Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor Hands-On Preview

One does not simply walk...

Middle Earth Shadow of Mordor Hands-On Preview
22nd May, 2014 By Ian Morris

We're sat perched on top of the ruin of a rugged castle wall, admiring the vista in front of us. A group of caragor (strange, fantasy beastie things that look part dinosaur and part horse) graze below us, long grass sways to and fro, and the sun glistens off the huge expanse of ocean in front of us. It's a world away from what we've seen of Shadow of Mordor so far, but a welcome change from the imposing grey. With mountains to the side, a gigantic field behind us, and a cool refreshing breeze from the rear, we drop down to a slightly lower vantage point, admiring our cape fluttering, as our hair tousles in the breeze.

Though he may technically be dead, and only kept alive thanks to the Wraith that's resurrected him as a means to getting at Sauron, the archetypal Lord of the Rings baddie who's just been banished to Mordor, if this whole avenging his family's death thing doesn't work out, our hero Talion definitely has a career in L'Oreal adverts.

Middle Earth Shadow of Mordor Screenshot

Because I'm worth it...

Still, there's little point sitting around admiring what a few extra GHz  of processing power can do for creating some sexy looking hair, and in the world of Shadow of Mordor, time waits for no-one. An adventure game within a living and breathing world, Mordor is the setting not only for your redemption story, but it's also home to the volatile army of Sauron. The twist here is that rather than being some background digits, in Shadow of Mordor, your version of Middle Earth, and the enemies who inhabit it, will be unique to you. With their own personalities, feelings, and strengths and weaknesses, these are intended to be more than just cardboard cut-out cannon fodder - they're named, individual, dynamic bad guys - and when you do go up against them, win or lose, they'll remember what happened last time, in an in game feature known as the Nemesis system. For the demo mission we got to play, we were tasked with gaining control of a war chief, to infiltrate Sauron's army. That meant infiltrating the orc hierarchy from the bottom - and that meant leaving our perch on top of the castle wall.

Unfortunately, we had two problems. The first is that we were lazy, and the second is that we've heard a saying around these parts that one does not simply walk into Mordor. Never ones to spit in the face of tradition, we instead decided to have a look around in Wraith vision mode, a kind of special filter which brings with it a number of advantages. As well as highlighting useful items, powerful enemies, and other objects of interest in the environment, Wraith vision also lets you use your Wraithly abilities to teleport towards an enemy at the touch of a button. While that's handy for dealing with tricky enemies, it's even handier for the aforementioned caragors, as all you have to do is point at a nearby (or distant) caragor, and press a button to warp onto the back of the wild creature, and instantly "dominate" it, letting you bend it to your will - and, more importantly, ride it. After all - one does not simply walk into Mordor - so why not take a ride instead?

While the whole domination thing may sound a little bit 50 Shades, this is one of Talion's more unique powers. Thanks to being taken over by a Wraith, he can stare straight into the soul of susceptible enemies, and effectively take them over. Once they're under your control, your new-found friends will carry on about their daily lives, never arousing suspicion from anyone else - until you need them. Any creature you come across in the world is susceptible to being dominated, but some are more susceptible than others - some take some weakening first, whereas others will be on their knees as soon as you so much as glance in their direction.

Middle Earth Shadow of Mordor Screenshot

Melting their mind, and making them your own.

So, about this War Chief we had to take control of, then. Pressing the options button (we were playing on PS4) took us into a menu where we could see the local orc hierarchy. Every one of these major enemies in the game has their own personality - and, thanks to a random generator, are unique to your game. Each with their own strengths and weaknesses, whether they're immune to ranged attacks or terrified of caragor, if you've come across a character in the world before, you'll be able to check their unique abilities, and plan your approach accordingly. Of course, you won't know anything if you haven't come across them before - but that's where the grunts come in.

Essentially, every orc you come across in the game world is connected to another in some way, whether it's through being a bodyguard, a follower, or just a generic grunt in their army. While you're making your way through the brooks and up the trees that Mordor has to offer, you'll often come across smaller, ragtag groups of orcs - but that doesn't make them any less interesting. If any of the enemies have a diamond shaped icon above their head, that orc is an informer - someone who knows something that may be of interest to you, if you can get it out of him. Having just come across a small group of our own, we dismounted our caragor, and left it at a safe distance (they don't like orcs - but they certainly like to eat them), before planning our approach, from the safety of a nearby bush.

