The opening that Monolith shows us in London for Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is almost unbelievable. Hero Talion, sitting high up on a slim ledge, looks over the valley of Mordor, stretching far away across the sea of Nurn. Our hero, clad in filigree armour, is blinded by the sun.
He rests on high as if he was the muscular brother of Ezio Auditore da Firenze. When he jumps down, he leaps towards the ground just like the Ubisoft hero does. Only at the bottom there isn't a haystack, but the rock-hard reality of a country that had been held by Gondor for many hundreds of years, but has just now been invaded by Sauron.
In this new third-person action game we'll get the chance to settle accounts, playing as this young man: a hero by chance, brutally executed by Sauron's army at the Black Gates along with his family. But his soul would not depart, and so Talion returns as a spirit of vengeance.
You'll take control of both flesh and blood hero as well as his spiritual side, which grants him a range of abilities. As a spirit, Talion has the capability to analyse his environment, using a detective vision of sorts to spy on the three classes of enemies. Orcs are there in force as foot soldiers, as nastier troops and as Warchiefs, the latter of which will be our greatest enemy.
Explaining the game isn't easy; in fact it's a little complicated. The enemies are randomly generated orcs, and they grow with us as the story progresses. The orc opponents can be viewed in a separate screen, where we analyse how they are related. We can directly attack a leader, but this tactic is rarely advisable. Better that we attack their entourage, perhaps even break their will and make them betray their masters, even kill them. We have to select them, automatically generating a clash between these groups. The outcome of these duels among NPC orcs depends on their skills and how much we intervene. An exciting concept for the mission structure.
The game world of Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is limited to Mordor, but Monolith's take on the iconic setting seems to be huge. We were only allowed to stroll through a small section, but even that was divided into several sprawling sectors, many of which had their own Towers (for convenient quick travel). In these different areas there are mighty fortresses, around them fragments of destroyed buildings and smaller camps. Everything can be climbed and explored. Potential trouble awaits anywhere and everywhere.
The fights are all dynamic. Talion can take opponents apart with his swords, fights quickly ending up being hectic battles with several enemies. Time and time again we are joined in the fray by powerful captains and warchiefs, who are introduced by small cinematic sequences that break up the mix of quick time events and real-time action. The fights are fluid and challenging, even if individual orcs are no problem to handle. But orcs are rarely alone. In addition, a kill count system is running, and with that our experience increases.
The most outstanding thing about your enemies is that they're randomly generated by Monolith's own Nemesis system, a system that powers the aforementioned events. This ensures that each player will have their own, sometimes distinctly different, experience with the game. The open world allows for the exploration of different play styles. You can try to get away with a straight forward head on approach, but this is really hard. Or you can use the bow.
This allows us to tackle wildlife as well, and we can easily subdue wild Wargs and use them as mounts. Riding them, we can fight with both sword and bow. You can even earn skills that set their coat on fire, burning orcs as they pass. The animals climb walls as nimbly as Talion. Although we once again consider the influence of Ezio, the mount-experience really does add a new dimension.
The most fun, however, are the encounters with the orcs. They not only look fantastic, but are also designed to be extremely different from one another. There are dwarf drinkers - less powerful and lacking the leadership of the warchiefs, and therefore they only have a single bodyguard. Each orc has strengths and weaknesses that makes for significant differences in combat. The drunkard, for example, we can set on fire together with his stash of grog. Other bosses are vulnerable to stealth attacks from above, again making Assassin's Creed or Batman: Arkham City two really obvious sources of inspiration.
This shouldn't not be interpreted as a negative. Copied well and pasted into a different world, it does no harm to anyone. Art director Michael de Plater is aware of these similarities - quite consciously - but rightly points out that the game experience in Mordor is a very distinct one. Even if the world map again is itself a typical example for a game of this kind.
The defeated bosses drop powerful runes, of which we can use, five per weapon, to enhance certain properties. Even swords and bows get a bit of personality, and will tell stories of the great battles that we survive. These runes are even dropped depending on how we defeated the orcs in question, adding special abilities that match the style of play used. It also looks impressive when we assert our dominance on our Orc enemies. For bosses, that can only happen when a green icon shines above their heads. If you grab that opportunity you will see fear in the eyes of a monster knowing what will happened next. Creepy stuff.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is actually a surprisingly pretty game from a graphical perspective, although it uses more of a naturalistic style, which can look boring in other games. Maybe it's because the fights are extremely violent and there are brutal finisher moves where orc heads get chopped off, spinning away in bloody fountains, or where we see blades slip through an eye ball, but everything looks great, detailed.
If you are forced into a corner during a fight you can use the environment, a targeted shot working to your advantage, exploding campfires and barrels, rupturing ramshackle walls, or even opening cage doors to release the captive Wargs held within.
You die rather quickly in this action-heavy game. At least you do when you're an unskilled hero who has been thrown right into the action. There's a beauty in it though: you can see the way the game world continues to move without you. There was a moment where a level one orc named Flak accidentally killed me because he scored the decisive hit in the midst of all the chaos. In the subsequent update on the overview screen for the orc warriors, he was immediately promoted to Level 7, became an armorer and now has a realistic chance later on to become a warchief. He even told me all that in a broad cockney accent during the cutscene following the kill. Nicely played, Monolith.
There remains a few questions, despite the consistent, almost surprisingly positive, impressions of the game. How big is the game world of Mordor? Monolith did not want to comment. Similarly, the story will be comparatively complicated for newcomers to digest, even if it deals with an aspect of the Lord of the Rings universe that is relatively unknown. It works without prior knowledge of the lore, but there is no doubt it will be a better experience for Tolkien fans.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor delivers strong action in an open game world. It should definitely be marked down on the list of games to check out this autumn, and that's as a fan of Lord of the Rings, and as a fan of good action games!