Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor Preview

Put a ring on it.

While the developers at Monolith Studios were quick to shy away from direct comparisons between their new Lord of the Rings game and those particular experiences that have put players into the cape and cowl of Batman or the hooded robes of an assassin, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor seems to take the best elements of those games to offer as open-ended an adventure as possible. Certainly the game’s narrative will provide the details players need to satisfy desire for new and undiscovered lore, but a pre-PAX Prime 2014 hands-on opportunity made this version of Tolkien’s universe feel more like an open-world combat-sandbox than anything the license has seen yet.

EA’s movie-based Lord of the Rings games offered a largely linear narrative that took the beloved characters through the stories of each film, though WB’s game differs from that by placing us in-between The Hobbit and the core trilogy. That gives Monolith a lot of freedom to explore the drama and interpersonal strife that plagues Orc encampments throughout the world. To that end, players have the Nemesis system to experiment with, giving hordes of enemies each with combat traits, strengths, weaknesses, and way more personality than I would have expected.

Diving in, a Monolith developer introduced me to Talion, a ranger imbued with the wraith abilities of Celebrimbor, the original forger of the rings of power. Players have consistent access to the Nemesis screen which highlights five Warchiefs, persistent opposing forces in the open-world who struggle for power, wander around with a cohort of generals, and generally get uglier as you go. Beneath these Warchiefs, players can get details on thugs and any other Orcs looking to raise their rank with a few mean moves at camp.

I decided to select one and then used the space between my character and the target to get a hang of the game’s controls. It didn’t take much to start dishing out counters and heavy damage, though stringing together a really long combo meant setting a solid pace and having a dedicated eye for incoming attacks. Shadow of Mordor doesn’t seem to push the action genre forward in any truly revolutionary way, but fans will love learning about Orcs they encounter if they play patiently. Each has their own moniker, often referencing incredible brutality or how bad their breath smells, so going in for the kill eventually draws out personality traits that keep players surprised.

As a fight heats up you’ll get special moves that lead to executions or even allow you to turn an enemy to your side in the heat of battle, but the closer you get to your target the more opposition you’ll face, forcing tactical changes or dedicated stealth play. With luck, players can turn underlings against Warchiefs in order to weaken their overall strength and draw them into new combat encounters.

I managed to get one captain promoted while still under my control. Players who choose to dedicate time turning enemies with their wraith abilities can then send them into battle against other Orc generals and chiefs. In this case, I managed to get two Warchiefs to face-off against each other in a Riot scenario. The enslaved enemy rolled into combat with friends, steamrolling the opposing forces. This actually played to my detriment because the archery-focused chief I targeted had an affinity against ranged attacks, making attempts to bring him down at a distance futile. If I decided to pursue the target after his escape, I would have had to launch into a different scenario requiring a kill from above. Creating and striking under desirable conditions becomes its own game mechanic as you get deeper into the Nemesis system, though Monolith did not offer details as to how it would tie into the narrative.

Players might become unmotivated to continue if they’re frequently defeated by foes that eventually grow in power and become Warchiefs themselves. Orcs level up every time you perish, making repeated failure a potential disaster for progress. In fact, many different orcs could grow in power or status if you fail a mission due to a variety of alliances and dramas existing in the camps. All in all, it made every encounter tense and meaningful. Death doesn’t add up to much in many video games and the same is relatively true of Shadow of Mordor, but you won’t want to deal with the mess left behind after an unsuccessful attempt on a Warchief’s life.

Even as someone whose Lord of the Rings reading experience ends with The Hobbit, Middle-earth seems to use the license as a cloak possibly in the hopes that it can sneak up on gamers this Fall. With Batman: Arkham Asylum’s success and the franchise that has followed, I don’t doubt that the Lord of the Rings will get its own string of games not tied directly to a movie. Hopefully, the Nemesis system will prove engaging enough to carry the experience and give Warner Bros. the impetus to green-light more originals within the publisher’s stable of licensed brands.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor will be available on Xbox 360, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, and PlayStation 4 on September 30th, 2014. The PC version will be available on October 2nd, 2014. Stick with GameRevolution for more on the game and everything from PAX Prime 2014.