At the end of this month, a new Lord of the Rings game will be launching on the PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, and Xbox One. And for once, you should actually be excited.
We've all been burned before when it comes to licensed games. I still remember my anticipation for Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, a game that promised to let me live out my fantasies of being a budding Sith apprentice who could use the Force to toss Stormtroopers around and shoot lightning from my fingertips. Instead, I got a mostly generic, occasionally awful third-person action game that I didn’t even bother to finish. Lord of the Rings, meanwhile, has fared particularly poorly when it comes to video game adaptations. The Peter Jackson trilogy may have brought the franchise to the forefront of the cultural consciousness, but no game has had a similar impact. There have been a few okay releases, but nothing memorable.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is poised to be the game that changes that. It offers the same promise of many licensed games before it, with its focus on crafting an authentic Tolkien universe that explores new areas of the story. But it also plays fantastically and introduces a truly novel new gameplay system where bad guys actually remember killing you and taunt you about it, making you want to get revenge even more. It's surprising that there hasn't yet been a LotR game that really makes it feel good to kill an orc, but Shadow of Mordor does exactly that.
The game is shaping up to be Middle-earth's breakout video game hit. And after playing Shadow of Mordor at developer Monolith Productions’ studio, I can think of at least five reasons why it feels destined to work.
It's not a movie game
Shadow of Mordor is being published by Warner Bros. Interactive, the same company behind the Arkham series of Batman games, perhaps the finest example of a licensed video game series ever made. Despite being based on very different properties, Arkham and Mordor share one very important aspect in common: neither is tied to a specific movie or book. Instead of a game meant simply to promote The Hobbit films, Mordor is a story that fills in the gaps between the two movie trilogies. "There's The Hobbit, there's Lord of the Rings, and we're in between the two," explains design director Michael de Plater.
"There's The Hobbit, there's Lord of the Rings, and we're in between the two."
You play as a ranger named Talion, who ventures into Mordor to destroy Sauron’s forces and avenge the death of his family. He teams up with Celebrimbor, a ghost-like apparition called a wraith, which grants him unique abilities. Among other things, teaming up with a ghost lets Talion see glimpses of the past, giving you a look at Mordor as it changed over the years. The Mordor in the game is one in transition, filled with orc camps and villages, as Sauron is building up the massive army seen in Lord of the Rings.
While Talion is an entirely new character made for the game, Celebrimbor plays an important role in the Tolkien mythos: he's the one who actually made the rings of power. But he hasn't been explored deeply as a character until now. Shadow of Mordor lets fans see him up close for the very first time. "There are a lot of locations, a lot of characters, a lot of elements and different time periods that haven't really ever been visualized, which was fertile ground for us," explains art director Phil Straub.
"One of the things that is so amazing about The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is that, when you go back and read them, they are seeded with so many references," adds de Plater. "It's all so incredibly thought out." Because of this, de Plater — a huge fan of Tolkien's work — and his team were able to stay true to Tolkien’s world while creating a genuinely new story. For fans, this also means they'll finally be able to see some of the key moments in the history of Middle-earth. One cinematic I watched involved a very human-looking Sauron watching on as Celebrimbor forged the rings.
It's authentic Tolkien
I spent a few hours at Monolith’s studio, and during that time there was one word that kept coming up in discussions with the team: authenticity. Among other things, that means writing a story that's in keeping with the vast amounts of franchise lore. By setting the game in pre-Sauron Mordor, the studio was able to explore a period that, while referenced plenty in the books and movies, was relatively unexplored territory. "Something we wanted to do, was not to revisit or retread anything that had been done before," says de Plater. "So it was trying to find a place where you could be as authentic as you can possibly be, but not retread stuff that's been done before."
For example, in The Lord of the Rings you saw the massive orc armies at war, but in Mordor you get a glimpse at how they were built. Ever wonder how Sauron kept that many warriors fed? Take a walk around the game’s world and check out an orc fishing village or watch a group of them hunt beasts for dinner. It's all there in this version of Mordor. It’s a chance for fans to see the things they've only read about in books and wikis. To ensure everything stays true to the mythos, Monolith worked with Middle-earth Enterprises, the gatekeepers to the fantasy universe.
That focus on building an authentic Lord of the Rings experience extends not just to the story, but also to the way the game looks. This version of Mordor has never been visualized before, so art director Phil Straub and his team had to look outside of the movies for inspiration. Monolith is based in Kirkland, Washington, and Straub and the art crew spent a lot of time exploring the landscape of the Pacific Northwest, one that was forged in part by volcanic activity, much like Mordor. This influenced everything from how the rocks look in the game to what kind of foliage is present.
"It sounds trivial, but it's not," says Straub. "The goal is for the consumer to not pick up on it, to not notice it. It should just be natural." That extends to everything from the architecture to the way the characters are dressed. Monolith got some help from Weta Workshop, the famed special effects studio behind the movies, which consulted on the project and provided some concept art. Straub even visited Weta's home base in New Zealand to get a better idea of how the studio works.
"We really looked at the way Weta does their production design and their costume design, and the amount of historical references they're bringing into it to make sure this stuff looks authentic," he explains. "We were really picking their brains to get as much knowledge as we can."
