What if the next Assassin's Creed were set in Middle-earth?
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor seems the answer to this question. When I saw this open-world adventure in action for the first time earlier this month, I was instantly struck by the similarities between it and Ubisoft's popular series. Lead character Talion may not live by the creed, but he scales walls with beautiful aplomb, has a special vision mode that allows him to pinpoint targets, crouches in tall vegetation and waits for the right moment to strike, and chases after cowardly orcs as they run from the wrath of his blades and bow. And like his assassin brothers from other mothers, Talion faces crowds of foes in rhythmic melee battles, parrying, blocking, and slashing when the time is right.
Given its similarities to both the Assassin's Creed series and, during combat, the Batman: Arkham games, you might be inclined to dismiss developer Monolith's project for not having enough ideas of its own. Yet while the superficial similarities to other games are obvious, Shadow of Mordor digs more deeply into social and military hierarchy than I imagined such a game ever would.
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These are the troubled times after the conclusion of The Hobbit, but before the events of The Fellowship of the Ring, when Sauron is again rising to power and preparing for a final war. Talion is a Ranger of Gondor, protecting the free peoples of Middle-earth from his position at the Black Gate. Or was, at least, before he and his family were butchered by Sauron's servants at his outpost. Upon his death, Talion is possessed and kept alive by a wraith, which you might suppose would be a stroke of good fortune, though the vengeful life he then leads as a revenant is not an enchanted one. (I'll let Tolkien purists debate the merits of allowing such a hybrid creature, unknown in Tolkien's work, to lead this adventure.) In spite of such a tortured duality, Talion finds solace in upgradeable wraith powers that allow him to teleport across substantial distances and murder snarling orcs with a quick plunge of his dagger, to hide in plain sight of his alert enemies, and to perform other ethereal skills. And those skills prove vital when freeing humans from the orcish shackles of slavery.
The demo I attended, led by Shadow of Mordor's director of design, Michael De Plater, put the specifics of the game's story to the side in favor of its intricate net of orc hierarchical dynamics and procedural artificial intelligence, which allows Mordor society to react to Talion's influence on it. And the social order starts with a dog-eat-dog world in which any orc can make his way up the military ranks and earn a position of great power. One such orc is Ratbag. He had started as a runt but later became a slavemaster in charge of a ramshackle shanty, which makes him the perfect target for Talion's bloodied blade.
Those scars will mark and affect your enemies. They're gonna remember them, they're gonna hate you even more.Michael De Plater, Director of Design, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor
How you approach Ratbag is a matter of your own style of play, given the game's varied mechanics. You can enter the wraith world (think of this as Assassin's Creed's eagle vision) and identify a target who has valuable information to offer regarding Ratbag--a so-called squealer--then sneak up on the squealer and conduct an interrogation. Or instead, you can thin out the orc herd by climbing up walls, waiting under ledges, and then flinging to the ground the unsuspecting archers who dare approach. Or maybe you'd rather whip out your bow and pick off a few runts before clashing with the big boys up close.
No matter how you move forward, you must choose how to deal with the sniveling Ratbag once you best him in battle. While immediate execution might be tempting, given all the trouble your nemesis has caused, a dead orc is of no further use. The Domination option, on the other hand, makes your victim a tool for creating social havoc. As De Plater stated during the demo, much of a despot's power comes from breaking the will of others. And so as you watch Talion hold a blubbering orc in his firm grip, the antihero's wraithlike aura emanating from within, you determine how to best use Ratbag in a new line of service. Maybe you send the orc back to his brethren using the Terrorize option, in which case he'll spread stories of your infamy, striking fear into the orcs' withered hearts. Or instead, you could insert him back into orcish society as a Spy so that you might learn of his master's strengths and weaknesses.
But why be so secretive? Choose the option listed as "Assassinate," and the fledgling orc's broken brain provides you insight into his inner world. Once you're given access to the victim's lazy neurons, you're shown the hierarchy of the orc's battalion and see its various members. Here's your chance to gain access to the area's warchief and order Ratbag to assist you in assassinating the cruel leader.
Just bear in mind that there's no guarantee you'll succeed in annihilating the warchief, or any nemesis for that matter. An orc leader knows when he's not a sure victor, and will run off if you pose an inordinate threat. You could pin him down with a shot from that ghostly bow of yours and sprint after him, but should your target escape, he will remember you--just as he will if he crushes you in battle and you respawn after death. (Ah yes, the perks of being half-wraith!) In this instance, dominating Ratbag reveals that he is the warchief's bodyguard--and that warchief was Orthog, an orc who Talion had had the misfortune of facing once before. That encounter had left Orthog's faced burned and his soul enraged. Says De Plater, "Those scars will mark and affect your enemies. They're gonna remember them, they're gonna hate you even more, they're gonna come hunt at you more, even their personalities are gonna be affected. They'll get hatreds or fears of the way you've taken them down."
