Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor shows why you don’t mess with rangers

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Read our full Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor review.

The next generation of gaming is barely underway, but thanks to ambitious online projects, such as Destiny and Tom Clancy’s The Division, it’s already been defined by MMO-flavored social experiences and expansive open-worlds. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, however, is taking a decidedly different approach to testing the limits of Microsoft’s and Sony’s new horsepower-pushing hardware.

While on the surface this latest interactive take on Tolkien’s high-fantasy universe looks like familiar third-person action-RPG fare, developer Monolith Productions is promising more than just another opportunity to loot, level, and lay waste to orcs. Supported by what the studio’s dubbed the “Nemesis System,” players can shape and evolve their path through the story based on encounters with procedurally-generated enemies.

Armchair adventurers are encouraged to utilize this Mordor-molding feature to engage adversaries with more than just sharp steel. Sporting individual strengths, weaknesses, and personalities, each foe – from low level meat-bags to the biggest boss baddie – can be manipulated. For players this can mean turning a weak-willed target into a personal spy or assassin; conversely though, it could see a bullied baddie amassing an army of henchmen to eventually hunt you down for the hurt you previously put on him.

Sandwiched between the events of Peter Jackson’s pair of film trilogies, Shadow of Mordor unravels an original yarn starring Talion, a resurrected ranger whose second chance at life comes at the cost of sharing it with a wicked curse. The game also features all the expected genre staples; whether gutting grunts or customizing the main character’s abilities and arsenal, the action-RPG elements should feel comfortably familiar to anyone who’s ever cut a bloody swath through a creature-filled crypt.

Based on our recent hands-off demo, however, it seems WB Games and Monolith is counting on the title’s uniquely exploitable enemy encounters to separate Shadow of Mordor from the hack-‘n-slash pack.

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Pissed-off protagonist. Taking place about eight hours into the campaign, our demo opens in a shanty village where an orc by the name of Ratbag the Meat Hoarder is hiding out. Talion – a former guardian of the Black Gate – is seeking revenge on Sauron for slaying his family, as well as leaving him for dead. Ratbag represents a key step in the resurrected protagonist’s path to vengeance, as the orc is henchman to Orthog Troll Slayer, Talion’s primary target.

Make a minion. Utilizing a combination of melee moves, Wraith powers – thanks to that aforementioned curse – and the Nemesis System, Talion is able to use potential enemies against other foes. You don’t just cut your way through the world of Middle-earth, you manipulate the world to your advantage. There is still the ability to fight your way through hordes of orcs, but when you can compel a foe to doing your bidding, the game takes on a new layer of strategy.

Gameplay

Kill silently and violently. Brandishing a dagger, Talion first takes out an orc with a stealth kill that’d make Sam Fisher proud. As the clueless mark bleeds out, the protagonist then leverages a Wraith ability to identify Ratbag; this mechanic consumes the screen in a menacing blue fog before focusing on the target. Swapping between sword and dagger, Talion shish-ka-bobs a throng of baddies and burns a few others by tossing them into a fire. The combo-heavy melees immediately recall the rhythmic flow of counters, attacks, and stuns that define the Arkham series’ combat. With much of the camp reduced to pulpy puddles, Ratbag – who already fears the ranger based on an earlier Nemesis System-engineered encounter – makes a run for it.

Slowing time with a Wraith ability, Talion skewers the fleeing foe with an arrow. He then possesses his target with a glowing blue hand to the face, prompting button-mapped choices (assassinate, terrorize, spy, or sacrifice) to appear on screen. Selecting the first option calls up an interface populated by action figure-like interpretations of Ratbag’s many associates; perusing the army of uglies, the player’s able to learn about their relationships with Ratbag as well as their individual strengths, weaknesses, and other personal traits. Orthog, whose severely scarred face is proof of a previous tango with Talion, is chosen as Ratbag’s assassination target.

Dynamic death. Fast-forwarding to Orthog’s lair, the demo sees Talion stealthily infiltrating the fortress with the sort of scurrying, climbing, and silent-killing usually reserved for one of Assassin’s Creeds’ cloaked killers. Upon possessing an archer and triggering Ratbag –  Manchurian Candidate-style – Talion sets the wheels of his target’s demise in motion. The puppet assassin puts a dent in Orthog’s health bar, but is ultimately choked and pummeled by his former master.

A battle that makes the melee at Ratbag’s camp look like a school yard scuffle breaks out. Orthog’s minions and Ratbag’s followers – who now do Talion’s bidding thanks to the Nemesis System’s trickle-down effect – duke it out; Talion slices and dices through the horde, presented by swarms of red blips on a mini-map, while he piles corpses and experience points high. Based on his previous meeting with Talion, Orthog puts up a good fight, but ultimately loses his head to the half ranger/half Wraith.

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Pretty…and pretty dark. Clearly leveraging the power of next-gen hardware, Shadow of Mordor looks like a very pretty third-person action-RPG. Complemented by detail-drenched character models, atmospheric lighting and shadowing tech, and immersive weather and particle effects, it brings Tolkien’s world to life with cinema-rivaling flair. All that said, don’t expect to find Frodo frolicking in the Shire; from its gore-soaked combat and battle-scarred environments to its vengeance-fueled narrative, Shadow of Mordor is a dark, brooding title that should have no trouble earning an M-rating.

Takeaway

While our demo displayed only a slice of the overall experience, the potential depth of the Nemesis System looks like a promising addition to the action-RPG genre. If the ambitious feature – as well as a promised open-world -can be organically woven with the thumb-blistering gameplay, Shadow of Mordor could be the one Lord of the Rings title to rule them all.

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