Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is a new single-player RPG developed by Monolith Productions. Widely anticipated with features that many gamers have long requested of game studios, Franklin Renaldi and I were lucky enough to get some hands-on play at the Monolith studios in Kirkland, WA the day before PAX was to start.
Set at the time between The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings in the Tolkien Universe, Shadow of Mordor bridges the gap handily with the story of Talion, a ranger of Gondor who was killed, but has been revived with “wraith-like” abilities. Like never dying but always coming back – a nifty explanation, but also used in the game dialogue as the player re-encounters the NPC that had killed him previously.
The features that had grabbed us the moment we heard them were three-fold. First, an open world. In any zone, you can wander anywhere. There are no set paths and this is brilliant as Talion makes use of any cover, climbs most structures and geologic forms, uses the hilt of his sword to “zip-line” down from one place to another. Secondly, the world changes and reacts to player choices: No player’s content is exactly the same as another’s. Thirdly, the Nemesis system where the player creates bosses and allies depending on his choices of actions – and they have memory.
Answers from Director of Design Michael De Plater and Lead Designer, Bob Roberts explained many of the systems and features for us.
Nemesis system – the Orcs you'll fight alongside and against have a hierarchy and the Nemesis menu shows you the ones you know about as well as the randomly generated War Chiefs, and their underlings. Your goal is to “brand” them or turn them into your own minions, and there are many ways to achieve this. The named Orcs also level up as the world evolves over time, and they might be running their own side quests. They also level up when they kill you, and complain that they’ve killed you before when you encounter them again.
Runes – players will gain runes to place in their weapons (up to 10) when they kill named NPCs. The method by which you kill them determines the rune you obtain. You can also send a death threat which forewarns him, he gathers more guards around him (grows more powerful) and drops a better rune when you kill him. Epic runes are obtained off War Chiefs which have game changing abilities, not just a stat boost.
Melee – hit counters build up to unlock better moves which are suggested by in-game tooltips. You can also use the environment to create distractions such as firing a powered arrow into a stack of barrels to make it explode, dominate a creature and release it in the middle of the fortress, then run, climb, hide, wraith form, sneak away. You don’t take any falling damage. You turn into a wraith just before you hit the ground.
Ranged combat “slows time” and lets the player aim. It can be used during close combat therefore.
The game launches on console as well as PC and our concern was that very often console games don’t translate well to keyboard and mouse controls, but we were assured that there had been a lot of usability and QA testing on the PC.
The game is combat heavy, but on the RPG side, it is very much character driven. There is a main story line, but mini-cut scenes with NPC dialogue keeps the player engaged and there are voiced epic memorable moments with iconic characters such as Gollum and Celebrimbor, the elven smith that forged the Rings of Power.
The Campaign mode requires you to find certain artifacts in each zone. Every artifact you find reveals some information and the story changes depending on which you find first. The story telling is non-linear, and the game provides an explicit list of all the artifacts, quests and side quests for the OCD among us.
There are multiple save slots, so you can potentially have several games running, or branch off at an interesting point to try something else.
The game is single-player but a vendetta system provides a list of player-generated side quests. This list is automatically generated by your friends in your gaming network and you can seek revenge against the Orcs that have killed them. There are also community vendetta options. This list is updated each time you get your game online. There is no requirement to be “always online” in Shadow of Mordor.
What do you get when two MMO players are presented with a PlayStation Controller? “You play.” “No, you play. I’ll take notes.” Franklin played. He also did amazingly well after the first couple “I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m just mashing buttons” fights. It helped that the Dev walking us through was a great coach, and we decided that we would try to take on Skog Flesh-Rot as he had the lowest power rating in the War Chief line up, and looked at his details – his strengths and weaknesses, as well as those of his underlings. Zathra the Runt looked like a good target and he was vulnerable to and afraid of beasts. We could try to command a critter and go after him but that was not to be.
We traveled by “Fast Travel” to a tower near our target (like many parts of Mordor, this reminded us of the Assassin's Creed series), went into wraith form to see if we could find our target and locked on. This mode allows the player to see all the life forms around, both four legged and two. As we moved through the landscape, hints popped up. That herbs or mushrooms were nearby to recover health, to remember to sneak when multiple enemies were close, that certain objects could provide distractions.
During combat, button combos for powered moves were suggested and would have been used if we actually knew where the buttons were! We ran into other named Orcs in the strong hold who all wanted a piece of us.
Another thing I can commend this game for are the production values. The graphics, animation and voices are superb. Franklin actually engaged many of the Orcs so we could get their dialogue. He managed to dominate Zathra, extract information from him and decided we would have him betray his boss. That quest then opened up with him challenging his War Chief. Would he succeed? He was a few power levels lower. Maybe we should go help him... and help him, we did.
With climby skills, sneaky skills, running or zip-lining across… hmm… not power lines… clothes lines?? Well, these handy-dandy cables between structures. Franklin managed to get to Zathra who was facing off Skog Flesh-Rot and jumped into the fray and wonders of wonders. With his help, Zathra managed to off his boss and rose to take the War Chief’s position. We could now use him to start a riot by attacking another War Chief, but it really was best to let the game move on and let him get stronger.
Details of each War Chief shows you how to lure them out. Mostly, you have to do nasty tings to their supporters and underlings. You can also choose to go in for a “Show Down” Franklin decided he wanted to try the Show Down for another close by Orc and once we triggered him, he came looking for us with guards and supporters in tow, but our time was up before we could kill or be killed.
What We Found
Destructible environment – barrels, fires, gates, cages – we freed a (monster whose name I’ve spent too much time trying to figure out), dominated it, and rode it around, killing orcs for the fun of it and accidentally killed another named Orc while trying to dominate it. Like Pokemon, you have to hurt an orc quite a bit before you can dominate it, but the finishing move (which it was vulnerable to) was just a little too powerful. We got another nice powerful rune instead.
Ooh, look! A “wraithy” looking arrow does it? Yes, it replenishes your quiver. Wraith form travel is fun. You go into wraith form, target something way across there, fire your wraith arrow and travel there nearly instantly. It's like teleporting. Sneak kills are fun. Climb high, stay in wraith form and crouched (snuck) until your target is under you. Drop down and slay him, then quickly climb up again, wraith up and sneak. Brutalize is… brutal. Not just a simple back stab, a back stab with extreme prejudice, blood and gore spewing everywhere, frightening the other orcs around him into running off. Then you yourself have run and hidden again. Oh, and you can ride wargs around Middle-earth too, and attack orcs from their backs. Yep, this one's going to be a gem.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor looks to be an amazing experience with near unlimited replayability. An open world, one that reacts to your choices, a world that evolves as your character evolves. Sounds too good to be true? Well, Monolith seems to have achieved it. Launch for the game is just a month away on September 30th, so we don't have too long to wait and see if the whole experience is as impressive as our couple of hours demoing the title. Keep your eyes peeled for our full review on or around that day.