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Why Shadow of Mordor is far more exciting than we'd dared hope

By Joe Skrebels on Tuesday 15th Jul 2014 at 9:12 AM UTC

For all their bluster, action games don't have much call for talking. For instance, we can't imagine whichever poor soul was roped into providing the lead voice for God Hand ended up doing much more that day than exhaling incoherently into a microphone while furiously texting his agent.

Which makes it strange to see Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor - ostensibly a meeting point between the Assassin's Creed and Batman: Arkham series in terms of its approach to painlessly slaughtering wandering aggressors - taking up the baton for good old-fashioned rhetoric.

Quite apart from some classic Tolkien-esque pontification about coming dooms and magical artefacts, it frequently breaks from action scenes to introduce the orc captain you're about to disembowel (he'll usually be sneering about eating your spine or somesuch), it has you interrogating baddies for information about even bigger baddies - it even auto-generates entire storylines between you and randomly-created NPCs, each with their own procedural personality.

Suddenly, talking becomes more interesting than fighting. Which should be all sorts of wrong. After all, Shadow of Mordor is so rote in its set-up for an action game, we're surprised Monolith didn't find it written on the back of a fag packet by the bins outside Ubisoft.

Talion, an ex-Ranger of Gondor, has now taken up a new position as professional corpse after being killed by the forces of Sauron (the game takes place between the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings).

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However, a mysterious wraith takes control of his body, making him immortal - always a pleasant way of getting round the "why does he respawn?" problem - and gives him some extra powers in the process.

You know the type: ultra-fast dagger slashes, a Dishonored-style blink-dash and, most importantly, the ability to mentally dominate any weak-willed creature into doing his bidding. It's that ability that comes to define our first hands-on with the game.

The mission Talion's faced with is pretty long-form - replace or dominate the five orc warchiefs currently in control of Mordor. Each of these is a formidable fighter, with multiple bodyguards, even more battle-hardened captains, and strongholds full of murderous grunts.

We know this because of the game's standout feature, the Nemesis system. Based on an info screen that displays the power structure of the enemy army, it allows you to see (with the right amount of prior intel), every major player in the orc forces, not to mention their strengths, weaknesses and personalities, all of which can play a huge role in how they fight.

Facts as simple as 'hates fire' might seem trivial, but when an eight-foot orc with a cleaver the size of France is bearing down on you, knowing that bursting a flammable barrel of grog nearby will send him panicking like a spaniel on Bonfire Night could be all you need to turn the tide.

"We've got a suspicion players will be having more fun in between battles, pulling the strings."

This seems to be Shadow of Mordor's ace in the hole, a demand that you learn not just about what Talion can do, but what his enemies can, too. In the process, you might just get to know them.

With every orc given a measure of memory (and we mean every one - even faceless grunts are given a name and a title after killing you), keeping them alive throughout the game could be more fun, watching them develop scars, lose limbs and generally get incredibly pissed off that you're harassing them.

Pick one strong enough and they could become a warchief themselves (if you've dominated them, this may be exactly what you want), or even work their way up further, becoming a true monster, and a real challenge.

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The idea of coming up against the same grey-skinned evildoer for the length of the game, letting him live while he develops a real hatred for you (hate manifests itself as a dangerous stat buff), gains a following, kills any Uruk challengers and finally dispatching him in a titanic duel is something we're very interested in doing.

Whether the game can develop on that grand ambition is still in question, but even a 45-minute playtest sees us rewrite the power structure of an orc-ridden Mordor, more out of curiosity than anything else.

And, crucially, that was more through talking than fighting. Pumping blabbermouths for information, getting into repeated duels with old frenemies, triggering Cockney-inflected cutscenes - violence might be Talion's tool, but we've got a suspicion players will be having more fun in between battles, pulling the strings.

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