We often rely on simple comparisons when trying to describe something new. This movie is like that other one, we say, or this upcoming game is like X crossed with Y. In Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor’s case, that comparison has been mostly made with the Assassin’s Creed series, with the upcoming game’s combat and parkour elements leading many to describe Shadow of Mordor as a fantasy variant of Ubisoft’s storied franchise. And that’s what I was expecting to experience during my first hands-on with Shadow of Mordor; an open world to traverse with my uncanny climbing skills, simple yet nuanced combat with a series of nameless, often forgettable enemies, and a deep story set within author J.R.R. Tolkien’s expansive universe.
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I was expecting to be Altair by way of Aragon, and initially, Shadow of Mordor is indeed reminiscent of an Assassin’s Creed game, with main character Talion looking and moving like he could easily be a long lost member of the Assassin Order. But that feeling of familiarity quickly dissipated as I moved around the flatlands of the Sea of Nurnen, one of the areas deep within Mordor that you’ll discover. This open world was hostile, with orc patrols, camps, and strongholds (not to mention various wandering creatures) all posing a significant threat. I was no sneaky assassin here--I was an invader. By the time I managed to mind-control a wandering Caragor (think the wolf-like Worgs, but bigger) and use it as my orc-munching mount, comparisons with other games seemed inadequate.
Shadow of Mordor, then, is most definitely it’s own beast. In the game--which is set between the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings--you play as Talion, a ranger that has been brought back from the dead by a mysterious force to wreak havoc on Sauron’s growing armies. As such, Talion has some nifty wraith-like abilities at his disposal, one of which is the power to dominate the minds of the weak-willed. With the Caragor, I used this power to control the beast, and then used a fast teleport ability to quickly cover some terrain and mount the creature. I then attacked some Orcs and let the Caragor eat their corpses, partly because it regained some of my mounts’ health, but mainly because it was just neat to let my new friend eat his vanquished foes.
These two powers alone--domination and teleportation across short distances--made traversing the world and taking part in combat feel significantly different to the likes of Assassin’s Creed. Teleport allowed me to try and be sneaky without having to be too close, approaching heavily guarded orc forts by taking the high path and teleporting across wide gaps to target sentries or archers perched on rooftops. Domination can be used in the middle of combat on your foes. Take enough health off an enemy, and you can control his mind mid-fight, forcing him to battle for you. Fights where I was vastly outnumbered at the start grew more manageable as I dominated more orcs, but even then, they proved suitably challenging during my play time. The game threw different enemy types in every group encounter, meaning I couldn’t rely on the familiar attack/counter rhythm I could so easily fall back on in an Assassin’s Creed. Shielded orcs needed to be vaulted over and slashed from behind. Other larger foes needed to be successfully countered before their defense opened up. Combat, especially when attacking large groups of orcs at once, was tense and thrilling.
But by far the biggest surprise for me was Shadow of Mordor’s much-vaunted Nemesis system, a complex gameplay mechanic that gives each and every orc you encounter a unique personality, all within a malleable orc military hierarchy that can be manipulated and exploited to achieve Talion’s ends. The Nemesis system is supposed to, according to design director Michael de Plater, create memorable relationships between the player and their foes so that “any enemy in the world can end up becoming (their) unique personal arch villain or nemesis”. It always seemed a bold claim to make, so it was a pleasant surprise to realise how much I did actually end up caring about my disgusting foes, even during my brief time with Shadow of Mordor. And when I say “care”, I mean loathe. Allow me to elaborate.
Talion’s mission in the Sea of Nurnen is to depose the area’s five current warchiefs and to install his own compliant orcs, and thanks to Shadow of Mordor giving players intricate details on the orc hierarchy within each area, there are numerous ways that this can be achieved. One warchief, for example, may be a drunk, with the only way to lure him from hiding being to destroy his camp’s supply of grog. A lower ranked captain may be deathly afraid of fire, while another warchief may have three tough bodyguards he can call on for aid should he see fit. A player can use these details (which usually need to be gleaned by interrogating other orcs) to plan their offense. A head-on attack on a warchief with a fear of Caragors may be a great idea when mounted on one of those beasties, for example, or you can patiently rise a lowly orc under your control through the ranks by eliminating his superiors one by one.
In my case, the warchief I targeted had a bodyguard stationed at a nearby stronghold, so to make my eventual confrontation with the warchief more manageable, I decided to take out this bodyguard first. This ended up being a bad idea, as orc strongholds are, unsurprisingly, filled with orcs. Lots of orcs. I was vastly outnumbered, with the killing blow struck by a unranked orc, who screamed in glee as my Talion finally fell.
Fights where I was vastly outnumbered at the start grew more manageable as I dominated more orcs.
Every time you die in Shadow of Mordor, time progresses, allowing you to see the effect you had on the world during your last “life”. In this case, the screaming orc that felled me was promoted to captain, while every other orc that survived my final skirmish also levelled up. This was an affront to me, so I decided to forgo my mission and focus instead on revenge. I tracked down the screaming orc to another stronghold, sneaking in over roofs as to not attract undue attention. Screamer, as I nicknamed him, was involved in an orc duel when I found him, surrounded by a mob eager to see some bloodshed. I threw caution aside (again), and teleported between the dueling combatants to do a quick takedown of my foe. It didn’t work, and I was defeated by a group of orcs I foolishly jumped right in the middle of. And there was Screamer again, yelling as I died.
I decided to focus again on my main mission, but as I continued to play, Screamer was never too far from mind. I never did kill that orc, but perversely, he was there again the final time I died during this particular play session. He was, for that very short time, a character I actively loathed, and I wanted nothing more than to see him skewered at the end of my blade.
It’s these type of narratives that Shadow of Mordor is hoping to organically create for players, and from my brief experience with the game, it seems like it has a strong shot of doing so through the intriguing Nemesis system. It may be easy to superficially compare Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor with another game, but under the hood, it’s a completely different story.