From afar, Shadow of Mordor looks exactly as one might expect from a modern action game. Sprawling open world? Check. Hordes of enemies to slaughter? Check. Grizzly protagonist seeking revenge? Double check.
However, upon closer inspection, it’s clear to see that developer Monolith Productions is doing more than just ticking a few boxes. With Shadow of Mordor, the studio is looking to create the first ground-breaking Middle Earth video game there has been in almost a decade.
Given the sheer provenance of Tolkien’s fantasy masterpiece, it’s no easy task to say the least, especially when a developer takes it upon themselves to create a completely new chapter in such a revered saga. Shadow of Mordor isn’t completely detached from the existing timeline, however.
“It takes place after the Battle of Five Armies at the end of The Hobbit,” Director of Design, Michael de Plater explains. Following the Necromancer’s defeat at the hands of the White Council, there is a brief period of respite before the War of the Ring and Frodo’s journey.
“At this time Sauron has been absent from Mordor for a couple of millennia since Isildur cut the One Ring from Sauron’s hand.”
The Dark Lord doesn’t stay gone forever, as we all know, though perhaps not as well as Gondorian ranger, Talion, stationed along at The Black Gate.
“Talion was not originally native to Gondor,” de Plater says, “he was the son of a Northman who was raised in Minas Ithil. The Black Gate is on the frontier of the kingdom; he was trying to escape his past and to create a new life there with his wife and son.”
Shadow of Mordor isn’t a game about child-rearing and playing happy families, however. Instead the first opening scenes depict Sauron’s return to Middle Earth, sending forth his Black Captains to purge the Gate and slay those who guard it. Inevitably Talion’s wife and child are murdered during the onslaught, the ranger himself also falling in battle.
Then, whether by some miracle or dark curse, he is returned to the land of the living albeit with an arsenal of terrifying powers. With the loss of Talion’s family still fresh in his mind, the ranger goes beyond the Gate, stalking the wastes of Mordor in search of revenge.
Instead of having players trapse along a linear path, slaughtering hordes of Orcs, Monolith has gone for the open-world approach. Huge swathes of Mordor are made entirely traversable, de Plater assuring us that that there’s a whole range of missions and activities to partake in. These include hunting and survival challenges as well as rescuing human prisoners and even pairing up with some familiar faces. He also stresses that there are plenty of secrets and artifacts hidden away, shedding light on the game’s backstory and how Sauron came to return.
One unique feature that will no doubt turn a few heads is Shadow of Mordor’s “Nemesis” system. Scattered throughout the barren wastes are a cluster of Orc and Uruk warchiefs, each one with its own personality and characteristics. This is important as it directly affects what happens when they come face-to-face with Talion. Although he has the option to kill them outright, the ranger can decide to employ different actions such using them to spread fear or even assassinate another warchief.
It’s a clever system and one that easily trumps the universal convention of boss fights. It goes one step further than that, however, as these enemies go up and down in rank, all the while remembering their last encounter with Talion. One fun example often cited is how a warchief manages to kill Talion in battle only to face him again at a later stage, having subsequently earned a promotion.
With such a broad range of options and possibilities available, there is plenty of incentive to replay Shadow of Mordor more than once as de Plater explains:
“We’re not talking a couple of playthroughs to see a couple of different endings, but a genuinely unique experience each time with meaningful gameplay decisions and memorable moments.”
It isn’t just Orcs and Uruks that players need to worry about. Mordor plays host to a whole range of nasties including Caragors, hulking wild beasts that Talion can tame using his Wraith powers. More abilities such as these become available as you earn experience through combat and missions. Where some action role-playing games populated skill trees with passive stat boosts, Shadow of the Mordor offers more substance, providing new ways to dispatch of your enemies.
As one might expect, multiplayer is strictly off the table, though there are still things to do aside from just the campaign:
We have the Palantir app, available for iPad on the Apple Store, which will feature sync points throughout the game and can link to released game trailers, showing exclusive community info. We also have a Challenge Mode, the Test of Power, where you can compete to take down a version of Sauron’s Army and there’s a scoring system which lets you measure your performance against your friends.
Catering to an even bigger audience, Warner Bros. confirmed that Shadow of Mordor will also launch on last-gen systems. However, this version is being handled by Behaviour Interactive, not Monolith, who “can’t confirm the exact difference” though, chances are, it will be a simple downgrade from the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One editions.
Currently slated to launch in October, Shadow of Mordor could well signal a return to form for the Middle Earth gaming franchise. Since 2009’s Lord of the Rings Conquest, things have been hit and miss to say the least with only a marginal upturn in the past few years. Publisher Warner Bros. is no doubt banking on Monolith’s latest hit to generate the same effect as Batman: Arkham Asylum, catapulting a stale gaming license back into the mainstream.