Pre-order Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is one of the first The Lord of the Rings games to attempt an original story since the PS2 RPG, The Third Age. In this particular case, players are thrown into the time period between "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings." The Dark Lord Sauron has awoken and is spreading across the land. Players control Talion, a ranger of Gondor. After Talion's family is murdered and his land usurped, he is possessed by a mysterious wraith and lusts for revenge against Sauron. Talion's new powers make him the only force that could stand alone against Sauron's minions, and he enters the still-green land of Mordor to destroy all the evil that lies within. We took Shadow of Mordor for a spin at E3 2014 and were impressed with its progress.
The basic combat system in Shadow of Mordor will feel familiar to fans of Batman: Arkham City. The gameplay is very similar, although in very good ways. You can attack, counter, dodge and stun. You can attack stunned enemies rapidly to inflict damage or bounce from enemy to enemy to build up your combo meter. Once you've built up enough of a combo, you can use button combinations to perform special moves that devastate enemies. In the demo, it played very smoothly, and everything felt well integrated. Different enemy types require different combat skills to beat. Berserkers can't be attacked directly, so you need to stun or counter them.
One of the special moves you can perform is brand, which doesn't kill your target. Instead, a branded enemy joins you and continues to fight by your side for the rest of their lives. You also have a long-range bow and arrow that you can use to snipe enemies from a distance, though it has very limited ammo that needs to be replenished.
The brand system plays into another crucial mechanic. Every area has a structured hierarchy of orcs who run that region. The hierarchy is more of a pyramid, with the highest-ranking orc at the top and their minions below. This hierarchy can be manipulated by Talion in a number of ways. You can assassinate the guys in your way, but there are more cunning ways to handle things. For one thing, you'll see inter-factional rivalries. Orcs will attempt to kill or usurp each other on their own, altering the structure of the faction. You can manipulate this by assassinating the stronger orc during a duel and pushing a weak and ineffectual orc upward.
You also have the ability to manipulate your branded orcs. If you brand a leader, everyone under his control is under your control. Your goal should be to brand the strongest orcs, but you need to get to them first. You can help your orc rise up the ranks by killing those above him and manipulating his advancement with generated quests. You can also send a branded orc to assassinate his fellows. You're not obligated to do any of this and can happily murder your way through the orc lineup.
One particularly cool feature is that every orc in the hierarchy is randomly generated with a selection of strengths and weaknesses. One orc may be afraid of fire, but he'll be tougher to kill, unlikely to flee from combat, and good at killing mounted beasts. Another may be cowardly and flee easily but also be battled-hardened and immune to being branded. An orc who lasts a long time gains new strengths or loses weaknesses.
Talion is technically immortal, so he'll revive after death at one of his waypoints, but death still occurs. If you're killed by a nameless orc, it earns a reputation and a promotion to elite status. Rather than just being forgotten, he'll remember that he's killed you before. It's tempting to brand every orc you encounter, but killing leader orcs granted us access to runes, which are powerful equippable items that increase some stats.
Stealth is an option as well. Though Talion does not have Batman's predator-like abilities, he makes up for it with Assassin's Creed-style climbing and parkour mechanics. You can enter sneaking mode at any time and stealthily kill enemies. You can also do so from a distance with your bow and arrow. This is useful for defeating powerful foes without being captured and for manipulating the orc hierarchy. You have complete freedom to handle these missions however you want. During my hands-on time with the game, not a single bit of it was scripted, and I was able to control how I wanted to tackle the missions and dispatch enemies.
The game will feature a leveling and ability system with a series of skill trees based on what you want to upgrade. In our demo, we had an upgraded character but saw some examples of what upgrades can do. One allows you to perform a combat special attack earlier in your combo meter. Another allows you to perform two special attacks every time you earn one. The skill trees were extensive and seemed to offer a lot of choice and variety. You can focus on special Wraith skills, combat skills, sneaking and stealth abilities, and so on.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is shaping up to do for "The Lord of the Rings" what Arkham Asylum did for Batman. There are a ton of similarities between the two games, but what stands out most is how well Shadow of Mordor defines itself. It would be easy to call it an Arkham clone except the meat of the game is quite different and distinctive. If the full game lives up to the E3 showing, Shadow of Mordor will be a must-own title when it's released this October.
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