If one thing's clear, it's that Shadow or Mordor is a game that has a heck of a lot of depth and options. It's free form in the extreme, in that there are so many ways each situation can be approached. Here, we could have chosen to go in stealthily, hiding inside the bush, whistling to attract his attention, before popping out and instantly dominating him (it's easier when they don't expect it) - but instead, we decide to delve in all guns blazing (or, rather, swords swinging). Luckily, the combat system's streamlined to only make use of a few well timed button presses - with one button handling attack, triangle handling counters (a handy icon pops up to tell you when you can do it), and X letting you dodge, you don't have to memorise the world's largest combos to look like you know what you're doing - and timing your moves at the right times will let you take on a whole horde of orcs single handedly.

Get an enemy stunned during battle after landing a particularly effective hit, and you'll be able to "Brand" them, which is essentially a quicker way of dominating them without giving them any orders. After landing a few good blows on our potential informer, a quick brand later saw us gaining the information we needed on a few of the more senior orcs in the nearby area. Dugza the diseased, a handsome looking fellow covered in flies; Latbag the Pit Fighter, perhaps the intellectual of the bunch; and the unfortunately named Kaka the Unkillable, a guy whose teeth are shaper than his mind. Feeling unusually brave, we chose to go for Kaka.

The whole plan here is to slowly work your way up the orc hierachy, dominating key figures within the army, and then removing anyone who stands in their way, so you can get your guys into the top spots. If we could dominate one of the War Chief's bodyguards, we'd be able to set up a betrayal, which we could make sure goes in our favour.

With the target now set in our map, it was back to our trust steed for some cross country travel. You can fast travel if you choose to do so - it's just that it's more fun to take your ride, especially as they're so unnaturally agile. While Talion himself has a somewhat superhuman vertical leap, able to scale castle walls with his bare hands, Assassin's Creed style, your caragor goes one better, and can jump from floor to castle roof in a single bounce. He's also not that bad at gnawing on orcs, should you happen to run into them - but like everything in the game, even this can have an equal and opposite reaction, depending on how the battle goes.

It's this Nemesis system, and the persistent memories it creates in the baddies that the developers are hoping will make the game feel truly unique. As the game's design director, Michael de Plater told us "The goal is to make personal, memorable villains. We spent a lot of time looking at TV Tropes - villains have some really interesting rules around them - when they run, when they jump out to ambush you, when they wanna get revenge because you've killed your friends. [What we've created is] almost like an AI driven dungeon master - we wanted to engineer these interactions" If an enemy has a bad experience with your caragor, they'll remember the next time you see them, and either be terrified of it, or be enraged, which makes them even stronger. Let someone survive, and whether they're left scarred, burnt, or with less limbs than they started with, they'll gain a strong vendetta against you - and you'll have left your mark on them, physically.

Middle Earth Shadow of Mordor Screenshot

Down boy!

As a unique twist, the bosses won't just keep coming at you until you eventually whittle away their health bar, either. If things are going badly enough, they'll actually run. While they'll often outnumber, outgun (outsword?) and outpower you, should you happen to be strong enough to get the upper hand, the villains won't fight to the death. They have an instinct of self-preservation, and they'll do all they can to survive. If you let them escape, the orc hierarchy is ever fluid, and ever changing, and a boss that knows you, your weaknesses and your strengths may manage to move up the rankings, becoming entrenched as the boss you just can't beat...

Still, that wasn't an issue for now, as we were off to meet our next subject and bodyguard to the War Chief, Ming the Merciless Kaka the Unkillable for our showdown. With any luck, his name would be an omen, as it was important to us that we kept him alive. As our route to the War Chief, ol' Kaka would be no use to us dead.

After a bit of searching through undergrowth and bush, we eventually found him and a group of his men, camped up on top of a cliff. Of course, the cliff was no match for our faithful caragor, who scaled it in a single leap, but again, we had to deposit him away from the scene of the action. Good boy. Crouching down to approach in full on stealth mode, we surveyed what was in front of us to come up with a plan of action. There was only a handful of men, mostly fairly weak looking orcs, with old Kaka sitting there toasting marshmallows and singing kumbaya around the camp fire (we couldn't quite make it out, but we imagine that's what he was doing), with two arrows and a sword sticking out of his back. Guess that's why he's called unkillable.

Keeping our stealth hat on (metaphorically - wouldn't want to mess up his hair), we crept ever closer to the base, sneaking up behind an archer and branding them, turning them to our cause. Another bit of sneaking, and two more orcs were under our control - just waiting for us to tell them to attack. Earlier in our demo, we'd been told we could press up on the d-pad to signal the time had come - and so, with three men (well, orcs) by our side, we unleashed hell.

