Amidst the desolation of Mordor, Talion, wraith-ranger and hero of Shadow of Mordor, is torturing an Uruk captain. This captain, with the charming appellation of 'Ratbag', is staring horrified into Talion's ice-blue eyes (ice blue because he's mostly wraith at this point) whilst Talion decides what to do with him. Execute him? Too simple. Make him a spy? Too subtle. Sacrifice him? Frankly, I've no idea what that does. Assassinate his boss? Ah...
A little while later and Talion's looking down on a crowd scene in a ruined Gondorian hall. The boss - the warchief Orthog, an underling to one of Sauron's Black Captains - is haranguing a crowd of minions, attempting to impel them to greater things. (In orc terms, anyway.)
Ratbag the henchgoblin is hanging around behind the warchief, supposedly acting as a bodyguard. When Talion flicks into wraith mode, we can see quite how many of the crowd he's turned to his side, as they're marked with a white hand. That marking, foreshadowing Saruman's corruption in the Two Towers, is just one of many ways in which Monolith's new Lord of the Rings game riffs off both Tolkien's original books and the licensed movies. (Though, as SOM's design director De Plater tells us, this world isn't congruent with The Lord Of The Rings Online mythos, also owned by Warner Bros, which has similarly filled in the gaps in Tolkien's world.)
The game is set between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, in the period when (spoiler if you've not read the books) Sauron has been defeated in Dol Goldur where he was searching for the One Ring, and returned to Mordor, where he has been marshaling his forces.
Sauron's also been reclaiming his lost lands, pushing his orcs, goblins and uruks up towards Gondor, killing and enslaving as they go. Sadly, Talion, his family and his friends were posted on the Black Gate, the entrance to Mordor, and they were brutally slaughtered to a man. The culprits who killed his mentor, wife and son seem to be three Black Captains of Sauron. Talion's simple aim in Mordor is to cause enough chaos that he can track down these villains and takes his revenge - and perhaps get to their master too.
One of the mysteries of the game is how Talion rose from the dead and acquired his wraithlike powers, which echo those of Sauron's henchmen, the Nazgul. These powers allow him to move into the spirit world beloved of the movies, which proves very useful for tracking enemies, to perform extreme wraith attacks, and to delve into enemy's minds, as he did with Ratbag.
In the playthrough we're watching, Talion uses his wraith power to activate his sleeper minions, who immediately set upon their compatriots. Meanwhile, the traitor Ratbag seeks to stab warchief Orthog in the back whilst he's distracted and gets brutally squelched for his efforts. So Talion wades into combat himself and, eventually, finishes Orthog.
When you take inspiration from elsewhere, the only way to succeed is to build on it, not merely replicate it; with the combat Monolith has, a little. As Talion is hacking, slashing and countering, there's a divide in his behaviour between the magical Wraith attacks and the Ranger's more agile cut and thrust. It has much of the fluidity of Batman: Arkham City and a little of the respectable Xbox / PS2 Lord of the Rings games, but it's also introduced its own elements.
"The barren landscape isn't beautiful to look at, but it makes effective use of next-gen graphics"
Like Arkham City again, the game is set in a true open world, replete with high Gondorian ruins to climb, wandering baddies and the remaining populace living as slaves. Also wandering the land are creatures from its hostile Deathworld ecosystem, like the apex predator Caragors, inspired in part by Peter Jackson's early Skull Island movie.
The barren landscape isn't beautiful to look at, but it makes effective use of next-generation graphics in battles, cutscenes and menus. Free to roam this devastated terrain, Talion shares the role of lone avenger with the Dark Knight, though he's less moral about murder - the amount of gore and head-popping in this game is impressive.
His particular targets are the captains and warchiefs - the tougher minions who control and live in a bloody hierarchy Monolith has reconstructed from the few orc and goblin conversations written into the Lord of the Rings. De Plater describes Talion's tactics as being "a monster to the monsters, like Inglorious Basterds, the idea of being behind enemy lines." And he does this by exploiting the connections in their (aggressive, primitive) society, which Monolith are getting to sketch for the first time.
