Much like “Star Wars,” “Lord of the Rings” has a lot of rich history and lore, and a big chunk that’s yet to be explored is the time in between when “The Hobbit” takes place and when “The Fellowship of the Ring” begins. It’s a time of strife and war, during which the Dark Lord Sauron established his base of power in Mordor, enslaving its human residents and forging endless armies of Orcs. And it’s the perfect time period in which to set a video game, Monolith Productions’ Bob Roberts told CBR at E3 2014.
“It’s great getting to tell a new story, and in a place that’s so-like, it’s perfect for a game,” Roberts, the game’s lead designer, said. “It’s full of bad guys to kill, and it’s all about power and domination and fear and hate.”
That aspect of “power and domination” is more than just a narrative theme in Monolith and WB Games’ “Shadow of Mordor,” and it will manifest quite tangibly in the action by way of the “Nemesis” system. In this unique menu, enemy Orcs are given names, titles and ranks within their own burgeoning armies. Their alliances shift and wane, and by exerting influence over — literally, dominating with mind control — key foes, players can gain power over entire legions of Orcs.
The game’s protagonist, a Gondorian ranger named Talion, cannot die, though he may wish to — he was killed along with his entire family some time before the game began, but resurrected mysteriously, possessed by a wraith. The developers aren’t spilling more of the story for now, but the practical effect is that Talion can be killed by an Orc and return to fight the same enemy again within minutes. And the beauty is that the Orcs are not oblivious to this fact. “Time is always moving forward,” Roberts said. “You’re not just reloading from a checkpoint, which enables us to have guys remember you and build a history with you and build a relationship.”
Orcs will express surprise and react in other ways when they recognize Talion returning from the grave they thought they sent him to. “They’re little things, but you get enough of them and you start to build a real sense of a connection to these guys,” Roberts said. Along the way these Orcs’ repeated triumphs over him get them promoted higher and higher in their armies’ hierarchies, even earning them names, like “Nazdug the Literate One” or “Zogdush Lump-head.”
That’s one facet of the game’s open-ended nature, actually — and one of the many ways in which to gain power over your foes in “Shadow of Mordor.” In the demo CBR News played at E3, Talion set out to dominate the five Orc war chiefs located in a region known as the Sea of NÃºrnen. Using the Nemesis menu, which shows details about Orcs whom he’s already had contact with or gained intel about, he determined to target one chief’s bodyguard.
Dominating that bodyguard will let you send it to assassinate its own chief, but that’s only one option of many. You can also try to kill enough of the war chiefs’ underlings that the chiefs simply emerge to fight you themselves. Or you can gain control over a lesser foe and let it rise in the ranks until you’ve made your own war chief, then have it send its armies against your target’s armies, barely getting your own hands dirty at all.
What this all amounts to is an action role-playing game that’s more than just a hack-and-slash romp through the fields that will eventually become the heart of Sauron’s power in Mordor. “It’s been really interesting for us to try and describe it,” Roberts said.
The game’s combat is up-close and dirty. Like any other action RPG, you’ll fiddle with Talion’s equipment, gain experience and navigate skill trees to make him an effective fighter. He has ranged and magic attacks as well as flashy-looking melee combos (think WB’s “Arkham” series of Batman games for an analogous melee combat system), and he can use mind control to turn enemies to his side even in the thick of battle. In the E3 demo, he rode a quadrupedal beast called a Caragor into battle, charging enemies and tearing into them when they hit the ground. He can also ride trolls and other creatures.
There’s a lot to do in “Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor,” and a lot of different ways to do it. Many developers claim that player agency is important in their games, but that usually only goes so far. “Skyrim” lets you wander around all you want, but when it comes to completing quests you still have to get to A and collect B, or learn C to kill D. Yet while the goals may be set in “Shadow of Mordor,” the ways to accomplish them really do seem to be up to players.
Nemesis is just one vehicle from which players will explore this open-world RPG’s story, penned by “Red Dead Redemption” writer and Lead Designer Christian Cantamessa. “Because that’s kind of the biggest new thing we’re trying to wrap people’s heads around, that’s what we’ve focused on here,” Robert said, but there’s a lot more to discover about “Shadow of Mordor.”
“All we kind of have to work with is we know Gollum was in Mordor at this time, and we know kind of where it ends and begins, but we get a lot of room in the middle to explore and play with the themes of Tolkien — death and immortality and power,” Roberts said. And just from what’s been shown so far it’s clear those themes are being explored to their fullest.
“Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor” is scheduled to be released on Oct. 7 2014 for PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, and PC.