The idea, both from a storytelling and a visual standpoint, was to approach the game as if this was a real world with a real history. "Middle-earth shouldn't be a fantasy," says de Plater. "It should be a real place, it should feel historical and mythic. Feeling like a real place, and not like a fantasy, is something very important and very specific to Lord of the Rings."
It plays like Batman
Building an authentic Mordor is important of course, but it doesn't matter much if the game isn't any good. Luckily, Shadow of Mordor smartly borrows the best bits from other, similar games. It takes place in a relatively large open world, and the core action feels a lot like the Batman games. You take on groups of enemies at a time, using well-timed attacks and counterattacks to deal with the often overwhelming numbers of bad guys. The battles feel brutal, every sword swipe or kick like a strong, powerful blow. "That was really our starting point," lead designer Bob Roberts says of the Arkham influence. "We thought it was just the best third person melee combat out there."
Meanwhile, when it comes to traversing the world, Mordor is essentially a streamlined Assassin's Creed — Talion will automatically climb walls so long as there's something to grip onto, and he can jump impossibly high to reach the ledges of cliffs or buildings. I found myself getting stuck on bits of the environment every so often (just like I do in Assassin's Creed), but aside from that movement felt great. There's also a bit of Far Cry thrown in for good measure. Mordor is an open world, one where randomized events happen regardless of your presence. You could be heading off for a mission and run across a gang of orcs battling an onslaught of ghouls, or you might accidentally run afoul of a giant beast that quickly dispatches you. I only spent a short time in Shadow of Mordor, but it felt like a world that was alive.
"We thought it was just the best third person melee combat out there."
There are also few unique features that come courtesy of Talion's ghost abilities. There are simple things, like how he won't take damage from a big fall or how he can spot enemies through walls using weird wraith vision, but also a few features that add a fundamentally new twist to the game. The most important of these is Talion's ability to take control of enemies. At its simplest, this lets you ride around on otherwise dangerous beasts or force powerful orcs to fight by your side. But it can also be used for subtler, more intriguing purposes.
One of the over-arching goals of the game involves the finding and dispatching of orc war chiefs. You can just fight them as you would any other character, but since they can be incredibly strong — in a 30-minute demo I died five times at the hands of two different war chiefs — sometimes a bit of subterfuge is a better option. For example, it's possible to track down a chief's bodyguard first, use your ghost powers to take control of his mind, and then command him to betray his master. It takes a bit more time, but it gives you a leg up in battle. It also gives you another option when you find yourself dying multiple times at the hands of the same enemy.
The bad guys remember everything
Death is common in Shadow of Mordor. But the game's biggest innovation might just be how it deals with it. When an enemy orc kills you, it actually remembers. After your death you're presented with a screen that shows the hierarchy of orcs, and when someone kills you they often level up, becoming more powerful and occasionally moving up the ranks. If you come up against them again later on, they'll taunt you about the last time. You can mark them for revenge and, during early demos of the game, Monolith found that players would often ignore the story in order to get get back at an orc who had killed them previously.
The feature, dubbed the "nemesis" system by the studio, turns what would otherwise be faceless, nameless enemies into characters that you feel an actual connection to. The orcs aren't particularly well fleshed out — all you really have to go on is a brief description of their personality and a list of their strengths and weaknesses — and there aren't long conversations or cut-scenes where they reveal their motivations. But through my interactions with them in the game I became more emotionally involved than with most other video game characters. The same orc killed me three times, and laughed about it, and this genuinely made me hate him. I had to get even.
The fact that the orcs get stronger from killing you also forces you to play the game smarter. If you just keep going up against the same enemy and dying in combat, you'll never get anywhere. But since you have a list of what they're weak against (usually just two very specific things), it's better to experiment with different techniques aside from just straight combat. For example, my troublesome orc was particularly strong against beasts but weak against ranged attacks. I was able to wait until he went out on a hunting mission, and while he and his subordinates were battling with monsters, I used my bow to dispatch them amidst all of the distraction. "We really just didn't want people settling into any rut, where they're always going to do the same thing," de Plater explains.
These orcs are also completely unique to your game, providing even more of a personal connection. Their looks are randomly generated — "It looks like there's a lot more than there actually is," says Straub of all the different body parts the art team had to make — and they grow and change based on your actions, meaning the orcs you'll fight will be completely different from those everyone else will go up against. For me, this added another point of connection with my enemies. He wasn't just some asshole orc, he was my asshole orc.
You don't have to be a LotR fan to enjoy it
Shadow of Mordor does a lot to keep fans happy. There's the attention to detail in the storytelling and the visual design, the fact that it tells a story that helps bridge the two series together. But much of the really nerdy stuff — the bits of lore that fans will really want to do dig into — is completely optional. I'm far from the biggest LotR fan, but had no problems getting into Shadow of Mordor. I may have had a hard time pronouncing Celebrimbor, but other than that the story feels like it's built to stand completely on its own. But more than that, the best part of the game, the part that comes from your interactions with the orcs and how they grow and evolve alongside you, doesn't really depend on your knowledge of Middle-earth history. It’s all based on how you play the game and the connections you make with the characters.
I won’t ever be able to get my revenge on those orcs I battled against in the demo. But when the game launches on September 30th, there will be a whole new batch of orcs just for me. And I can’t wait for them to make me mad.