One Ring to Rule them All
One Ring to Find Them
One Ring to Bring them All
And in the Darkness Bind Them

Without a shadow of a doubt Monolith's new game, Middle Earth: Shadows of Mordor looks pretty stunning, just from the 8 minute gameplay video that's been floating around the various parts of the net of late. Alongside the accusations that the game stole code from Assassin's Creed 2 and so on. Now it's my understanding that Monolith has always used the Lithtech engine for their games and I don't think the two engines are compatible with each other.

It matters little because you can see the DNA of Shadows of Mordor if you look at the developer's inspirations, and you know, watch a few videos on the game where they talk about their strongest influence being Batman Arkham City. There are hints to their love of Assassin's Creed and even Mark of the Ninja as well; these all combine to shape the way that Talion (Shadow's hero) moves around the environment, fights and crawls along various ropes and wires.

This sandbox action game looks as though it's going to be a really good one, what with its meticulous attention to detail and next gen visuals married to what appears to be a very reactive combat system, akin to Arkham City with some Sleeping Dogs thrown in. Talion can parry, riposte, grab and hurl enemies and when engaged in fights with named NPCs, it seems combat options are expanded to extra bells and whistles such as sword locks and battle dialogue.

It's cinematic combat heaven.

For a Pre-Alpha look at the game what we've seen is very strong indeed and that's only scratching the surface. It's a solid mix of action, stealth and fantasy that takes Middle Earth into a dark place indeed.

Heroes die and heroes rise...

Talion isn't your run of the mill hero. He's a Ranger of Gondor, stationed at the Black Gates to guard them along with his retinue, friends and family. Sauron returns with his Black Captains and murders everyone, our hero included. Only Talion isn't granted death, for some reason he's bound to a wraith that infuses him with a great deal of power. This duality crosses into the story, the combat system and more as the wraith can use all kinds of cool tricks.

He can shadow strike, flowing at will from one place to eliminate a target as he briefly enters the ring dimension, dragging Talion with him to create a short range violent teleport. He can fire his bow, pinning enemies to the spot with an arrow to their leg, or if you want to rehash a Skyrim meme: to the knee.

He can do an area attack that seems to stun enemies and we're promised much much more in terms of skills and powers, for both ranger and wraith.

If Talion dies, he returns later on to wreak havoc once more since the wraith won't let him fall permanently. There are consequences to this and we'll discuss them in a moment.

The wraith has other abilities and it can possess the mind of certain enemies, bringing them onto your side, or allowing you to open up more missions (procedurally) by sending them off on mini-tasks. These range between Spying on the forces of Sauron, spreading Terror by talking up Talion's scary legend to the orc's allies and Assassination: sending the orcish minion off to kill his master.

If Talion controls an NPC, then all of that NPC's allies and supporters will also fall under the wraith and ranger's dominion. Meaning you can recruit your own private army.

In addition to his slew of powers in combat and stealth, Talion can also use the wraith to trigger a very Batman Arkham style vision mode where he can see and ID his main enemy as well as any others. It shares some semblance with Assassin's Creed's eagle vision as well, but these vision modes are nothing new - after all Splinter Cell has had thermal, emf and other vision modes for years...

That brings us to the thing that really makes Shadows of Mordor interesting!

I am your enemy, you made me!

What really sets Shadows of Mordor apart from the run of the mill action games, is something known as the Nemesis System that uses procedural generation techniques and player agency to craft a set of unique enemies per-play through for you to fight against. There are no generic bad guys in the game, there are various types of orc and depending on how you deal with them they'll bear their scars and grudges remembering the tiniest of details.

In the demo you see the orc known as Ratbag, he began life as a little minion with little or no power but since he managed to do a few things well, the procedurally generated orc society has rewarded him and made him a slaver in a small human settlement. The Nemesis System has made Ratbag remember that Talion hurt him, and burned his master's face in their last encounter. So when Talion finally confronts the orc slaver, the orc slaver's unique dialogue reflects this...and does so in the twisted humour of veteran writer: Dan Abnett, well known for his writing in the Warhammer 40K Universe and much more.

"You left my master to burn, I'm going to gut you slow and savour every twitch!" rants the orc as he runs his finger down his blade. As a player, you can tell he means it too.

In the middle of this furious melee there are a few moments where Talion and the orc, Ratbag get into some brutal cinematic clashes and then Talion's struck down by the orc. Fortunately there's a pretty simple QTE to prevent the ranger's imminent demise and he deflects the attack to viciously slice at the orc. A few more orcs fall in different ways to Talion's blade, and being a coward, Ratbag runs like hell.

Talion gives chase, shadow striking from enemy to enemy until he finally brings the orc to a standstill with his ghostly bow.

If the encounter had played out differently, Ratbag would have struck down Talion and gained more power in the procedural orc hierarchy thanks to the Nemesis System. This would mean different missions and new opportunities for the player as Ratbag would be in a new position, have some XP and become a lot harder to kill.

It's the simulated hierarchy and other elements of Shadows of Mordor that could well be the make/break backbone of the game. The idea that you get new enemies per-playthrough and you could experience new content each time you play is very cool and we're hoping it really does work like they outlined. This would give the game some pretty great replay value.

However, Ratbag ran, Talion got the little bugger and using the wraith he enters Ratbag's mind to see the inter-connected orc hierarchy. Offering a big list of potential targets and opportunities for the ranger to mull over, he chooses to kill Ratbag's master and sends the orc off to assassinate him. Ratbag has a low chance to succeed, but a slim chance is all the diversion that Talion needs.

The Nemesis System has tracked variables and ensured that Ratbag's master: Orthog, remembers Talion when they meet next - he hates the ranger because of what happened to his face. So not only does the big orc remember mentally what's happened, he bears that half-burned face and it drives him to a near-frenzy in combat.

The latter part of the demo proves this where Talion sneaks in all Batman/Tenchu style and climbs (akin to the new Tomb Raider) to where the big orc is giving one heck of a speech. Talion can slip into the wraith world, ID his target and possess other orcs in the area that are not already allied to Ratbag.

Once the main event kicks off Talion can then use those orcs to get a head start against the enemy, Ratbag is convinced that his master has betrayed them thanks to the wraith's mental domination and slams a dagger into his master's back. He fails and is beaten to a bloody pulp, meanwhile Talion leaps down and the big orc spots him.

Once again the Nemesis System crafts a unique foe, and a unique battle with the big orc capable of some brutal attacks - including a vicious body slam. Talion gets some nice blows in and eventually they lock swords, the big orc snarls and fumes about the injuries and humiliation that he suffered and threatens to burn the ranger's corpse.

Eventually Talion removes his adversaries head in some brutally frank cinematic combat and the demo comes to an end. We really want to see more of this promising title and it's obvious that the Nemesis System could work in such a way that it's a game we'd return to time and time again just to see how many enemies we can make, and what kinds of enemies too.

There might not be as many permutations as the developers are hoping, but it's a nice new system to see implemented in a game and a lack of generic bad guys to target makes it all the more interesting.

You couple this with a good looking game already, a neat sounding story headed by Christian Cantamessa who was the lead writer and lead designer on Red Dead Redemption and a spooky soundtrack and you have the makings of a superb game. Dan Abnett is handling a lot of the game's dark humour, since apparently the title will be very bleak and needed some of Dan's cleverly worded dialogue to lift the mood a little.

Time will tell of course how it all pans out, since the game has no fixed release date but it should be out sometime this year. We have our eyes on it here though!

We should be doing a full review of it as well, so check in with us when it releases to see what we think of it.