Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor Might as Well Be the Next Assassin’s Creed

Is that you, Ezio Auditore da Firenze?

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Monolith

Judging from the tenor and lowdown of this grim-voiced Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor walkthrough, it’s going to be a game that shares the name and little else with Professor Tolkien’s forbidding, technophobic fantasy-verse. I’m not sure any of that matters, mind you. I’m convinced at this point that I’ll go to my grave having never played the Middle-earth game I imagined playing as a kid (and that Iron Crown Enterprises’ superlative Middle-earth Role Playing system, now long behind us, probably came closest to being). And I’m okay with that.

But fair warning: if rangers that can scrabble up the sides of anything quick as Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad or shift in and out of that gasping special effect Peter Jackson conjured in his films to make putting on the ring seem more dramatic make you wonder why they bother using the license at all, look away, because this is Middle-earth through someone’s lens of gameplay necessity — the Platonic shadow-version twice removed from the films twice removed from the books.

On the other hand, Assassin’s Creed goes to Mordor wouldn’t be an inapt way to describe what’s happening in the walkthrough video, just released and embedded below. Pay special attention to the wall-scrambling, rope-walking, leap-assassination sequence. If you’ve imagined doing insanely cool-looking things in a Tolkien-themed playground, this may finally be the game that delivers.

But the point of the walkthrough is really developer Monolith’s Nemesis system, which it claims creates “unique, personal enemies” on each playthrough. The takeaway, I assume, is that it’s supposed to be more substantive than what games like Diablo or Torchlight are up to when they random roll mini-bosses each time you hit the reset button.

It’s a tall order, and I’m not seeing deep evidence of it in this walkthrough. The enemies are prettier and better articulated, of course, because yay next-gen, but since we’re not able to contrast multiple playthroughs — just observing this one, linear sequence — we’re not going to see the seams, assuming they’re there (and I’d wager that’s a very safe assumption). So I worry, given obvious budgetary and technological limitations, that when the narrator says “There are no generic, canned enemies,” then goes on about enemy personalities that “evolve,” we’re on the edge of Peter Molyneux territory, where the developer’s claims (and our hopes) wildly outpace the end results.

What are we more likely to see? A sort of real-time mission generator, judging from the rest of the walkthrough. The game apparently spawns random creatures, tabula rasa, then checks little behavioral boxes that trigger certain personality profiles and scenarios based on your interactions. So in the video, you have an orc sub-boss that’s taken up slaving and has it in for you (though don’t they all?) based on some prior, unseen encounter.

The question’s going to be how deep that rabbit hole goes, then: How many behavioral boxes can you check? And how does that ripple through the world in a noticeable, meaningful way? That Monolith’s using human voiceovers for these enemies, like the one in the video fulminating about his burned face, suggests you’ll run up against those limits pretty quick.

So yes, essentially a hack-and-slash, but with potentially cool factional wrinkles: you can quasi-craft your own tactical sandboxes before initiating combat by first infiltrating Uruk-hai forces via prior encounters to subjugate key players (and their followers). They’ll fight for you when the chips are down, then arrow around the periphery of the battlefield, appending ranged or flank support by “dominating” unsuspecting enemies (think supernatural brainwashing). The battle system itself looks Arkham City-ish, which no one’s going to complain about, with a combo count feeding an XP meter that presumably ties into unlocking skills or combat abilities.

In other words, I’m interested. I just wish the marketing department could figure out how to sell what Monolith’s up to without overselling it. I’m cool with a Tolkien-themed hack-and-slash that folds a real-time mission generation engine into a sandbox-style version of Mordor. Just don’t tease me with buzzy phrases like “dynamic living world” and “completely unique to this gameplay instance” and “every interaction between Talion and his enemies has a direct effect on Uruk society” (as if there’s anything like an actual “society” here), because I’m going to wind up expecting something very different.