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Middle-Earth: Shadow Of Mordor explores the social dynamics of orcs

Preview events offer only brief glimpses at very big games. Who knows how any given game will pan out in its final form? The most we can say is This Could Be Good.

Middle-Earth: Shadow Of Mordor
Developer: Monolith Productions
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Release date: October 7, 2014


I’m going to tell you a story about an orc named Rûg. He’s a nobody, a lowly underling to some nasty dude known as The Blade Master. He whiles away the hours doing what underlings do: looking mean and standing in place, pretending to guard something. One day, a surly human with glowy eyes shows up at Rûg’s stronghold of employment and starts murdering his friends. The interloper has his sights set on Rûg’s boss, who’s an important figure in Sauron’s orc army. Rûg might be lowly and smelly and kind of an idiot, but he knows not to get in this guy’s way, at least until his comrades have whittled the human down.

But with The Blade Master and his potential assassin on their last legs, Rûg realizes something. There’s an opportunity here—a chance for power and respect and maybe a job that’s less shitty than staring out into the distance, waiting for someone to show up. Rûg makes his move and sinks his blade into the chest of the unsuspecting human. He’s done it. The human is dead, and Rûg gets the glory.

Now that he’s gotten a taste of greatness, Rûg wants more. He challenges a higher-ranking orc to a duel, and then—atop a narrow wooden bridge, surrounded by his bloodthirsty brethren—Rûg realizes the error of his ways. It takes less than a minute for a mountain of an orc to finish Rûg off, but with his last moments on this Middle-earth, Rûg sees what surely must be a trick of a waning mind. The human that Rûg had killed to gain his power solemnly stands among the cheering orcs, his face saying, “Gotcha, fool.”


Although I might have embellished a bit, this is exactly what happened during my long E3 demo this week of Middle-Earth: Shadow Of Mordor. The game takes place between The Hobbit and Lord Of The Rings and stars Talion, a ranger who was killed along with his family by Sauron’s orc forces. He’s revived—but his family isn’t—by some mysterious power. And he’s given cool Wraith powers that let him slow down time while shooting a bow, see the outlines of orcs through walls, and most importantly, corrupt the minds of his enemies so that they’ll fight for him.

It’s fitting to focus on the story of Rûg because the orcs are the real stars here. Rûg started out as an anonymous orc without a name or personality until killing me propelled him up the orc social ladder and the game assigned him a title and some traits. The most important screen in Shadow is basically an infographic. It shows the military and social hierarchy of Sauron’s orc army, with the five highest-ranked orc captains standing on pedestals at the top of the chart and the lowest-ranking orcs at the bottom. (The bottom rung is where Rûg ended up after killing me.)


It’s also where you can find the orcs’ strengths, weaknesses, and fears. One might be impervious to ranged attacks but afraid of fire, fleeing at the sight of a flame. One might hate seeing his bodyguards hurt, meaning that if you start beating on his security detail, he’ll be enraged and harder to take down. The game sets these traits on the fly, but other orc motivations and psychology will emerge in response to the interactions they or their friends have had with you in the past. If you kill one and they’re magically resurrected—which I’m told is a rare occurrence that nonetheless happened in my demo—they’ll hunt you down for vengeance. They could also become terrified of you and simply run away at the first hint of your arrival.


From that infographic screen, you select the target of your wrath. You could make a beeline for the top dogs, but that would mean fighting several very tough boss characters at once. Instead, Shadow Of Mordor encourages you to exploit the orc army’s instability and violent politics to your advantage, brainwashing orcs and sending them out to betray their commanders. If they succeed, your pawn will move on up in orc society, and you’ll be closer to your goal of finding and getting revenge on Sauron.

And that’s where Shadow Of Mordor gets interesting. Exploitation and sabotage are your most powerful weapons, and it’s fascinating to watch power struggles play out after you’ve surreptitiously set up discord in the orc ranks. You’ll almost always have a horse in the race—whether that’s your brainwashed agent or an orc you want to claim yourself—so getting involved and making sure your target survives should be a priority. But more often than not, I found myself sitting on the outskirts, observing the chaos I created. Rûg should have died by my blade that day, but I was happy to just enjoy the show.


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