Making a game in an established universe is always a difficult task. The worst examples tend to be film tie ins, often rushed to completion so they can launch at around the same time as the cinemas open their doors, but even when you’re able to take your time, trying to tackle something as rich and as popular as The Lord of the Rings universe is bound to be challenging.
Rather than trying to follow the books or even the film series, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor tries a different tack and instead weaves a new story set within the same world, nestling its characters and events somewhere between those of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings itself.
You take on the role of Talion, a ranger of Gondor who perishes when Sauron’s return to power sees a great number of rangers killed on Mordor’s borders. However, he mysteriously returns from the dead, finding himself bound to a Wraith, and heads into the heart of Mordor to try and get revenge. Along the way, ghostly flashbacks reveal the Wraith’s past to him and Talion, piece by piece, fleshing out some of the universe’s backstory that’s easily missed by those who have only seen the films.
During the demonstration, it was Talion’s quest to try and hunt down a wonderfully rendered and realised Gollum, in order to find out more about one of the Rings of Power. While the game features some pleasing variety to its open world, with some surprisingly verdant areas that see Sauron putting slave labour to the task of farming and feeding his army, Gollum’s trail leads directly into the lair of a huge Graug, a creature that at an early stage of the game would be far too great an enemy to try and tackle. Luring the Graug from its cave is key to progressing, and it brings the game’s dynamic wildlife into play, allowing you to send an arrow to act as a distraction and let you sneak past.
Exploring the caves really requires that you dip into the Wraith World, which lets you not only pick out enemies in the distance but also reveal secrets that are hidden in an area. It’s a feature which naturally draws comparisons to Assassin’s Creed’s Eagle Vision and the X-ray Vision from the Batman: Arkham games.
The Wraith’s abilities don’t stop there, and are absolutely integral to many other aspects of how the game plays, giving Talion greater abilities in the, again, Arkham-esque combat. It’s the familiar flitting back and forth from one adversary to another, countering, parrying and so forth, but then you add the Wraith’s powers on top, and Talion can teleport great distances to strike and kill a foe. This can lead to longer and more spread out fights, but also comes in particularly handy for traversing the world quickly, if there’s an enemy up on a high ledge that you want to get to, for example.
They’re also central to the game’s Nemesis System, which lets you take a break from the game’s main storyline and dive into the open world’s randomly generated enemies. You can skim through the most powerful of Sauron’s minions in an area, with the 3D models of his major Uruk warchiefs and their lieutenants presented in a nice looking menu. Skimming through, you can see their various characteristics, from their name – such as the excellent Horza the Poet to Gorath the Disgusting – to their strengths and, most importantly, their weaknesses. Knowing that a particular orc is afraid of Caragors might see you ride one into battle with him to gain the upper hand.
To find all of this out you have to first interrogate enemies, using the power of the Wraith to strike fear into an Uruk guard’s heart, and if you then want to challenge them in combat, you need to draw them out to actually fight you by, for example, going on a rampage and killing twenty enemies in two minutes. However, if you fail and are defeated in combat, even in the main story, the Orc that beat you will gain a little reputation of his own and begin to climb through the ranks.
But there’s another option open to you, and that is to raise your own army within Sauron’s ranks. Again, the Wraith’s power comes to the fore, letting you dominate and turn someone to your side. With the backstabbing that goes on in Uruk society, it’s not uncommon for bodyguards to turn on their warchief, if they think they can best them, but by dominating a bodyguard it’s you that is calling the shots, and you can try to help them gain stature within the Orc factions, while making use of their support in battle.
It’s a fantastically clever system, and is really one of the most intriguing aspects of Shadow of Mordor, which could otherwise have found itself easily dismissed for having certain similarities to other games. Standing alongside a story that will see you exploring a pleasantly diverse vision of Mordor, the Nemesis System looks like it could make this game something really quite special and kickstart a fresh series within the Lord of the Rings universe.