After getting some hands-on time with Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor at WB’s booth on the Pax Prime show floor, I can report that gamers should be excited that its released date was bumped up a week to September 30, 2014. This game is much more than the Assassin’s Creed clone that the community first labeled it as back when it was first unveiled. It definitely uses some time honored tactics from that franchise, but at the same time it adds a plethora of new gameplay mechanics that allow Shadow of Mordor to stand apart from Ubisoft’s franchise, effectively making it feel like something entirely new.
The Pax demo featured the PS4 version of the game, and it looked mighty fine, although it was clear that the game is also being developed for the older consoles, which inevitably affects the next-gen build. With that being said the PS4 version didn’t disappoint whatsoever in the visual department. Talion is detailed masterfully and featured a very rich design and style that reflects the world Tolkien has created. The environment is also lush and green, and very Middle-earth feeling, although as explained by my Monolith guide, the environments will eventually reflect the desolate dark lands of Mordor that fans have come to know from the books and Jackson’s live action films based on them.
I was most impressed with the orc designs though, as they’re quite varied and unique, especially when it comes to the bodyguards, captains, and the war chiefs that control them all. It appears that the regular regiments of orc soldiers will be a pool of copy and paste characters, but the orcs you can choose to pursue through the game’s Nemesis system all have unique appearances, personalities, and names. When asked if most of the orc names come from Tolkien’s world the developer did confirm that they did, so the team has done its best to stay loyal to the source material.
The cutscenes are also quite nice to look at, especially on the PS4, which like the Xbox One and PC versions will offer the best visuals possible. I didn’t spend much time watching them though so I could avoid spoilers and get to the gameplay as soon as possible.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor does feel quite natural to play especially if you’ve enjoyed the Assassin’s Creed series. The combat and parkour aspects are definitely very familiar, but I found that to be a good thing, because it allowed me to easily pick up the game and play it competently. Outside of the similarities such as attacking and parrying, Shadow does feature additional gameplay mechanics not found in the AC franchise. The most notable is the bow and arrow weapon, which is spiritual based and allows Talion to either range kill with it, or it can be used to dominate, aka posses beasts to ride, or orcs to bring to your side to fight on your behalf.
There are also much more brutal finishing moves in this game than others that feature the attack and parry mechanic made famous by the AC franchise. I completely enjoyed and even cheered for some of the more vicious finishers, which typically play out in slow-mo fashion for added effect.
Fighting is fun and seamless, but taking over beasts to ride, or orcs to control, is where Shadow of Mordor shines. During my demo I shot my possession arrow into a mountable beast that looked like a rhino crossed with a small dinosaur, which then became mine to ride. Atop the beast I waylaid legions of cannon fodder orcs like a Rider of Rohan en route to my goal, which I set before the level began.
In Shadow of Mordor no two playthroughs or experiences will ever be the same thanks to the Nemesis system, which you can use before entering the map to choose how you’ll plan your attack on the war chief of your choice. Each war chief has captains and bodyguards that are loyal to them, and each orc faction is unique from the rest, and they’re always eager to challenge each other. As the player you must decide whether to pick off the war chief’s underlings en route to taking out the big boss, or you could take them over using Talion’s dominate powers to make them fight for you. Pursuing this route will allow you to capture or kill the war chief more easily, but you could also go right after them if you feel like your balls are big enough.
I chose to focus on a lowly orc and make my way up to the supreme baddy, so I headed out in search of my target. Using wraith vision Talion can see enemies through walls and can more easily spot his chosen target. When the targets are spotted they will then become visible on the map. Once you have your target in site you can either head off in search of them, or if you’ve unlocked a stronghold by capturing it, you can quick travel to it. For the sake of time I used the quick travel system and got right in the thick of things. I coaxed my target into a battle and we began to beat each other down all while other orc minions attacked me from various directions. I planned on dominating the orc and bringing him under my control, but I killed him instead, which conveniently brought his war chief into play, who was my ultimate goal.
I ran into the battle against the war chief like a mad man and paid dearly for it, but I was able to save myself with the game’s last chance system that offers a QTE mini-game to earn your life back. Even with this second chance I still fell to the war chief and his forces, which ended my game and demo. I did get to see the consequences of this defeat, which were very far reaching. The war chief, his bodyguards, and his captains all got stat boosts for killing me, while one of his bodyguards was also promoted to a captain. By seeing this play out in real time it’s clear that the possible ways to play and complete Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor are nearly limitless, so the game should easily pay off on its claim of no two playthroughs ever being alike.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor had my attention going into Pax Prime, but now it also has my money. I found the game to be quite fun to play, and very enjoyable to look at, and there are enough additions to the gameplay to make it stand out amongst similar style games. That coupled with the fact that the game is based on the rich deep world and lore of Tolkien’s Middle-earth, make it a must-play for both action game fans and Tolkien fans alike.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is set to ship this September for the PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, and PC.
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