e3 2014
We Are All Orcs in Shadow of Mordor - Hands-on - Update

Greg Tito | 22 May 2014 06:05
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There's amazingly Tolkien-accurate emergent gameplay in Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor.

I didn't have a good first impression of Shadow of Mordor. It just didn't seem to be the kind of game I wanted to play in the Lord of the Rings universe. Being a Tolkien nerd - I've read The Silmarillion, twice - what I saw when it was announced back in November last year didn't seem to mesh with my vision of heroic fantasy. And while Shadow of Mordor certainly paints in shades of a moral grey area, I was more taken with developer Monolith's ability to create a game environment that changes and reacts to the player, while feeling very close to Tolkien's ideas about evil and the orcs.

"Tolkien very much said that we were all orcs in the Great War and that was really important to our idea of who the orcs were," said Micheal dePlater, design director at Monolith. "Orcs, not some fantasy cliché. They're not some fairy tale thing. They really are what happen to human beings when their driving force becomes fear and hate."

Shadow of Mordor is an action RPG set after The Hobbit and before The Lord of the Rings. The men of Gondor were supposed to be guarding Mordor, but they've had to pull back from a full occupation of the land once inhabited by the powerful Sauron. You play as Talion, a ranger of Gondor who falls in battle but is resurrected by a mysterious "Wraith" and bestowed with terrible powers. I get the impression the plot of the game will be concerned with figuring out exactly what's happening, but the general concept is that the Wraith wants Talion to use the enemy's forces against him.

dePlater rejects the idea that Tolkien wrote characters in black and white morality. There's a lot of grey. "We definitely wanted to get away from any idea of Tolkien as being over-simplified or black and white," he said. "There's amazing characters with shades of grey. Boromir says 'Only by ruthlessness that we can prevail.' Saruman, of course, is really interesting, because, particularly in the books, his goal is to raise an army of Uruks and challenge Sauron."

Setting aside for the moment that orcs are actually corrupted elves, not humans, dePlater makes a great point. And it made me consider the themes of the game in the lens of what Tolkien experienced in World War I and even what's happening in the world right now. Talion is the Jack Bauer of Middle-earth. "We really wanted that idea of using terror against your enemies and being a monster to the monsters in the land of darkness definitely has something in common with Europe in the thirties," dePlater said.

Even with all those inspirations, the choice of setting and theme could be really off-putting to some customers in its bleakness so I asked dePlater why he chose it. "We wanted somewhere that was simultaneously really iconic but also unknown," he said. "You know from the appendices [of The Return of the King] Sauron has just returned to Mordor because he was defeated [by the White Council at Dol Goldur]. So it's interesting to think of Sauron not just as this total, omnipotent, god-like figure. This is someone who got his ass kicked and he's just returned, but he's going to start building up his armies towards the War of the Ring."

Sauron's armies are a raucous bunch. The system on display at the pre-E3 event last week was called Nemesis. Basically, it is a simulation of the cutthroat "politics" at work in the hierarchy of orcs in the land of Mordor. The user interface shows a field of 5-by-3 orc captains, with five warchiefs set above them leading one of Sauron's armies. You can zoom into any one of these procedurally generated characters to get a closer look - Shaka the Drunk, for example, is a slight orc with glistening skin that is never far from his flask of orc grog. If you have the right intelligence, you'll be able to see his strengths and weaknesses, and from those perhaps devise a course of action to take him out.

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