Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor Impressions

So here I was, sitting in a massive theater ready to watch WB show us some live gameplay of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. As you can probably guess, I was a little bummed I was not going hands-on myself, but I was excited nonetheless to see the game actually played in front of me.

I was cautiously optimistic at what I was about to experience.

For those who are unaware, I am an unabashed Tolkien purist. I love the lore, the canon, and everything else there is around his legendarium. My first writing gig was with a Tolkien-themed site, Middle-earth News. So needless to say, I’m always looking at anything set in the world of Arda through a very thick and unwavering lens.

That being said: I want this game.


Talion and Marwen. Who is holding a staff. Not sure why it’s glowing, though.

To bring the uninitiated up to speed, Shadow of Mordor takes place in, well, Mordor. Mordor is the land in the south-east of Middle-earth, and is home to many places such as Minas Ithil, now known as Minas Morgul, the Orodruin (Mount Doom), the vale of Gorgoroth, and of course during the time period SoM takes place – the foundations of the might tower of Barad-dûr.

You play as Talion, a Gondorian ranger tasked with guarding the walls of the Ash Mountains. When Sauron is driven from Mirkwood, Talion and his family are slaughtered at the hands of Sauron’s agents. However, Talion is resurrected by the spirit of a wraith, and through this wraith he is able to perform many tricks and skills otherwise unavailable to him.

Shadow of Mordor boasts a robust system at the core of its game called the Nemesis engine. This will make it so no two playthroughs are the same, as each enemy you encounter will have their own unique set of skills and weaknesses, habits, fears, traits and so on. This was stressed many times during our presentation – that every presentation so far that day was different.

The core tenant of gameplay has Talion either kill or dominate their enemies to be used in his own personal army against more powerful orcs. While viewing the army screen, we could see the different ranks of orc in the area from Grunts, Captains and Warchiefs. Each battle an orc goes through makes it stronger (if it survives). Even battles that aren’t against you could raise their skill and renown throughout Mordor as they rise to the top of the ranks and become warchiefs themselves.

The demo opened up with a cut-scene between Talion and Marwen, a story-driving NPC who will help Talion along his journey. She sends him to the region of Nurn – a lush, grassy region in Mordor within which Sauron uses slave labor to feed his war machine – to help with the resistance there. The demo had Talion choosing between one of five warchiefs and engaging him.

Each warchief was wholly unique – no two were the same. Some were weaker than others (the one we decided to take on had 6 orcs serving as his bodyguards), some prefer melee, some ranged. Each one had their own unique set of strengths and weaknesses, and each one had a specific motive or fact you can use to your advantage. One for instance, was extremely scared of a certain local beast. So if you wanted, you could dominate that beast and bring it to the fight, and the warchief would react accordingly. Another was completely content in serving Sauron, hinting that he might be best killed and harder to dominate than other orcs.

The combat on display was wholly fluid and deadly. This is definitely in the same vein as the visceral combat we witnessed in WB’s last major LotR game War in the North. Heads were rolling and there were even a couple of finishing moves that reminded me of playing Ryse: Son of Rome. The freedom of the game allows you to approach each situation as you choose. Want to make a suicidal run (like we had our guy do) and just try and cut your way to the warchief? You’ll likely die (we did), but you can! Or you can take a more methodical approach: kill or dominate each of his bodyguards and use them to kill the warchief, or at least weaken him enough for you to pop out of the shadows and finish the job.

The wraith abilities on display seemed to flow seamlessly throughout combat. Whether it was using some of the wraith’s feä to blind your enemy, or using the wraith to appear invisible to others so you can sneak your way through the enemy forces, playing as both Talion and the Wraith seem to be at the core of the combat, as well as how you traverse the land. Fall from a tall spot? Use your wraith to cushion the fall.

In the end, we died, and here another aspect of the Nemesis system was shone. Even in death, time moves forward. The orc that kills you has just grown in might and renown throughout Mordor, and has also unlocked a special “revenge” mission. You can either ignore this, or confront the orc and, well…take revenge.

Respawning is explained through the wraith. If the wraith can resurrect you once, why can’t it again? So death does not mean “game over” in SoM.

All in all, the game looked and seemed to handle beautifully. I saw no hiccups in the gameplay footage, which for a game slated to be released in less than 6 months, is a good thing. The area of Mordor we saw wasn’t the usual picture of what Mordor is, and that is ok. It means we will see more than just the ashen slag wastelands of the Gorgoroth Vale and the grim walls of Cirith Ungol, giving the open world of the Land of Shadow much more character.

All in all, Shadow of Mordor is getting rave reception here at E3, and for good reason. With fluid gameplay mechanics and an intriguing setting, Monolith seems to have struck upon the right chord with this game. A good mix of stealth and smooth melee combat, coupled with a game system that insures that no two playthroughs are alike, Shadow of Mordor seems as though it will be a hit come this fall when it hits PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation3, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 October 7th.

One comment

  • Really excited for this. Like you, Joseph, I am a bit confused by the lore and story elements. BUT, if the game itself is as awesome and fun as it looks I am willing to suspend that confusion and go along for the ride.

    Can’t wait! Thanks for the write up.

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