It was enough to turn heads when Warner Bros. announced that the first next-gen Lord of the Rings game would have little to do with the franchise's films, and would be developed by the team at Monolith (makers of F.E.A.R. and Condemned). With a darker tone and treatment, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is going after a new audience, and is turning to some experimental game design to get the job done. Our curiosity has only grown now that we've had the chance to play it for ourselves at E3 2014.
Given how well-known and successful the fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien's has proven, it's unsurprising to see that much of Shadow of Mordor's marketing so far has focused on the story and main character. The playable demo shown at E3 hinted at some of the lingering mystery surrounding Talion's immortality, but with the mechanics of the Nemesis System seen as the most intriguing aspect of the game's design, they took center stage.
After being given minimal instruction on the actual controls of Shadow of Mordor (virtually interchangeable with Assassin's Creed or Batman: Arkham Knight being shown next door), and a the basic mission of 'taking out an Orc Chieftain,' the game's world was opened up entirely. The map being shown was not as big as some other open environments being touted, proving that the enemy encounters and tailored story is the overall priority for Monolith, not wow-ing players with sprawling landscapes.
In Talion's mission to bring down the game's villain, The Black Hand (voiced by Nolan North), progress is made by removing Sauron's 'Black Captains' not through brute force, but something modeling the real politics and rivalry expected in an Orc military. And with Talion's Wraith abilities allowing him to sway Orc leaders and their troops to his will, filling Sauron's elite ranks with his puppets will be how most players spend their time.
In our case, that meant investigating the known Orc leaders for strengths and weaknesses, and determining which members would be both weak enough for Talion to defeat and brainwash, yet still strong enough to offer their Chieftain a fight. After some stumbling through the dark and rainy environments, a prime candidate came into focus, with an opportunity presenting itself soon.
In the world of Shadow of Mordor, reputation and tact are everything. In this case, the Orc's upcoming trial - in which he publicly fights another soldier or creature as a display of honor - was the chance Talion was waiting for. It was up to the player, the developer explained, whether to sabotage his battle, or simply drop into the fight to defeat him and any who came to his defense.
Once successful, the Orc swayed by Talion's Wraith side could be ordered to spread Talion's legend, but a direct assassination attempt seemed the wiser choice for a short demo. One such mission was shown months ago in an early gameplay walkthrough, but the version seen here was extremely different, allowing the leader to be challenged in a one-on-one battle (a battle, it was explained, would include the Cheiftain's bodyguards, had they not been killed or turned beforehand).
While straightforward enough, these battles offer the chance to shape the enemies with as much nuance and detail as RPG heroes tend to be granted. While both missions proved successful, failure would be just as acceptable - since Talion is immortal, after all. Yet a defeat increases the reputation of the victorious Chieftain, while still marking him with damage incurred in the confrontation.
So even though failing a mission is not as immediately punishing as most RPGs of this style, the stakes feel just as high, since the ramifications of a failed assassination are farther reaching because the game accepts it as a plausible result. And more than anything, makes these villains more than just placeholder challenges; it makes them nuanced characters in the overall story.
[gallery link="file" columns="2" ids="229788,229787,229786,229781"]
Unsurprisingly, that emphasis on tailoring a unique adventure and group of enemies means that a short gameplay session isn't ideal for establishing an accurate sense of the finished product. The game is mechanically sound (if not exactly groundbreaking), and nothing to balk at from a graphics perspective; although the rainy night showcased for the game is likely not the best example of what the engine makes possible.
However, it was the potential for completely unexpected gameplay that made the largest impression on us. Shadow of Mordor may be pitched as a serious, mature revenge story from the script's point of view, but the open-ended gameplay tells a slightly different story. At some point after we had managed to mount and control a monstrous, troll-like Graug, steering it through a pack of Orcs being stomped underfoot, it became clear that the game had more to it than traditional third-person traversal and combat.
Going by the fits of laughter from the developer on hand when the Orc leader whom we had targeted for domination took the full brunt of a Graug swing, sending him pinwheeling into a cliff face in slow motion, the team is just as interested in what they can't script into the game's systems. It was a failed mission, but the designer's reaction suggested that the lunacy of the failure might be part of the point, as well.
In the end, our impressions of the game were far less complete and well-defined as other third-person games being shown, but that seems to be the point for Monolith. Instead of offering a varied walkthrough that sent a clear message they had intended, the game's systems were left wide open to produce whatever story they might. That alone makes Shadow of Mordor something different, and one game that has our curiosity as well as our interest.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor releases October 7, 2014 for the PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrew_dyce.