Shadow of Mordor is more than just Assassin’s Creed in Middle-earth
After all, both games feature third-person perspectives, free-running and in some ways, adopt a similar visual style. After going hands-on with the PlayStation 4 version of the game at E3 2014 and discussing its development with Monolith Productions’ Studio Head Kevin Stephens, it’s clear Shadow of Mordor’s developers want to forge their own path yet still remain true to Tolkien’s intricate Lord of the Rings (LORT) universe.
This isn’t Assassin’s Creed with a coat of LOTR-influenced paint.
“Well we look at all games and movies and media for inspiration. I think that the third-person action adventure genre, there’s not a lot of games in that genre. So I think we’re going to look like somebody. I think people bring to it what they’re used to [Assassin’s Creed] and I think that speaks to that franchise. But no we didn’t consciously set out to be anything but our own experience,” said Stephens.
Shadow of Mordor is set between the events of the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, allowing Monolith Productions a significant amount of freedom when it came to crafting their own unique story. In the game you play as Talion, a ranger of Gondor, who dies in battle but is then resurrected by a Wraith and given special powers.
“We always set out to make a Middle-earth game — it was always going to be in Middle-earth. I think we focus on the themes of power and corruption and then really the setting — between the events in the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings — for us was just an opportunity. We know the state of the world, we know where Golum is; we know these things – but there’s a lot we don’t know. So that was our opportunity to fill it in,” said Stephens.
Despite crating their own tale, Stephens said his team wants to ensure Shadow of Mordor remains firmly grounded in Tolkien’s world.
“I think it is a really good way to give us a foundation to work from but also there’s definitely freedom to be able to push in different directions. We have to and want to stay true to the lore for the fans. We don’t want to go anywhere where people are like ‘that doesn’t make any sense’ — no spaceships.”
The game’s emphasis on creating randomly-generated Grand Theft Auto series-style interaction between NPCs and the player through its unique Nemesis System mechanic, is a refreshing approach to the third-person action genre. It opens up new opportunities in terms of the structure, and organic encounters with a game’s AI are often more captivating than scripted sequences.
In Shadow of Mordor, players are tasked with overthrowing a handful of warlords through violent attacks and by manipulating the game’s environment. In one situation I shot down a wasp’s nest located conveniently in the middle of the Warlord’s camp with a bow, which caused chaos among nearby Orcs, giving me ample opportunity to take out my heavily guarded target. According to Stephens, the ultimate goal is getting strategic control over a specific Orc in power, allowing the player to strategically destroy their intricate hierarchy from the inside.
“It’s the focus for us. We looked at AI in most games — it’s really faceless and nameless. We wanted our AI to be meaningful. The way to make them meaningful is that any single Orc in the world or character you come across can become your nemesis. They can work their way into Sauron’s army, they can fight, back-stab, work their way up. So you build these personal relationships over time and that’s what really becomes meaningful — it isn’t scripted and it’ll be different for everybody. Every player will have their own personal nemesis,” said Stephens.
Beyond revealing his development team took some inspiration from the Assassin’s Creed franchise, Shadow of Mordor also shares a number of gameplay similarities with Ubisoft’s series. Combat is very similar, requiring precise button presses that are not unlike the Batman Arkham franchise, another Warner Bros. published series. The combat system rewards patient players who wait for the right opportunity to attack and are attentive to enemies’ subtle visual cues.
When a video game is build around a side story that’s part of an already established fictional universe, creators always run the risk of encouraging the wrath of hardcore fans, who then jump on online message boards claiming the game doesn’t stay true to its source material. Contrary to what you might expect, Stephens said his team enjoyed this pressure and the fact that Shadow of Mordor will immediately have a hardcore fan base well-versed with the LOTR universe, is great for the title.
“It’s great because they are super hardcore fans. We want them to play this game and think, ‘if I could make a game I’d make a game like this.’ That’s what we want them to feel and we’re glad we have a hardcore fan base to appease because that’s a great challenge.”
While my very brief period of time with Shadow of Mordor was interesting, visually the game seems to be lagging behind other titles in the genre, particularly Assassin’s Creed Unity. This is likely because Unity was built from the ground up for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 and Shadow of Mordor is set to be released on both last-gen and current-gen systems.
Also, while the Nemesis system was fun for the 15 minutes of hands-on time I spent with the game, it’s unclear if it will remain entertaining over the course of a 15 to 20 hour experience and if Monolith Productions can pull off their lofty goal of building a new kind of connection between players and their AI enemies.
Middle-earth Shadow of Mordor is set for a Oct. 7, 2014 release date on PC, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4.