Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor came out last year to widespread appeal. Sure, the combat’s just a gorier, hyper deadly version of what we’ve already seen in the Batman Arkham games. Yeah, open world icon assassination was clearly lifted from Assassin's Creed. But this time those icons were orcs, with actual memories and personalities, balanced on a power structure which the player was free to tinker with.
It's great, but by the end of the game, messing with those systems felt unnecessary. You were powerful enough to just wade into the fortresses and kill your targets willy-nilly. What's held my attention instead are the extra modes added since launch (one free, the rest paid-for DLC), which allow you to play the game as something approximating a roguelike. The free ‘Test of Defiance’ is the only mode that actually limits you to a single death, but it also doesn’t randomize the enemies or require you to gather intel on them.. Instead, I’m playing the ‘Test of the Wild’, which tasks you with ‘killing all 5 Warchiefs plus all 20 Captains’. I’m only giving myself one life, and to make things more interesting I’ll only use runes which I find as I play, ignoring the haul I gathered while playing the main game. Bring it on, hordes of Sauron.
I spawn on a tower, peering down through the drizzle at the uruks milling around beneath me. I’m looking for the telltale green outline that shows an enemy with intel - with the stakes so high, there’s no way I’m charging into a fortress unprepared. It doesn’t take me long to find and interrogate a couple of orcs. Even without my arsenal of epic runes from the main game, picking off patrols seems easy. Feeling confident, I use the next orc informant I find to send a death threat to one ‘Feldûsh the Merciless’, a war chief I’d identified. Sending a threat warns him I’m coming, making him tougher and increasing his bodyguard of elite captains - but it also greatly increases his chances of dropping an epic rune. I start running towards the fortress.
Before I’ve taken more than a few steps, I’m ambushed by a captain and immediately regret my decision. He tears through me in a few hits. I don’t need to see his stats to know he’s got the poison weapon trait as my health bar turns green and starts ticking scarily down towards empty. I’m quickly coming to realise how much I’ve relied on my runes to heal me mid fight. Playing without them leaves me with only one option: I run away, sighing with relief as the poison wears off just a few ticks away from killing me. After healing up, I decide to continue after the chief I’ve marked for death anyway. I’ll just have to be more careful.
Everything goes fine at first. I sneak through the base, stealth killing Feldûsh’s supporters to draw him out. Sure enough, he comes out with three hefty bodyguards. I charge at him. I’m winning at first, but the fight becomes more and more unmanageable as his henchmen join the fray. I manage to get him down to half health, but I’m still being overwhelmed. Looking around, I see an exploding barrel - and fire at it. The explosion creates disarray, sending the unnamed orcs flailing and killing one of the bodyguards. Unfortunately, Feldûsh’s hate of burning gives him renewed strength and before I’ve managed to whittle his health back down the other orcs have recouperated. On the back foot again, I set off another barrel and use this one to escape empty-handed.
Realising I may have bitten off more than I can chew, I set off in search for help. After a few minutes patrolling on the back of a Caragath, I come across Muggrish the Drooler. He’s perfect. A few execution combos and a branding later, he’s mine to control. Getting Muggrish promoted to Feldûsh’s new bodyguard proves equally simple: I pop along to his trial-by-ordeal and headshot the Caragath he’s fighting, earning him his place by Feldûsh’s side. Grabbing Muggrish once more, I command him to betray his new warchief. I’m lucky. The betrayal event this creates happens to be one of the easiest in the game - a one on one duel between them. That is, until I show up. I smile as Feldûsh laughs in my face, calling me a coward for running away earlier. It only takes about 20 seconds before I’ve beheaded him. My satisfaction is cut short, however, when I notice the ‘Warchiefs killed’ counter hasn’t gone up. It takes me a while to realise why: Muggrish immediately filled his empty position. Sighing, I hold down the dispatch button, which kills my nearby follower. I feel a little bad as his body falls neatly on top of Feldûsh’s, dropping the epic rune I wanted and notching my kill counter up. Thanks Muggrish. Poor Muggrish.
I go back to roaming around on the back of a caragath, killing a bunch of captains and collecting the runes they drop. Caragaths are basically copies of the Caragors from the base game, with the added ability to perform stealth kills. I put this to good use as I stalk across Mordor, building up runes until I feel ready to crash another warchief's party - this time without issuing a death threat beforehand.
Again, drawing out the warchief goes perfectly. When Shágflak Ghul keeper appears however, things start to look tricky. He’s got two elite captains with him as bodyguards, and I can see at least one more elsewhere in the stronghold. Gritting my teeth for a tough fight, I check his weaknesses - and find I’m in luck. The majority of captains and almost every warchief has the 'invulnerable to ranged' trait. This one doesn’t. I sneak around collecting ammo, then set up in position at a central tower and wait for Shágflak to walk into the courtyard below me. I plug him with arrows till he’s on his knees then take a zipline down from my perch, landing perfectly in front of the wounded uruk and finishing him off with my sword. It could have been choreographed by Jackson himself. With their leader dead the rest of the orcs flee in terror, not even trying to fight back. I bag a few more captains, then move on.
I head over to a nearby power struggle where two captains are dueling. It looks easy enough. I take out all the archers, teleporting around the edges of the arena with chained shadow strikes. I fire an arrow at a Morgai fly nest hanging above (the super-bees of Middle Earth) then hop into the fray, taking advantage of the panic. One captain quickly goes down, but as I’m about to take on the guy he was fighting another captain appears. And another. And another. I activate the ability that gives me unlimited executions, which gives me enough breathing room to take out two of them, but yet more have appeared. I have to run.
I get away on a scrap of health, scrambling up a cliff face and finding a flower which heals me up completely. I look back down the cliff I just scaled. The uruks are pretty split up, with only two captains and a few grunts milling around. I leap down onto one of the captains, hoping for a stealth kill - but my luck has ran out. The captain shrugs me off as a message flashes up telling me he’s immune to stealth finishers. I try taking him on but it’s tricky with the other captain, who’s ranged, riddling my exposed flank with crossbow bolts. I have to retreat again. I manage to duck behind a rock and find another flower, microseconds before being mauled by a wild caragath. I mount it and charge back round towards the captains, but the beast instantly gets dispatched - one of them had the monsterslayer trait. Caught between the two, I try and fight my way out, this time focussing on the ranged captain. The melee captain’s sword cuts into my back, bringing me all the way down from two thirds health and taking me into the last chance quicktime event. I hadn’t thought my run would end like this. I hadn’t even bothered to look at their names. I just about manage to pass the quicktime event, batting the orcs’ sword away at the last second. I set off running, but before I can move a few metres a final crossbow bolt drags me to the floor again. Then it’s over.
I’d seriously recommend checking out the Trials of War. They’re much more than a throwaway leaderboard challenge, though its scoring system facilitates that if you’re interested in playing them competitively. If you’re looking for a reason to jump back into Mordor, this is it.