It's difficult to garner mainstream attention using the Lord of the Rings name these days; although the film universe marches on, so many disappointing game incarnations have soured the series for many gamers. But that's a trend that the developers of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor intend to break.
The team at Monolith have released a new gameplay walkthrough showing the game's core combat and traversal. While it may still be pre-alpha footage, the larger systems hinted at are sure to catch the attention of RPG fans, not to mention fans of good old-fashioned orc-slaying.
It's true that a sword-and shield, fantasy setting is nothing particularly new for the triple-A or RPG markets, but the next-gen tech on display in the walkthrough is promising (especially for owners of either next-gen console looking for something to push it to its limits). And what is perhaps most clear from this footage is how Monolith is making sure to attract the largest audience possible; mainly, by adopting plenty of third-person mechanics that have become commonplace in recent years.
The hero of Shadow of Mordor, Talion the Gondorian Ranger is clearly as skilled in combat and traversal as any modern knight, assassin, sorcerer, or special operative. The telltale 'counter' icons above enemy heads, and the ability to enter a specialized mode of vision to better target enemies and friendlies is par for the course, as well. But that doesn't mean the game's developers haven't come up with an in-universe story to provide context.
Talion's death and resurrection at the hands of a Spirit of Vengeance have left him a changed man(?), with a set of special Wraith Abilities that will provide an extra edge as he seeks justice against those who killed him. That extra dimension helps to explain his own Assassin's Creed-like 'Eagle Vision,' but the walkthrough shows that a unique view of the battlefield is just scratching the surface. And what lies below is the true heart of Shadow of Mordor: the Nemesis System.
As next-gen, open world franchises like The Witcher, Dragon Age and Assassin's Creed seek to flesh out their heroes and environments more than ever before, the villains and enemies remain largely scripted and interchangeable. At least, that's what Monolith believes, and is out to correct by way of Talion's quest for vengeance.
Talion has a long list of orc and Uruk chieftains to work his way through, ranging from powerfully deadly to - luckily for players - those more suited to beginners. But rather than generate scripted versions and storylines for each of Sauron's 'Black Captains,' the developers had the idea of reflecting the same procedural storytelling and consequences used to shape the hero onto the villains. The result is Nemesis, a system through which each player's unique choices will create villains tailor-made for their playthrough.
At least, that's the pitch. It's far too early to tell just how groundbreaking the mechanic will prove (whether the results are truly enormously varied or simply swapping variables in and out), but in an interview with Polygon, director of design Michael de Plater explained that the Nemesis System wasn't a pitched gimmick from the start, but something the team arrived at naturally:
"We didn't necessarily start with the idea of making it procedural. I think the starting idea was we wanted to do something new and next-gen with our enemies. There are villains in every game, but how do we make the player create their own personal villain?
"When players can create their own stories, it becomes so much more meaningful and memorable... In every game, you fight so many nameless grunts, and we didn't want to do that. We wanted to make those more interesting and give them more possibility [without creating scripted villains.]"
There's no question that player investment and control is only going to become more and more of a priority and design influence, especially as next-gen tech opens up all new possibilities in terms of programming and dynamic mission design. Monolith is one of the first teams to emphasize a player's control over shaping their opponents as well as their avatars, but the immersion and variations are still unknowable.
But where story details and flourishes are concerned, a little effort can go a long way: a fact made clear thanks to the recent resurgence of classic adventure game-styled personalization, where players may arrive at the same conclusion, but see enough personal nods or inclusions to make their experience feel unique.
In Shadow of Mordor, the developers will be adding a twist of their own. According to de Plater, a particular player's choices and fights won't only be used to generate missions and a final act, but will be relayed to the player along the way:
"We know, out of these hundreds of enemies which ones you've had the biggest relationship with and what the nature of that relationship is... So when we really want to make a villain pop up out of the crowd, if someone gets burned or if they get stomped by trolls or shot through the head, that's the guy can can bring back.
"It's not going to happen everywhere, but we hand-select the coolest guys based on your play-through and bring them back. When that happens, it's super memorable."
Does the gameplay footage or approach to enemy progression seen in Shadow of Mordor have your attention? Can the game stand out against established next-gen releases like The Witcher 3 or Dragon Age: Inquisition? Sound off in the comments.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor will release for the PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrew_dyce.