PAX Prime 2014: Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is 2014’s Biggest Surprise

When I first saw that Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor was set to release this October, I figured that it would be the title that I’d ignore in a month jam-packed with AAA releases. After all, I tend to dislike open-world games based in fantasy, and this was one that was set in a universe I couldn’t care less about. As the year went on, more and more press started coming out stating that Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor was one to look out for, my curiosity began to pique. After feeling indifferent towards countless similar games, would Monolith Productions produce a title that would hook me in?

The answer, my friends, is an unequivocal “yes.”

mordor orc
I’m sure the way I was playing made the developer guiding me both frustrated and excited. As I was getting the back-story to Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, I found myself performing countless random actions. This is a world that instantly captivates you, immersing you to the point of utter distraction. Sure, it would make sense to wander over to the exact point on the map that I am supposed to, but it’s far more fun to find random beasts to ride on the way. I could totally jump into the middle of the orc duel I’m supposed to be intervening in, or I could climb up a massive watch tower and take out one of the competitors with a single arrow to the skull. Simply put, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is immersion at its finest.

Even while writing this preview, I find myself getting distracted by the living, breathing world Monolith has created. Instead of actually delving into the premise, combat system, and narrative content of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, I’m discussing wildly riding around slaying random non-player characters. To get back on track, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is an action-RPG that tells the story of Talion, a ranger with a number of supernatural wraith-like powers. On display in the PAX Prime demo was the much-heralded Nemesis System, which allows players to dynamically alter both the gameplay and narrative based upon their choices. In my case, I brought a flame-headed orc captain over to my side before sending him to win the favor of one of the major area warlords (thus making my life easier). Even though a brief period of fooling around with a meat trap got my captured captain murdered, I was able to see just how deep the Nemesis System’s strategy goes. Every action matters in Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, no matter how big or how small.

mordor lights

Though I enjoyed the overarching themes and seemingly endless branching narrative points, the combat and traversal systems sucked me in from moment one. It’s not a complex equation: take the simple, yet gripping combat of the Arkham series, combine it with the climbing system from Assassin’s Creed. Players only use a few face buttons to attack, but the high level of animation variance allows each action to feel epic in its own right. A simple counter system, using the triangle button, allows players to have the split-second reactions that made the combat system in the original Arkham titles so exciting. With the exception of extremely jagged walls, players are able to jump and climb up almost anything in the environment. This high level of verticality gives another layer of depth to the combat system, as stealth bow-and-arrow gameplay can aid those looking to get the drop on a large group of foes. Unlike in massive open-world games like the Elder Scrolls series and the Fallout games, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor‘s moment-to-moment gameplay feels just as exciting as simply existing in its captivating environment.

Creating worlds that would exist on their own without the player’s presence was perhaps the biggest theme of PAX Prime 2014. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is at the forefront of this trend, as each non-player character and beast in the environment felt both acutely intelligent and emotionally invested in its surroundings. This was never more evident than when I summoned a group of beasts onto a group of orcs I was hoping to attack, only to witness some of the orcs appear frightened before attacking (and ultimately falling). I found myself both in control of, and at the mercy of, my environment. Sure, there were a number of tools at my disposal, but failing to use them properly put me at a massive disadvantage.

battle mordor
No title at PAX Prime 2014 surprised me more than Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. A game that I thought would bore me to tears ended up being easily one of the best games on the show floor. It’s a testament to the talent at Monolith that one doesn’t have to be a huge Lord of the Rings fan to be captivated by its brilliant combat system, dynamically changing storylines, and incredibly immersive environment. What once seemed to be October’s most forgettable game just might end up being its strongest.