The world of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings hasn’t left the same mark on the video game medium that it has in film, though many attempts have been made. The Battle for Middle-earth strategy games? Good, but the series lasted for only a few years. The Rings Lego games? Also fun, but the Middle-earth setting is just one of several major properties to be Legoized. Even the games connected to the original trilogy films have their upsides but were never critical darlings.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor hopes to change that. The game has received plenty of buzz leading up to its release on Sept. 30, promising an original story in Tolkien’s world that explores the deep lore while innovating on familiar gameplay mechanics.
So what exactly sets this adventure apart, and will it make Mordor the one game to rule them all—or at least rule the fall season? That question will be answered when the game debuts later this month, but there are plenty more worth asking about why Mordor is worth Rings fans’—and newcomers’—time. Here are answers to some swirling questions about the game, which should give players all they need to know going into the game’s launch.
What is Mordor about?
Shadow of Mordor takes place in between the events of The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring. Talion, a ranger slain by the evil Sauron’s forces, has been resurrected by a wraith named Celebrimbor. Celebrimbor’s spirit travels with Talion, imbuing the ranger with supernatural abilities and a second chance at life, which he uses to exact revenge on Sauron.
So do you play as Talion or Celebrimbor?
Both. Players control Talion, but Celebrimbor allows the ranger access to special wraith powers, including the ability to control creatures in each environment, attack enemies from afar, and enter the spirit world that Celebrimbor lives in—think The Lord of the Rings films any time Frodo slipped the ring on his finger.
The two travel around different areas of Middle-earth, allowing the player to roam through large, open environments. In each location, players will, aside from engaging in story-based missions, create their own story by tilting the balance of power among the orcs ruling each territory.
And how exactly do players do that?
By engaging with the game’s Nemesis System. Each location is home to orcs of varying rank in Sauron’s army—some are low-level henchmen, others are captains, and then the warchiefs rise above the rest. Each warchief has control of a certain number of captains, and Talion can manipulate this power hierarchy. Talion has the option to kill, gather intel from, or turn these orcs to work for him. Doing so affects the outcome of Talion’s story and the standing of orc control in each area.
That sounds like a lot to keep track of during an action game.
The system is presented in a smart and simple way, almost like a chessboard. Orcs in the region appear on screen at their respective rank, while lines trace which warchiefs command which captains. Players simply choose who to go after, and that orc will be marked on their map.
The gameplay itself is a mix of well-known games with a few twists. Talion can run across the land and scale buildings much like in Assassin’s Creed, but his free running is more streamlined. Combat evokes the Batman: Arkham games, with fighting that’s meant to be a fluid chain of hit after hit. Talion’s knife and bow can be used on the fly, and parts of the environment, like wild animals and bonfires, can play a role in each brawl. It all plays great, but isn’t looking to change the game like the Nemesis System is.
So the system just tracks who you’re attacking?
No—in concept, the Nemesis System is much deeper. In practice? Well, the system’s true promise will be proven in an entire playthrough of the game, not just in the hour or so I played. But even in this microcosm, the hints of the system’s possibility shined through.
The Nemesis System is built on a foundation of crafting relationships with enemies, and its intention is to do much more than let players hunt the game’s villains. Each orc is randomly generated with distinct idiosyncrasies in the hopes that players connect and remember them throughout the game. Orcs are given an individual name, look, set of fighting preferences, and even a chant for each warchief.
Players can choose to kill an orc and end a relationship immediately, but to do so repeatedly would defeat some of the system’s possibilities.
For example, an orc may run from a battle in which he was burnt. That orc will pop up later in the game, visibly scarred, now holding a grudge. He spent his time gathering his strength and can return later on, but he may now have a phobia of fire, which players can use to their advantage.
Every interaction with an orc is intended to be unique to ensure no two Mordor games are alike. Whether they escape, are turned to Talion’s side, or simply offer intel, the game’s enemies matter.
Does the Nemesis System make good on that promise?
Possibly. I only played for an hour, late in the game. Some relationships were already predetermined, and the new ones didn’t have much time to take hold. I knocked out a couple captains, converted some to my cause, and set conflicts in motion. I didn’t see the long term effects of the system, but the hour I did play filled me with plenty of hope.
I spent my hour in Middle-earth specifically in Núrn, a realm of sunshine, grassy plains, and murderous orcs. As my time wrapped up, I was felled by Orgogh Bright Eyes (*not his actual name, but close enough to convey the random name generator’s wonderful oddities). When I returned to the world of the living, knowing Orgogh was still out there, I immediately wanted to find him. I felt compelled to seek revenge–not just on a few more enemies to vent my frustration for dying, but specifically, I wanted to take out Orgogh.
Unfortunately my demo ended, but the desire for comeuppance against the bright-eyed orc lingered. In that sense, the Nemesis System succeeded. It made me care about a villain, and while that might seem like an obvious note to hit, many games tend to make their foes simple sword fodder.
I can’t say whether the system works in the long term, nor if its impact on the story will meaningfully change the way my game plays out. And yes, players could theoretically kill every orc in their path and never build any sort of rivalry or bond. But if my experience with Orgogh was any indication, by playing to the Nemesis System’s strengths Mordor will make me care about my foes. Video games have for years made a habit out of throwing baddie after baddie at players without giving them much personality, but Mordor looks to change that.
If the system succeeds, Mordor could allow for an experience like few games of its scale offer. If it falters, Mordor will still be fun, but won’t quite reach the heights Lord of the Rings fans hope it will. But whether they’re lower-level captains or dominant warchiefs, I’m excited to build up my relationships in Mordor.
As long as the orcs understand we’re just friends or bitter rivals and nothing more, of course.