Middle-earth: Shadow of War
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor turned heads for its unique nemesis system and fun action combat when it launched in 2014. It went on to find a place on many game of the year lists, including winning Game Informer’s best action game for that year.
Last week, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment and Monolith Productions finally unveiled a sequel, Middle-earth: Shadow of War, which picks up right where the last game left off. The Dark Lord Sauron’s power has only grown, since he’s gathered his army. Back in the shoes of Talion and Celebrimbor, can you rise up and turn all of Mordor against him?
Shadow of War isn’t a distant release, with its launch on August 22. Today marks the first slice of substantial gameplay we’ve seen and it already looks like Monolith is improving on the foundation set by its predecessor by enhancing the nemesis system and setting a more epic scale for battles. At this year's GDC, we saw the game in action and interviewed Monolith VP of creative Michael de Plater to find out what’s in store. Here are our biggest takeaways.
The Nemesis System Is More Complex
The nemesis system was Shadow of Mordor’s biggest draw. It reacted to your actions in the world by altering your missions and conflicts based on previous encounters. This meant no two players ever had the same exact experience in the game, as enemies and battle conditions varied by gameplay choices. Shadow of War is greatly expanding on this, offering more memorable exchanges on the battlefield. “We’ve expanded the amount of A.I. and history and memories and stories that we’re tracking in the nemesis system,” says Monolith VP of creative Michael de Plater.
Just as before, your foes taunt you and profess what you’ve done that’s angered them, trying to get under your skin. For Shadow of War, de Plater uses an example of an orc who just loves to take your sword and snap it in half right in front of your face when he defeats you. We get a taste of these tense face-to-faces when we meet our first big foe in our demo. The mission is to gain control of a region by taking down a fortress called the Mountain Valley of Seregost. To do this, we must face off against Thrak: The Storm-Bringer, and our history with him isn’t great. We left him to die, and he took revenge by joining up with the Dark Lord. He shouts, “Come charge into the flames of your reckoning!”
What’s different this time is that your followers get more involved in the action, having their own special moments to shine in battle. Many times during the demo, we have close calls where we are just about to meet our end, but just in the nick of time, one of our followers comes in with a life-saving action. In one instance, Thrak sneaks up on us and throws us to the ground. As he’s about to slice us to death, one of our allies comes to the rescue, sniping from afar and blasting his hand off. Being rescued just makes your appreciate your comrades all the more, especially when it saves you from a game over screen.
Creating stories of betrayal, rivalry, or friendship with your followers is a big part of the experience this time around. “When they’re your enemies, we want you to love to hate them,” de Plater says. “And when they’re your followers, you hate to love them. Because they’re orcs. They’re always driven by violence and hatred and fear of their master, so it’s always this very violent society that you’re messing with.”
In addition to your personal bonds, the orcs also have their own friendships and histories with one another. “Individual orcs can have rivalries with each other, or be blood brothers with each other, or have these personal relationships with each other, which will then feed into what they remember, how they react, or if they’ll follow or betray you,” de Plater explains.
More Options For Building Your Army
Building up your own army was fun in the first game, but Shadow of War provides even more options. You take over regions with your followers in tow, but you have even more classes and skills to craft a strategy around in Shadow of War. For instance, when infiltrating Seregost, we have followers that can get us through an array of challenges. Ragdug, an iron mount, gives us access to his armored cavalry, allowing us to charge through flames of artillery fire. Another member we select for the mission is Ar-Laar: The Demolisher, who is a living battering ram, tearing down enemy defenses with ease.
Once you take over a region, you can select an overlord from your followers to rule it. Orcs now belong to different tribes, so depending on who you pick and what tribe they belong to, the region will reflect their tendencies and values. “What’s really fun and different is whoever is in control of that fortress – if it’s the mystic fortress or feral fortress – that influence and that culture actually spreads right throughout the region,” de Plater says. For instance, if you select a beast master as your overlord, you will have more creatures roaming around, and since he’s from a feral tribe, expect your followers to go on more hunting missions. If you select a leader who is from a more industrial tribe, you have more slaves working for you with a focus on mining. In our demo, we give the overlord honors to Ragdug, as he helped us out of a near-death experience. The bonus with promoting him is that, as a marauder, he’s more likely to loot and pillage the region for us.
You can also upgrade your fortresses along the way, improving defenses and power to withstand Sauron’s counterattacks. You can command the fortress staff at any time, sending them on missions to either attack enemy bases or gather resources. You can choose to accompany them or just let handle these missions on their own. In addition, you can also can assign bodyguards and summon them to help you at anytime.