"In the books the orcs only have about six lines" says De Plater, "but the lines are really telling... from their point of view they're not the bad guys - they're oppressed on all sides by these others that they think are the bad guys. They have a moral sense, they just don't abide by it. That's not so far away from the real world - reflecting that other great Tolkien line, 'We were all orcs in the Great War.' When people are put in situations of great fear or stress, they get pretty monstrous."
A menu option called Sauron's Army lets you inspect your current level of knowledge of the enemies, looking at the procedurally-generated bosses and their place in the hierarchy. You can also look individually at delightful chaps like 'Bogmoth the Joker', looking at their various strengths, weaknesses, fears and hates.
Hatred is unique to captains, such as "hates infighting", and captains will become even more deadly if it's triggered. Fear, however, is common to all enemies, though only captains have particular fears. All the enemy characters and grunts can be scared - by wraith abilities or simply by killing their leaders - into fleeing the battlefield.
Should you fail to kill an enemy - because he flees or because he defeats you, even if he's a normal grunt - the Nemesis system may level him up, allowing him to fight his way into the hierarchy, giving him a name, title and abilities. The more times you encounter him, the tougher he'll get - and the more he's worth in terms of runes. These captains will also go on their own missions; if they're successful (which is mainly when you're dead), then they'll level up more and may even challenge their superiors, in an oddly-Fight Night style summary screen.
"Power in Lord of the Rings, especially the wraith-like power employed by Talion, is inherently corrupting."
Should you defeat them however, again like the Caped Crusader, Talion can capture enemies and interrogate them. The difference is here that grunts are also able to be used as a resource - drained for wraith abilities, interrogated for information about the hierarchy or captains, or brutalised to strike fear into them and others.
Higher level enemies, like Ratbag, have another set of options, allowing you to turn them to your side as spies, kill their bosses if they're bodyguards or simply executed to improve the runes you get from them. Assassinating all the warchiefs in an area will draw out the Black Captains and unlock more of the world. "Deeper into Mordor, your aim becomes not just to kill these guys but to turn them and dominate them." says De Plater.
These complex mechanics particularly draw on De Plater's background working on Total War and EndWar. "Total War in particular was about creating a system where you could create your own story. This is the same philosophy on a much more intimate scale."
The rune system ties that storytelling into Talion's three weapons - sword, bow and dagger (the last of which is in fact his son's broken sword). Weapons in Tolkien often had names - like Glamdring or Orcrist - and special powers. So, here, each henchman you kill leaves a rune that captures the details of his life, including a snippet of his dying moments, which you can inscribe upon your weapons.
Killing the henchmen in particular ways can also improve the quality of the runes and their associated passive abilities - such as increasing the chance that a Wraith area attack will also trigger any nearby campfires to explode.
These sort of abilities emphasise that Talion's one-man guerilla war is monstrous from the Orc's point of view - and "in Tolkien that's not going to happen without consequences." says De Plater. "You can't have the same kind of power-fantasy that you might have in God of War - things would work out very differently for Kratos in Middle Earth." After all, power in Lord of the Rings, especially the wraith-like power employed by Talion and Sauron, is inherently corrupting.
So that's Shadow of Mordor. A tactical hack-and-slash game based on the oldest fantasy franchise. My fingers are already clicking with the hunger to take control of these fights, my imagination is already wondering how Cantamessa is going to weave this into the gap between the films, and my inner strategy gamer is scheming about farming a grunt all the way up to Warchief before killing him.
Most of all, my inner Tolkien nerd has been left wondering about Talion. After all, we know that he can't win. He can't kill Sauron, so what difference can he make? De Plater hints that he is important to Lord of the Rings - though you might need to see the third Hobbit movie to understand it properly.
"We see Sauron in the form when he flees Dol Goldur." says De Plater. "And then we see Sauron in Lord of the Rings, bound to Baradur, unable to leave Mordor, trapped there and confined to that tower with his single flaming eye, which is very different to how we saw him at the start, 12 foot tall and striding out and kicking arse."
It seems that Talion's actions are crucial to why Sauron never again leaves Mordor. For Tolkien nerds, that's a must-read story.