Realising the betrayal, Kaka turned around and snorted something out at us before battle "ONE OF US WILL DIE - AND I THINK IT WILL BE ME... THAT KILLS YOU!", before charging at us head first. As a captain, he was far, far too tough to instantly take over - and he had hordes of support, too. Still, they were no match for our blade and button mashing skills, and before too long, the heads were rolling, and it was just us and Kaka remaining. But, how do we dominate again?

Gah, we'd forgotten! There we were, standing face to face with our nemesis, as his health started getting dangerously low, and he seemed to be thinking about running, and we couldn't remember what button to press. Frantically, we mashed a few trying to remember, before it came back to us. Ah, R1, that was it! We tapped it, pulled Kaka closer, and.... chucked him straight off the cliff to his doom. Turns out holding R1 lets you access the dominate menu, while pressing it chucks people off cliffs. If only we'd known that sooner, we could have saved ourselves some effort in combat...

Middle Earth Shadow of Mordor Screenshot

Sorry Kaka...

Still, with the Unkillable one, er, killed and no way to get at our War Chief, we had some work cut out for us. Luckily, we just so happened to stumble across another captain, the enviable Dusk Skin Flayer a few seconds later, this time defeating him in combat, remembering which button to press, and making him our own. Dominating an enemy is a bit more in depth than just branding them, as you're given a list of options that you can send them off to do, which kind of let you create your own missions going forward. For the sake of the demo, we chose to send him to assassinate his boss, Azgrum the Spear Master in the hopes that if he managed it, he would take his place as the War Chief, and we'd have one under our control.

Scrabbling back over the fields of Mordor to a nearby fortress, we leapt up towards the icon that signals the start of the mission to top Azgrum, and switched to our always handy Wraith vision to survey the area. The place was crawling with enemies, but now, going into Wraith vision shows that around a third of them are under our command. Triggering the mission, we're treated to a cutscene where our man turns on Azgrum, stabbing him in the back (literally), as the castle erupts into chaos. The attempt at dethroning has begun - and it's up to us to make sure it goes the right way. How do we do that? The same way we've done everything - on the back of our caragor.

Putting our head down and charging, we smashed into the middle of the orc brawl, hacking and slashing at everyone in sight. Struggling to get to the centre, where our captain and Azgrum were having a brawl, we instead decided to take the fight off his hands and head for Azgrum's bodyguard instead. Leaping off our caragor as it happily tucked into the orcs around it, we engaged in a sword fight that legends are made of with the bodyguard. Sparks flew, limbs were removed (his), and many a reversal was pulled off when suddenly, out of nowhere, disaster struck. The game went into slow motion, the camera spun round, just in time to show our friend, the lovable Skin Flayer struck down in cold blood.

The War Chief had defeated him, and our attempt to remove him from power had come to a sudden, and sticky end. Hurling a bit of abuse at us, the Chief descended into his castle, and the mission was over. Failure.

This, it seems, is a pretty good example of how Shadow of Mordor works. Even with everything going your way, sometimes your attempts at deposition can go wrong in the midst of battle. And in fact, sometimes it has to, for the Nemesis system to really work properly. With every baddie remembering everything you've ever done to them, the next time you meet, they'll remember you strengths and weaknesses, they'll be strong, more prepared - and, worse still, they'll taunt you for it. And it's this kind of personalised lore that the developers are really hoping to bring into the game:

"The two things we hear are 'Oh, I've never played anything like this before' and 'This is awesome!' People want to talk about the amazing things they've done in the game, you know, how they went in a cave and this caragor jumped out and mauled things. It's one thing to talk about that, but it's another thing altogether to have the game talk about it too. It's not that every [enemy] will be equally memorable, but the stories you'll get out of six or seven of those will be ones no-one else has had in the game."

How much of the game will be taken up by the Nemesis system, and how much will be following more traditional, story driven missions is as of yet unclear, as is how many options there are in the Nemesis system. After all, if every enemy's supposed to be unique, it won't be much good if there's only six or seven different personalities - and having two unique bosses quoting the same lines would somewhat spoil the illusion. Although we were dropped in half way through the game, so it arguably isn't a fair test, we should mention we did feel like we were struggling to pick up the controls, too - although that could just be because there are so many options, and so many different ways of approaching each situation, it kind of feels like information overload when you're dropped in the deep end. Fingers crossed there's a nice big tutorial to help us get to grips with it.

One of the most ambitious games we've played in a long time, there's still a lot of Shadow of Mordor that remains to be seen - but what we've played is promising to say the least. We want to get back into the world, to explore more of Mordor, and grow our legend throughout the land. Only the eye of Sauron could tell you whether they'll be able to get this balance right - but with the right learning curve in place, they just might.

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