Click to the next page to learn about mounts, the expanded gear system, and the fun lore surprises...
Expect The Unexpected
My favorite thing from the demo was the unpredictability of the battlefield. You never know when an enemy you thought was dead might reappear, or if a follower might come to your aid and get you out of a sticky situation. At the start of the battle, we eliminated Thrak and moved on, thinking he was out of our hair – only to have him blindside us later and reappear. When he shows back up, “cheated death” appears under his name.
Battles are tense and chaotic with enemies all around, allowing you to approach them however you see fit, whether it’s brute force, stealth, or a mix of the two. Everything is an opportunity on the battlefield, from destructible objects to buildings you can scale. But beware the breadth of enemy abilities is larger for this entry, with an additional focus on different elements, such as fire, poison, or curse. These can debuff you, affecting the way you play. For instance, Thrak has a weapon with the cursed ability, which prevents us from using the power of our new ring. “Enemies now have advanced classes which changes how they play, whether they’re marksmen, assassins, or slayers who are like combat masters, so you have to adapt to that,” de Plater adds.
This doesn’t even account for other unforeseen circumstances that come in battles. Sometimes you might lose a follower, or a new foe can appear out of nowhere, causing extra havoc. This happens to us when Tugog, a fiery warmonger trickster, comes for vengeance after we stole his kill. Apparently, he wanted to be the one to bring down Thrak. In a rage, he fires a massive flamethrower, burning a slew of our followers in the process. This sadly includes our muscle; Ar-Laar: The Demolisher perishes before our eyes.
More Opportunities With Mounts On The Battlefield
Battles have a grander feeling in Shadow or War, and part of that is thanks to the mounts at your disposal. “We wanted to expand the range of what you could do on them,” de Plater says. “The goal was to have the same type of rhythm combat, encounters, combos, and heavy attacks that you have if you’re on foot, so we enormously expanded the depth of the mounted combat and the movement - your ability to climb anywhere.”
Mounts can help you navigate a variety of situations. At one point in the demo, we use an armored cavalry to ride through the fiery backdrop unharmed. Later on, we release and dominate a drake, allowing us to surprise enemies with an airborne attack. Breathing fire at enemies gets them down in a jiffy. Soon, another large foe attacks the drake and the creatures battle while we try to ward off enemies with our bow. Sadly, the drake doesn’t make it, but at least he takes out the massive foe with him in the process. Later on, when we finally reach the overlord, he comments on us stealing his drake, as if that’s pushed him over the edge.
An Expanded Gear System
For this entry, Monolith wanted to make the gear you get more memorable and fun. “We’ve tried to relate the gear system to the nemesis system, so the strength and the type of the enemy you defeat and how you take him down will determine if he can drop epic or legendary gear,” de Plater says. “[When] you get that gear, you can get challenges to unlock its full potential, and then it remembers which orc it was dropped by, so it’s a way to personalize and remember these unique enemies, as well.”
When we finally bring down Thrak in the demo, he drops some sweet loot: epic armor of Rohirrim. This increases our maximum health and gives us poison immunity, 89 health recovery after a successful last chance, and gear drops one level higher from exploited enemies. For all Thrak: The Storm-bringer did, it’s the least he can do.
Fun Lore Surprises
Monolith, understandably, doesn’t want to spoil any of the surprises it has in store for hardcore fans, but assures us they’re there and it’s something the team has thought long and hard about. “I think the thing we can say is that this absolutely fits within the canon,” de Plater says. “This is between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and we can actually tell a story that can shine some interesting new light on things that you think you knew. I’m not to give anything away, but the Nazgul in particular – that’s really a fun place for us to focus.”
When asked if there will be any appearances by fan-favorites, de Plater simply smiles and responds, “Yes.” He doesn’t elaborate further as to not spoil anything, but he does share what he finds exciting about Shadow of War’s story. “We work really closely with Middle-earth Enterprises and a great Tolkien scholar, Janet Croft, so we collaborate a lot and really get into the details,” de Plater says. “Even Celebrimbor himself, because he’s such a big part in the lore. He forges the rings of power with Sauron which is such a great story for us to delve into us, and what does that mean? He’s who made the nine rings that corrupted those other nine guys and turned them into Nazguls, so what does his relationship to Talion actually mean? And where is that going to go? Obviously, forging a ring isn’t going to have a completely happy ending if you take something away from The Lord of the Rings.”
Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see much the open world, so the verdict is still out on how much variety it offers. Middle-earth: Shadow of War launches on August 22 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.