I’m coming for you, Barfa the Bloodlicker. You too, Dush the Diseased. And don’t worry, Shaka the Drunk, you’re next on my list. Better finish that grog while you still have a throat to swallow it.
They may be hideous, putrid and utterly evil, but you have to give the orcs of Middle-earth credit for one thing: they’ve got some amazing names. In fact, while playing the upcoming Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, I found myself choosing which orcs to kill based on their wonderful handles almost as much as their rank in Sauron’s army.
Set sometime between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings but not tied to either of Peter Jackson’s film trilogies, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor casts players as Talion, a ranger of Gondor whose family is slaughtered by the orc armies of the dark lord Sauron, he of the fiery eyeball and powerful jewelry.
Developed by Monolith Productions (F.E.A.R., Guardians of Middle-earth) and hitting stores Oct. 7 for current and previous generation consoles as well as Windows PCs, Shadow of Mordor is an intriguing experiment for Lord of the Rings games, ditching epic army battles in favour of a one-versus-many approach that borrows heavily from the Assassin’s Creed and Batman: Arkham franchises, but steeped in dark and violent Tolkien lore.
In our Canadian-exclusive first hands-on with the game at a recent preview event in Santa Monica, Calif., I explored a relatively lush area of Mordor near the Sea of Nurnen, infiltrating strongholds, beheading orcs and generally feeling like a super-powered version of Aragorn from Lord of the Rings. Which is what Talion is, essentially: killed by orcs but resurrected by a mysterious wraith-like entity, he’s got an arsenal of dark magic at his bidding, allowing him to teleport short distances, spot enemies through walls, unleash destructive blasts of energy and dominate the minds of weakened foes.
The climbing, free-running and stealthy traversal in the game feels very much like Assassin’s Creed, while combat has a fluidity reminiscent of the Batman games. Except where the Dark Knight will never take a life, Talion grimly runs his blade through guts, skulls and any other bits of orc that get in his way as he carves a path of vengeance across the face of Mordor.
The work-in-progress PlayStation 4 version of the game that I played is visually impressive, if not exactly graphically groundbreaking, but the really interesting stuff happens in the game’s strategic layer - something refreshingly different from most action titles.
While Monolith wouldn’t divulge Talion’s ultimate goal, it involves him working his way up Sauron’s chain of command and carefully hunting down targets based on their connections to other, higher-ranking orcs. Dominate a foe and have him turn against his captain, kill two lower-ranking orcs who act as bodyguards for a valuable lieutenant, assassinate a powerful enemy by exploiting an unusual weakness, engineer a duel between two captains and pick off the survivor… there’s a huge variety of ways to bend the orcs’ minds while also cleaving their skulls, and it makes the game much smarter than it might look at first glance.
But the action is plenty solid on its own. Whether I was nimbly clambering up castle walls to avoid patrols, sniping lookouts with my bow or mixing it up with (and occasionally fleeing from) massive squads of orcs, the whole experience felt organic, with unpredictable bits of emergent gameplay that would shift the tide of battle in an instant.
It will be a few more months before Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor steps into the light, but after going hands-on with this unique Lord of the Rings prequel spinoff, I shall now be known as Steve the Impressed. Or Steve the Buttscratcher. Really, either one works.