No offence to Guardians Of Middle-earth and LEGO The Lord Of The Rings, both of which were entertaining recent takes on tried-and-true formulas, but it's been a while since we've had a really fresh, ambitious video game based on Tolkien's fantasy universe.
That's about to change with September's release of Middle-earth: Shadow Of Mordor, which looks like being the most enticing trip to Hobbitland for years. While parts of it seem liberally pulled from action genre pillars such as Assassin's Creed and the Batman: Arkham series, the world around those cribbed elements looks incredibly rich and inviting, with strategic surprises abounding.
And after the sleepy slog of this year's one-too-many LEGO The Hobbit, isn't it about time that we felt like a real badass tromping around Middle-earth?
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Lore of the Rings
Perhaps the biggest strength of Shadow of Mordor is that there's no obligation to put Gandalf and the Hobbits on the screen every few minutes – it's not tied directly into the movies or books, which gives developer Monolith a chance to tell stories that aren't known by heart and create excitement around other characters.
In this case, the hero is Talion, a skilled Ranger of Gondor who guarded the Black Gate – until he and his family were killed by Sauron and his captains. Except Talion was 'banished from death', revived, and bound to an Elvish Wraith named Celebrimbor, granting them incredible joint power. Celebrimbor is a notable character in Middle-earth lore, having forged the Rings of Power, so the fact that he's to be a central character here has been hugely well received by hardcore fans.
A familiar Creed
It's unfair to say that Shadow Of Mordor is simply a Lord of the Rings-themed Assassin's Creed knock-off – it's a lot more than that, thankfully. But when it comes to traversing the open world, the resemblance is simply uncanny. Seeing Talion run up a wall, climb plank by plank to the roof, then glide down for an assassination, it looks like it was peeled right out of Ubisoft's historical series.
Meanwhile, the combat seems to take its cues from Warner's own Batman: Arkham series, with combos and counter moves that chain together as you're attacked by groups of foes. Between these approaches, each big encounter in the game offers multiple paths and philosophies to employ. Do you charge into battle or use your stealth and agility to sneak around unseen? The choice is often yours.
More after the break...
Everyone needs a Nemesis
What primarily saves Shadow Of Mordor from feeling like a cobbled together genre mash-up is the Nemesis system, which ties together the whole world and gives every action a sense of permanence.
If you brutally beat an Orc and it escapes, the next encounter with it will be contextualised appropriately – the enemy will remember what you did, and react accordingly. Did you kill a major captain in the world? His minions aren't going to forget that, and they'll come after you aggressively in combat.
What's exciting is that these aren't simply token acknowledgments of past decisions, but rather hints at a larger system – a thriving Orc society, where your every action has the potential to disrupt their structure and drive their motives.
You can even see an in-game flow chart of how the individually named Orcs relate to others found in the world. And they'll get stronger and evolve over time, just as you will. That's not only a neat trick, but also something to give each playthrough a very personal touch.
Feel my Wraith
With the power of Celebrimbor within, Talion becomes a bad, bad man in the world of Middle-earth. He's able to utilise the power to follow enemies into Mordor, and can identify enemies in the Wraith world to read their strengths and weaknesses – and then alter his battle tactics accordingly back in the living world.
Wraith powers manifest in the heat of action, whether it's teleporting around when in pursuit of a foe or nailing long-range archery shots, but you can also terrorise enemies and take control of them. For example, you can possess an Orc and send him on an assassination mission, or have him spy on or spread fear amidst his allies. Choosing the terror option creates missions in the open world that allow you to pursue different paths.
Those are the sorts of things that make Shadow Of Mordor look so compelling: not that it's a fantasy take on familiar action favorites, but that it uses that seemingly solid core to then venture in new directions and try ambitious new things. And Shadow Of Mordor is generating all the right kind of buzz at the big gaming conventions of late, making it seem like the rare licensed title that feels fully formed and amazing. You know, like the Arkham games.
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Make mine Mordor
Middle-earth: Shadow Of Mordor launches on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on 3 October, while the PC version will actually beat the consoles to the UK on 30 September, since that's when the North American versions launch.
Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions were originally supposed to debut at the same time, but Warner Bros. has opted to delay those last-gen releases until 21 November to "take more time in development."
That's disappointing, but it's important to note that the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions – not yet shown as of this writing – reportedly won't be fully featured, and won't have the full Nemesis system in place. We may not know until launch how extensive those versions may be, but assume that anything mentioned above is only confirmed for newer hardware.
But one thing we do know about it is that the new-gen version is looking very exciting, and it'll only be weeks before we're neck-deep in Orc hide.