Monolith's reveal of Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor last November was received with mixed feelings. Could this finally be a game worthy of the source material or will it be a cynical ripoff of a truly awesome license. The first pictures did not help. Who or what was this almost comically sinister main character with blue glowing eyes, and how on Middle-Earth would he faithfully join the world of Tolkien?
We got our first chance to get some answers this January when publisher Warner Games invited us to London for a short trip to Mordor and back. Although the game is not yet hands-on for the press, we got to see almost an hour and a half worth of live gameplay, along with a nice presentation from the game's Director of Design, Michael de Plater (who walked us through several key components of the game). Similar events are seldom generous enough to show unfinished phases of the game, so the openness and straight answers were a really refreshing change of pace from the usual PR-talk.
The gates to Mordor were opened with a short introduction to the story. Shadow of Mordor is set right after The Hobbit and Sauron's return to his old kingdom to gather his forces ready for the War of the Ring. Even though Gondor has watched the vale for this very reason, the 2000 year wait proves to be too much and the small garrison by the Black Gate is taken totally by surprise. All the people are either killed or taken into slavery to power up Sauron's war effort. Among the slain is young ranger Talion, along with his whole family. Death is no time to rest however, and Talion is brought back to the land of the living by a mysterious spirit of vengeance who bears a deceptive resemblance to a Ring wraith. De Plater wasn't ready to reveal the Wraith's identity just yet, but we know it gives Talion great shadowy powers with which to exact his revenge on Sauron's servants. In his journey of vengeance the player will also encounter many familiar faces from the books and movies, most notably Gollum who, with his dual personas, has a lot in common with Talion. According to de Plater there will deep side-missions attached to each character that in the end will intertwine with the main quest.
De Plater also confirmed that the game takes place "entirely in Mordor" so we shouldn't really expect to any see other key locations in Middle-Earth. The demo explored the most northern part of Mordor called Udun, which features the Black Gate and what remained of the human settlements there. After the orcs, it's mostly only rubble that remains and those that survived are worked to death in slavery. It is hardly a surprise that freeing them is going to play major part in the game's side quests.
The look and feel of Udun was quite gloomy and the colour scheme was mostly grey and brown tones. When asked about it de Plater did promised variation, since at the beginning of the game Sauron's influence hasn't yet fully turned the valley into a dead wasteland. Unfortunately the full map was not shown, and de Plater did admit that the game world is not going to compete with that of Skyrim and the like. Even still there should be enough to offer a lot of unique locations and areas. We have to take his word on this because, in this early state at least, Udun was quite a depressing, glum and grey place.
Shadow of Mordor has been called an action role-playing game, but in this case, the description is a little misleading. Based on the demo, there is no way to modify Talion's species, gender or other stats. This is a shame, but at least the player can make some choices based on skills, core statistics and weapons. There are two skill-trees, one for Talion and the other for the Wraith-form, and they are both all about new ways to kill orcs and to move about in the Mordor sandbox. All the buffs and such are tied to the runes one gets from special enemies, which can then be combined with various weapons.
We were shown many ways to knock the enemies around, but the Wraith-abilities took center stage. The most obvious of these was the Wraith-sight (that we know from Peter Jackson's movies), with which the player can spot and mark important enemies in much the same way as we can with Eagle Vision in Assassin's Creed. Combined with the bow, it also enables a form of bullet time, which makes for lethally precise shots right between some orky eyes. Another ability allowed Talion to take a teleport-like shadow step behind an unsuspecting guard for a lethal strike. There is also a combo meter which, when full, enables some explosive finishers that make the orcs' heads fly all over the place.
There may have been a bit too much action, really. There was some stealth and climbing, but the situations tended to culminate in wholesale slaughter. The combat seemed rather familiar, and one of the German journalists in attendance was practically outraged by what he felt was a direct ripoff from the Arkham and Assassin's Creed games. De Plater did not deny this obvious observation, and instead freely confessed that these games had served as a direct influence on the Shadow of Mordor.
He did add that the studio had strived to build upon this experience, to achieve a deeper mechanic than just pressing the counter button at the right times. Based on the demo, there was some truth to this, though it seemed to have been replaced by a whole lot of QTE-like fiddling with the controller.
The most interesting thing about Shadow of Mordor was definitely the Nemesis-system, which procedurally generates unique enemies that develop individually during the game. They're all assigned random skills, weaknesses, strengths and a starting level to build up from. The enemies will also remember the player if they've encountered him before. In the demo, we saw how one orc lieutenant had survived a fight, but his burns had brought on a fear of fire, which could be abused in later encounters. It was a positive change that most enemies actually fled from battle when it became clear that they had no chance of winning.
Sauron's officers are first presented as a hierarchical lineup of unknown warriors, who are led by the War-chiefs. You can't just go for the officers though, and have to first gather intel about their location and weaknesses from their subordinates and as a part of side quests. Weak-willed orcs can also be turned using the Wraith-abilities, which lets the player send them to cause dissent in the ranks, do some spying or help with an assassination.
Nemesis is clearly one of the most innovative features in Shadow of Mordor. It sounds great on paper, and didn't seem half bad in the demo either. It is a bit 'gamey' of course, but if the implementation matches the studio's ambitious goals, Nemesis can really set the game apart from the competition. Considering that The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Dark Souls II, Dragon Age: Inquisition and many other third-person action adventures will be coming out this year, Monolith has an uphill battle ahead of them.
There is still work to be done, as the combat seemed rather monotonous and easy. The huge splashes of gore and the flying heads also felt excessive in a clumsy sort of way. De Plater did emphasize though that things will be balanced out by the time the game is released. It has to be said that they do not have a lot of time though. Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is intended for release this year, no doubt in step with the third Hobbit movie. It did not quite convince me fully, but there is definitely potential there. The fans deserve a good Tolkien-themed game, and I wholeheartedly wish that Monolith is able to deliver it.