off things, he can also use his wraith teleporting ability to instantly blink forward a few yards. Ideal for crossing gaping chasms that are too wide to leap across, or simply teleporting into the middle of a bunch of orcs from a hidden location to kick off a surprise beheading party.
Of course, Talion has his own trusty ranger weapons to rely on, and these can be modified with runes acquired by killing more powerful enemies. Depending on who he dispatches, both cosmetic and practical powers can be imbued into his stealth-killing knife, and his head-lopping sword. Talion also becomes stronger as he fights enemies… but what you mightn’t expect is that his enemies do too.
SoM’s procedural gameplay enables enemies to level up and become more powerful depending on what happens around them, and which of their own objectives they achieve. If a ranking orc is killed, it’s quite likely that it’ll be replaced by another. If an orc escapes from one of your attacks, it’ll remember who you are. And if one kills you, it'll get a huge boost and instantly become infamous.
All this results in what looks like a living, breathing environment where you feel very much in control of your own destiny. While the overall objective is to avenge the death of your family, you’re also on a mission to find out what you’ve become – and who is the wraith that you’ve merged with. The path to this goal can be one of endless arcade-style orc slaying, or perhaps a less direct route involving much more strategic planning and surgical strikes of key targets using sneaking and mind control. Maybe you’ll go the more traditional route and complete the requisite quests to level up and then draw out your bosses in a more structured way. Or perhaps you’ll avoid the orc side of things almost entirely, and instead level up by completing side quests and heroically rescuing the hundreds of human Mordor residents who’ve been captured and enslaved by the orcs – and then march directly on your ultimate foe when you are strong enough.
If all this sounds impressive, then I’ve done my job right – because Shadow of Mordor is. It’s been quite a while since I’ve been blindsided by a game this good, but blindsided I was. It looks absolutely top-notch. Its environments are impressively dour, the atmospheric and weather effects are outstanding, and the orcs are as fugly and ‘orrible as you’d ever want them to be.
Combat looks great, Talion’s gymnastics certainly ups the action ante by quite a degree, and the sheer variety of offensive and defensive options he has at his disposal is remarkable. If I have any concerns, it’s that SoM seems almost too good to be true. The procedural nature of its gameplay and the myriad of ways it can be tackled could result in something absolutely spectacular, or it could become a confusing, convoluted mess. I think that’s the challenge the designers really face right now: making sure that SoM is open and sandbox-like so you feel free to make your own story, but also tight enough so you don’t get lost. It's an incredibly ambitious project, and that’s really the crux of my doubt. By making a game so complex, is Monolith biting off more than it can chew? Will it end up with a QA-debugging-playtesting nightmare of epic slippage, or a flawed product that’ll need patching up the wazoo? Or will it realize its full potential? Obviously I’m hoping for the latter – and we’ll most certainly be keeping an eye on it as it develops.
Oh! One more thing. In the period that this game is set, Gollum is doing his Mordor reccy that enables him to lead Frodo and Sam to Mount Doom sometime later in the Lord of the Rings. So he's in the game – somewhere.