Orthog may have rage on his side, but by dominating his inferiors, you gain an upper hand. Remember Ratbag? After traveling to Orthog's fortress and ordering the dominated bodyguard to attack his master during a rousing assembly, Talion took advantage of the ensuing chaos to meet the warchief head on. Sometimes, you can take the sneakier route and stab a target from behind, though not in every case: some targets are immune, or at least hardened, to certain attacks, which is why gleaning as much information you can during interrogations is so crucial. In this instance, Talion dropped onto a vicious, nameless orc from above and slaughtered him before cutting his way through the crowd and defeating the grotesque mutant of nature called Orthog.
Through it all, Shadow of Mordor simulates the consequences of holes left in orcish social structure, and offers you choices in how you want to further disrupt it. I joined other press members in directing a stretch of open-world play, choosing how Talion should use the information he gathered from squealers to identify the best path towards vanquishing their leaders. When accessing the hierarchical ladder during interrogation, you can unveil heretofore unidentified combatants, or gather more information about the personalities and combat weaknesses of known enemies. Should your target be a warchief, you might get additional feedback about how to lure him from the safety of his lair. And as you slice and dice your way about Mordor, orcs go about their daily lives and react to the cracks in their order. Enemies have their own missions: they organize and throw feasts, conduct public executions, and so forth. The orcs that succeed in their tasks rise up in the ranks, taking the place of fallen comrades and, in turn, providing you with new orcish fodder to extinguish.
Talion went toe to toe with a number of hardened orcs during the lengthy demo. Combat animations were delightfully acrobatic, mirroring the type of encounters Batman: Arkham Asylum is known for, but with the brutality a ranger's blade affords. Talion leapt over orcs to gain positional advantage, and when his victim's death was imminent, the game predictably focused on the sprays of blood, occasionally showcasing a snarling head as it soared through the air after a decapitation. Through it all, drums pounded, bloated greenskins roared, and the thuds and crashes of vigorous combat echoed through the air.
The fact that you're there to save these people, to get them out, and to interact, there's a heroic purpose there.Michael De Plater
All of that blood, all of those screams, all of those pulsing kettledrums joined the overarching look of Mordor--the waving crimson banners, the architecture's acute angles, the cracked earth and blackened sky--to make a declarative statement: no mortal should ever attempt to traverse this evil realm. As Boromir warned at the Council of Elrond, "[Mordor] is a barren wasteland, riddled with fire, ash, and dust. The very air you breathe is a poisonous fume." Talion is clearly prepared to visit destruction upon this evil land. But what of the player? How many hours of anguished cries, vicious battles, and burning flesh can we withstand before the ashen skies part and allow light to shine through?
As it happens, Monolith has given a lot of thought to the pervasively soul-crushing tone of the game, and how they can give players an oasis amid the emotional drought. "The short answer, just to jump to it, is humor," says De Plater. "A really good way to offset the darkness is there is a lot of dark humor in the game. Our story characters have a lot of humor to them. And actually one of the lead writers… this is the main thing I think you'll notice in the future when you look at the game, and the showdowns, and the presentations, and the [voice-over] of all these guys… we had a writer called Dan Abnett from the UK. He's written a bunch of really good Warhammer books, Warhammer 40K and Marvel comics, and the thing he brings… what happens is, this is a dark and gritty universe as well, and his books are so far above most of them, because he just brings a real humanity and personality, and humor to it as well."
De Plater adds that your interactions with the orcs' slaves ares another factor in breaking up Shadow of Mordor's gloom. "The fact that you're there to save these people, to get them out, and to interact, there's a heroic purpose there, and the story characters relate to them as well."
Thus, there are miniature glimmers in this murk, and I am reminded of how in The Return of the King, Samwise Gamgee found respite on his own seemingly hopeless journey. "There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tower high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach."
Amid all this darkness, all this death from above and death from below, all this social manipulation, is a game that hits my buttons. That bleak, overbearing atmosphere that brings to mind Darksiders II; that flowing and ferocious combat that borrows liberally from Batman; and that mix of light stealth and parkour-based freedom that characterizes Assassin's Creed: Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is checking off all the right boxes. Even more importantly, I'm optimistic that the game will carve its own creative gash into the arid soil of Mordor.
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