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FEATURE: Shadow of Mordor: Bridging the Gaps

by Max Holtman

It is common for controversy and debate to erupt from fans when game developers try to create a unique story in an established, well known universe.  While the current-gen systems are becoming more popular with players, there are questions that remain for Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor: will gamers approve of this unfamiliar piece of lore?  Will the gameplay and storyline come together to serve the canon appropriately?

Over the years, the Lord of the Rings series has had its fair share of games that fans embraced instantly because of the stories taken directly from the movies and books.  The Battle for Middle-earth strategy series that lived a short life around 2007 for PC.  It had an Age of Empires vibe which allowed gamers command the troops of good and evil in the familiar settings of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  This is because the game companies that were responsible for these games only worked with the content that fans were familiar with; Tolkein's books and Peter Jackson’s films.  At first glance, it is clear that Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor stands out from the rest in both lore and gameplay mechanics. 

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor takes place between the time of The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring.  Players will take hold of a ranger named Talion and a wraith called Celebrimbor.  In the beginning of the game, Talion and his family is slain by the forces of Sauron and he is later resurrected by Celebrimbor.  The wraith gives Talion different abilities and supernatural powers.   Through Talion, the player will exact revenge on Sauron and his army, blood for blood.  The company behind Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, Monolith, has been rigorously fact checking throughout the process of developing this game.  Not only do locations, characters, and creatures have to be in sync, but also the past has to align with the time frame of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor.  Tolkien fans know the orc language, Black Speech, and Monolith did not fail in bringing it to life.  The company brought in a student of the languages that Tolkien created to help them work on the game.  This means that the orcs are speaking true Black Speech.  This level of dedication is a truly promising sign for this game.  The language translation is just one of many important elements that makes this iteration of Middle-earth a more concrete world.

When Talion comes into contact with enemies, the player will engage in what is known as The Nemesis System.  This system is focused on enemy intelligence and growth.  It randomizes an orc’s character traits, fighting preferences and much more.  This makes each of the main targets more memorable.  Orcs are also programmed to remember Talion.  If orcs and uruk-hai escape a battle, they will remember Talion if they meet again.  This allows enemies to have different motives in battle.  One example is Talion killing an orc chieftain.  Orcs that were under command by that chieftain will remember that incident next time they meet Talion in battle.

This kind of growth and memory on the part of the orcs and uruks is something that we saw in the novels themselves.  At first glance, orcs, with the exception of the uruk-hai, might seem stupid based on the Peter Jackson films.  However, many of the orc elites are far from that.  Fans of the books may remember Azog, Bolg, and Shagrat.  These orcs were depicted more along the lines of leaders with backstories, as opposed to grunts who exist just to die.  They were intelligent and difficult to defeat in a battle. In the world of Middle-earth, some orcs grow as leaders in ways humans might, and the Nemesis System is a perfect way to represent this in the game world.  But one interesting feature does not a playable game make. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor needs solid gameplay to hold itself up in order for players to stay invested.

Tolkien fans and gamers alike have shown deeper interest in Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor because of Monolith’s expansion on Middle-earth lore and gameplay mechanics.  Will this be a new step forward for the series?  Will it fit right in with the amazing world Tolkien created?  Or will it just be the next in a line of games in Middle-earth to release and then be quickly forgotten?

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor seems like a promising edition to the series because of the bold direction that Monolith is taking. These decisions could have long-lasting effects that affect both everyday gamers and Tolkien fans.  If the Nemesis System pans out, it could influence more than just third-person action games.  It could influence any game that wants to include intelligent enemies and reactive worlds, reaching anywhere from story-driven horror to large, open-world games.  If the lore is well written, we could start to see other storied film and literature franchises looking to videogames as a way to expand their universes.  

Monolith Productions could start a trend that could lead to something much more than just influencing game design, it could lead to a change in gaming as a whole.