Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor Preview

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is an open-world Action RPG that looks to bridge the gap between 'The Hobbit' and 'Lord of the Rings', for fans of both the books and the movies. The story is set up where the Dark Lord Sauron has recently been defeated by the armies of man on the slopes of Mount Doom. You take on the role of Talion, a Ranger of the Black Gate that served to defend the land of Mordor from the north. 

Upon Sauron's return, you are slaughtered along with everyone you know and love. This has in turn awakened an ancient Wraith spirit whom resurrects Talion and helps guide him behind enemy lines so that they can take on the forces of Sauron himself who has ruled Mordor for 2,500 years while the kingdom of Gordor stood and watched helplessly.

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The demo took place halfway through the game inside the land of Nurn. Marwen, Queen of the Shore and leader of the resistance against Sauron, had drawn Talion there under the promise that she would help him to unlock the Wraith powers he had acquired from the spirit and to help liberate Nurn itself, a land Sauron uses to collect food for his troops in order to keep the war machine moving forward.

The main focal point of Shadow of Mordor is the much-touted Nemesis System, representing the heart of Sauron's army. This feature can be accessed at any time in the game's menu. All of the enemies in the world are dynamically generated so no two playthroughs will ever be the same even with multiple attempts. The goal of this entire system is to find a local war chief, dominate and bend them to the player's will, and in turn start to build your own army.

During the demo, we got to take a look at the four different war chiefs, or bosses, in control of Nurn whom have fought their way to the top of Sauron's army and as a result have become extremely powerful with the help of supporters influenced by them and bodyguards that are protecting them.

Because they have created so many enemies, however, they can't be easily found, so players will have to do some unique mission represented by a marker on the map in order to draw them out in order to have them come to face them, such as going through a fort using stealth, killing all of the grunts that are found inside.

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Each of the war chiefs has their own random name and title to make them different from one another, like "The Bonelicker", who wears armor made of a creature's skeleton, or "The Drunk", who surely looks the part. All of them come with their own randomly-generated strengths and weaknesses in combat that need to be exploited in order to win, like not being affected by ranged attacks but being weak to combos.

Now, Talion has the option of whether to just go straight towards the war chief that the player has designated in a sort of suicide run, or for a more tactical approach, take out that person's bodyguards in order to make the battle a little easier before the big confrontation. At any point, players will be able to go from the physical world into the Wraith world.

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The Wraith world allows Talion to see white silhouettes of nearby enemies, points of interest, and alternate paths; it's similar to when Frodo puts on the One Ring. To offer better traversal of the large landscapes found in Shadow of Mordor, one can try and tame some local wildlife to ride upon for transportation, or just foot it all the way for a more adventurous approach using traversal techniques similar to Uncharted.

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The bodyguards themselves, much like grunts and captains, can be forced to bend against their will and even be pitted against one another, or even take on the war chief themselves.  If Talion bends a bodyguard to their side and proceeds to kill the war chief, then that possessed bodyguard can be promoted to that role and still be under Talion’s dominance. 

This perception of military rank is implemented in different ways. One of the most interesting parts about Shadow of Mordor is that there isn’t really any such thing as a Game Over. If you die, you soon respawn, and if you’re killed by a captain, that person may have been promoted to war chief as a reward for their victory. It offers this interesting motivation where you can decide whether to go after and kill the enemy that you was your original target, or chase after the bastard who was promoted with the help of your corpse. 

Grunts that are found out in the land can be used to extract information from their brains in order to learn about the captains in Sauron's army. Captains are just one step down from the peak of the army, and can work their way up the ladder to become war chiefs themselves. 

They have special roles, such as keeping the local wildlife in check inside of cages or keeping slaves in line by making sure that the food is constantly being harvested. They all have their own names as well, making the encounter that much more meaningful. Both the captains and war chiefs have their own malicious remark when you encounter them, which is enough to send shivers up one's spine.

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Coming across a raiding party, Talion was able to "charm" the entire group using his Wraith powers, that makes it so they will come and help during a time of need, extract information, set them loose to call upon them later or take on different missions, or just plain kill them. With Captains, Talion can even have them head off to the war chief and warn them ahead of time so they can fortify their defenses, but this will grant even better rewards once they have been defeated. 

This provides many different opportunities that all seem highly intriguing. Player choice is the biggest concentration here, and it's a welcome breath of fresh air to a genre and a franchise that certainly needs it.

I really enjoyed how the open world allowed a lot of different events to happen, like being in the middle of a boss fight with one captain while a second and even a third one can chase you into battle making the fight that much more difficult but also providing an enjoyable thrill to the adventure,

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The Nemesis system itself has this strong ambition that appears to work well in practice; it just remains to be seen whether this can keep a player's interest and help  carry them through an entire game. The developers have also not talked a whole lot about the main story itself, so who knows whether it is even much of a driver.

However, it is thanks to the gameplay mechanics that are found here and Monolith's pedigree as a solid game studio which makes Shadow of Mordor one of my most anticipated titles of the Fall.

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