5 reasons why Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor was the best thing I saw at E3

I went into E3 2014 with a list of my most-anticipated games, so I could be sure to check out the latest info on the games I was the most excited about. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor wasn't on that "most-anticipated games" list...but it sure is now.

Before I get into the reasons why Shadow of Mordor blew me away at E3, let me start by talking about why I hadn't really been that excited about it prior to the show. Before seeing the game in action, my impressions of Shadow of Mordor were vague and unfocused. I expected it to be a little bit like The Witcher, which could be cool, and maybe a little bit like Bound by Flame (which, in my opinion, would be a bad thing). The game had released some trailers in the past, but they had either seemed generic and unfocused or had been saddled with a not-very-enthusiastic narrator that made it hard to feel any sort of excitement about what I was seeing.

Maybe some of you out there feel the same way about Shadow of Mordor as I felt before E3. If that's the case, then read on and find out just how wrong you are.

Here are five reasons why Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor was the most exciting thing I saw at E3 2014.

#5 The melee combat

shadow of mordor

The melee combat in Shadow of Mordor is some of the most intense, violent, and visceral combat I have seen in any game outside of the Mortal Kombat franchise. A variety of techniques come into play, including shoulder-charges, dodges and escapes, and advanced moves where you try to trip or otherwise take down your opponents. But of course, the real appeal is the slicing and dicing.

Talion, the game's main character, is an absolute terror with his sword. In the E3 presentation the entire theater was cheering as he stabbed and dispatched his foes, cutting throats and slicing off heads with incredibly fluid and seamless animations. It's a combat system clearly influenced by games like Assassin's Creed and the Arkham Batman titles, and it looks like it captures everything that makes the combat in those titles so satisfying.

You can get some idea of how fun the battles are in the following trailer, but I'm really hoping publisher Warner Bros. Interactive releases some longer, un-cut combat footage soon, as it's something you really need to see for yourself to understand:

#4 The Nemesis system

shadow of mordor orc faceoff

The presentation at E3 focused on the game's Nemesis system in-depth, with the player going up against several orc chieftains and their bodyguards. The Nemesis system randomly generates the traits of key foes in a game of Shadow of Mordor, creating unique  enemies with their own names, appearances, strengths, weaknesses, goals, and even fears.

In the demo, we had a chance to see the Nemesis system interface, which presents a display of the notable foes in your current region. The player's current objective involved finding and "branding" -- an ability in which Talion uses his wraith powers to dominate the mind of an opponent -- five different high-ranking orcs, and the way to accomplish that task was to work up the orc chain of command. Using the Nemesis system, you examine the orc lieutenants you can choose to target, learn what you'll need to do in order to lure them into combat and how many bodyguards they have, and plan your attack based on the strengths and weaknesses of your chosen foe.

We had a chance to look at six different orcs in detail, and saw traits like "enraged by fire" and "fearless" and "immune to ranged attacks" that would completely change the necessary approach to defeat that enemy in combat. We also saw the incredible variety of randomly-generated orc appearances in the game, each of which oozed personality -- and sometimes just oozed, in the case of disease-infected orcs.

There are a lot of games with features that developers claim create replay value, but I have never seen anything that accomplished that goal in a way as thematic as the Nemesis system.

You can see a bit of the Nemesis system in action for yourself in the following video:

#3 The freedom of choice

shadow of mordor fredom of choice

The Nemesis system leads naturally into the next impressive aspect of Shadow of Mordor: the freedom the game offers. While the overall goal in the demo was clear -- Talion needed to brand the five high-ranking orcs -- the ways in which he could go about achieving that goal were satisfyingly complex and open. He had his choice of different lower-ranking orcs to pursue first, then he had his choice of different ways to approach combat with that orc, then, once he had beaten his target, he had several different options for what to do with the enemy he had bested.

The first orc target that Talion pursued in the demo we watched could be attacked while drinking and feasting with his henchmen. Once the battle begins, players can switch tactics on the fly, whether fighting with a sword, using quick-fire range attacks, or targeting explosive barrels or other environmental hazards. Alternately, the player can work on branding isolated orcs, which will then bend those orcs to your will so that they will fight on your side. With a bit of stealth and patience, you can have a warband that outnumbers that of your target when you finally decide to take him on face-to-face.

