"Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor" early look review (XBOX One version). I currently have logged in approximately eight hours of play.
Too soon is this review in relation to the release of this game for me to give a complete overview of my experiences with the game, but I felt it was necessary to give at least a first impression, because first impressions can mean a lot when it comes to the overall playability of a sandbox-style game like "Shadow of Mordor".
First off, this is not a happy-go-lucky romp through The Shire with a hobbit or two. This is a brutal, dark game, taking place primarily around the gates of Mordor. Your character, Talion, is a recently-murdered ranger who was resurrected by a spirit to be a tool of his malice against the forces of Sauron. In playability, the game resembles most closely "Batman: Arkham City" with its approach to gang-style battles, jumping and switching your attacks from one orc to the next while trying to parry and dodge other incoming attacks. There are also specific missions you can take on to progress the story, but there is a plethora of other side missions that can be had to increase the game's play time.
Speaking of plethora, there are more orcs and Uruk-hai than you can shake your broken sword at. At times, there are almost too many. So far, there doesn't seem to be a "cleansing" target to the game - many of the enemies you slash, stab, and decapitate will only be replaced by a handful (or sometimes a platoon) of other orcs roaming the darkened lands. The battles can feel a bit repetitive after a couple hours, but as you gain experience, so do your weapons and your fighting style. Sure enough, little details can be upgraded and added, giving Talion alternatives and options to just simply pressing the X button to hack-and-slash your way through as though re-enacting a scene from a Cecil B. DeMille movie.
On the XBOX One, the game is pretty beautiful, though I have very little to compare it to given this is the first game I've played on the new system. Regardless, the animations on "Shadow of Mordor" are brilliant, as is the voice acting and musical score. The cinematics flow nicely with the gameplay, never truly interrupting the pace of the game. I also really enjoy the game's "power struggle" concept, in which after defeating certain orc captains, the power of Sauron's army will shift and balance as new orcs emerge to take over leadership spots. If you are defeated, the orc that killed you will level up, seemingly making him more difficult to destroy the second time around.
This is not Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" with hobbits and lembas bread. This is the dark ages of Sauron, and the violent struggle between the rangers who defend the Land of Men from the powers of darkness - often with a head lopped off in a pool of bluish-green blood.