Hands-on with Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

In Monolith's Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, you play Talion, a ranger of Gondor who is minding his ranger business when he and his people are overrun by orcs. Even though everyone else dies, including his family, Talion does not. It seems that a curse has bound him with Celebrimbor, the jewelsmith of the Second Age who forged the three Elvish rings of power. And Talion cannot die until he kills the foe who cursed him.

But in his quest for revenge, Talion doesn't just have his skills as a ranger to help him. He also has Celebrimbor's own wraithlike powers. Because of this, you can jump back and forth between the two characters with the push of a button. With the combined skills of Talion and his spectral accomplice, you'll battle hordes of orcs with sword, bow, and more ethereal means like mind control and possession in an open-world environment. 

I only had one hour of hands-on time with Shadow of Mordor, and I'm already in withdrawal. It looks like such an astonishing ride that I think it will appeal to Tolkien fans who don't play videogames as well as to gamers who don't play fantasy or action games. Here are some of the people who should put this on their must-play list when it's released on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One and Sept. 30 (Nov. 18 for the PS3 and Xbox 360), and why.

For people who love J.R.R. Tolkien's writing

Set between the events between The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, this game has all of the elements we know and love: Elves. Orcs. Weapons with names that command respect. Hate that has been nurtured for centuries. Shadow of Mordor draws from Tolkien's lore, but to what degree remains to be seen, as Monolith are tight-lipped about the plot. Fans may be happy to learn, however, that Shadow of Mordor was approved by both Weta and J.R.R. Tolkien's estate.

Set during the period between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, it remains to be seen how the story will fit with the existing canon, but Monolith hopes you'll be having so much fun making a mountain of orc corpses that you won't worry too much about it. Part of the game takes place in the vast, open plain of Núrn, a location mentioned in Lord of the Rings yet never visited. But that's not the only familiar aspect: We get an intro by Galadriel (voiced not by Cate Blanchett, but the always fabulous Jennifer Hale), and Gollum will appear throughout the game. (Because Andy Serkis is currently in a galaxy far, far away, Gollum is voiced by Liam O'Brien.)

Even though Talion and Celebrimbor share the same quest -- to defeat their enemy and free themselves -- they don't agree on how to achieve it. According to Monolith, just as Boromir wanted to use the One Ring against Sauron and Aragorn said, "Hellz no," Celebrimbor and Talion have different opinions on how to do their dirty work. How will they resolve this conflict when they share a body? Monolith wouldn't say.

For people who like the Arkham games

Shadow of Mordor is both familiar and groundbreaking. On the gameplay side, Batman: Arkham Asylum/City/Origins had fluid and exciting combat. Why button-mash when a well-timed combo would put more hurt on your enemy and make you look good while doing it? Shadow of Mordor is in the same vein.

Your attacks can be chained (a hit streak), so the more strikes you land, the more experience you gain and the more abilities/upgrades you unlock. For example, you can give your arrows more oomph or perhaps earn more experience after landing five punches rather than eight.

There are no 87 bazillion guns here. As with Arkham, you're limited to specific tools. And in Shadow of Mordor, you're limited even further: Talion only gets a bow, a sword and a dagger. However, each of these can be upgraded, along with Talion's skills, both spectral and mundane. 

Be warned: Maybe it's because I was playing a scene in the middle of the game, but I found combat to be more difficult than the fights I experienced in Arkham. I died with annoying frequency.

For people who like MMOs

As anyone who plays MMOs know, the world is alive ... even when you're not. For example, if your character dies in combat, the raid will continue until the battle is lost or won. Although Shadow of Mordor is not multiplayer and has no plans to be, it keeps the idea of a living world very much in the fore. At one point in my demo, Talion died and Celebrimbor, who has Nazgul-like abilities, resurrected him. Monolith couldn't tell me exactly how much time had passed, but the sky had changed from sunny to starry.

Events progress while you're dead, and this progression is permanent, too. Specifically, the orcs who you're monitoring can kill each other, leaving a new -- and unknown -- enemy in his place. If the orc who dies is someone you had previously controlled, this leaves you without a puppet. And no one wants to be a puppet-less puppet master. 

For people who crave revenge

If an orc gets away from your arrows, or even gets away with murder (yours), you can target him for revenge. That's right. You're no peace-loving, Shire-dwelling, pipe-weed-smoking, hairy-toed gourmand. Nope, Talion and Celebrimbor are out for black orcish blood.

Once you find the orc you've targeted, you may decide to kill him; after all, captains drop loot in the form of runes that power up your weapons. Then again, you can suck out his life force … which is the only way to power your ghostly arrows (everyone is at risk when your quarrels run low; you can even drain your mount, a lionlike creature called a Caragor).

You don't even have to kill the orc. You can have your way with him by dominating his mind and making him do your bidding. That means you can have him spread tales about your dastardly accomplishments, or make him give up much-needed information (see below). But I enjoyed turning the orc into a sleeper agent who will kill his captain or warchief on command, because pitting orcs against each other is hilarious.

If your sleeper agent has minions of his own, you can use them for your own purposes too. 

For people who want completely new (and emergent) gameplay

Shadow of Mordor has a unique approach to enemies, known as the nemesis system. And in practice, it feels pretty awesome.

Essentially, you create your own villain. Take a random orc (seriously, even the lowliest orc grunt can, over the course of the game, become your arch-nemesis), and battle him. If he survives an encounter with you, he'll remember you and remind you of your fight during your next encounter. After any encounter that an orc survives -- even if you killed his enemy -- he levels.

That's not all. You get to see all of the enemies you've created -- plus the ones who have made it through the ranks, on the "army screen," a view of each of the warchiefs that you will likely have to kill. But the chiefs aren't without protection. Each of them has bodyguards, which you can see when you hover over the chief. Hint: Dominate at least one of the bodyguards in advance, because it will go easier for you when you have to take down a level 12 warchief.

That much-needed info I mentioned above? If you hold off on your bloodlust and glean information about your enemies, you can use this knowledge against them. For example, you'll learn that one orc is impervious to ranged attacks, which means you can keep your arrows sheathed. But the same orc is vulnerable to fire. Knowing this, you can plan a flame-based strategy accordingly.

It's hard to tell if the rest of the game lives up to the one-hour demo, but if it does, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor could be a game worth playing for those hoping to take a walk on the Tolkien-inspired wild side.

What do you think? Are you looking forward to taking up Talion's cause, or does messing with Middle-earth's mythos strike you as heretical? Let us know in the comments!

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