Even once the combat is over, the choices continue. Beating one of the Nemesis orcs presents with you with a variety of options. You can simply kill him, of course, removing one of the foes standing between you and your ultimate target, but you also have other tricks available. You can send him to his master with a warning that you're coming, which might lower orc morale or increase the size of the group you'll have to battle later (which can be a good thing in terms of increasing your rewards if you can prevail). You can also send your mind-controlled orc on a mission to try to rebel against and assassinate his master,  which leads to a dramatic "showdown" battle between the orcs in which Talion attempts to aid his branded orc in his attempt to take control.

All-in-all, the options on the table for the player in Shadow of Mordor seem rich and satisfying, and feel far more open and free than many other games that claim to make player freedom a priority.

#2 The Wraith abilities

shadow of mordor wraith

Talion is more than just a ranger in Shadow of Mordor. He also possesses the abilities of a wraith, and these abilities are smoothly integrated into the game in ways that serve as constant reminders of Talion's special nature and his impressive powers. The aforementioned "branding" involves Talion placing his hand on an orc's forehead and channeling the powers of the wraith to control the enemy's mind. Once an orc is branded, they can be sent back to their camps as sleeper agents, just waiting to be called into action to fight at Talion's side. Alternately, Talion can eavesdrop on an orc's thoughts to gain valuable information on the key enemies in a region.

Wraith powers also give Talion an equivalent to the Detective mode of Arkham's Batman, allowing him to locate enemies and points of interest in the environment around him. Coolest of all the wraith abilities, though, was one on display in the demo that seemed to give Talion the ability to teleport himself with the speed of a fired arrow. All the player needed to do was take aim at a distant foe, and Talion would be on them in an instant, attacking with the element of surprise.

#1 Düsh the Wrestler 

shadow of mordor orc camp

Sadly, I don't have a picture of the orc named Düsh the Wrestler to show you. As far as I know, no one has a picture of Düsh. In fact, I'm not even able to type his name correctly -- the "u" in Düsh was accented with a triangular, runic mark, rather than an umlaut, but the pronunciation is pretty much the same. Düsh was a quirk of the game's random generation system, seemingly unplanned by the demo team and just a fortuitous, hilarious accident.

Düsh was a skinny, red-tinted orc with a wide helmet flaring out from his head reminiscent of bat wings. He was one of the orcs Talion had the choice of targeting at the start of the demo, but the crowd in the theater voted to go in a different direction, dismissing Düsh as nothing more than a funny curiosity.

But Düsh would have the last laugh.

As the presentation unfolded, Talion defeated his first target and branded the orc, brainwashing him and sending him on a mission to betray his master. In the battle that followed, the orc chieftain rallied his bodyguards to defeat the mutinous orc, and Talion jumped into the fray.

It was a fierce and difficult battle. Most chieftains on display in the demo only have two of the extra-tough Nemesis orcs as their bodyguards, but this particular one had six. Talion used an array of combat and wraith abilities to slowly take them out one by one, but several of the orcs got in strikes that cut down chunks of the player's health. It was going to be close.

Once there were only a few bodyguards left to defeat, Talion was confronted by Düsh himself, who snarled threats and promises to end the ranger's life. With only a small amount of health left, Talion fired off a skillfully-aimed arrow right into Düsh's face...

And Düsh ignored the arrow, closed the distance, and killed Talion.

Düsh was immune to ranged attacks, you see. That was one of his unique strengths, which we learned way back in the beginning of the demo when we were planning our strategy. In the heat of combat, it's an easy thing to forget...but in this case, it was a costly mistake.

shadow of mordor story

The saga of Düsh the Wrestler is just one example of the kind of epic storytelling and gameplay cohesion that looks to be possible in Shadow of Mordor. Combined with a truly open world, an interesting set of abilities, and some of the best melee combat action I've ever seen in a game, Shadow of Mordor looks like it very well could be the surprise smash hit of the year. 

Shadow of Mordor will be released on October 7th on PC, PlayStation, and Xbox consoles, but it's important to note that the Nemesis system will be less advanced on the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions of the title.