When Jay Malone reviewed Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, he pointed out just how strong a foundation the Nemesis system was, but also pointed out a few shortcomings in terms of story and stealth. The game went on to universal acclaim, picking up quite a few Game of the Year awards. The team at Monolith, bolstered by the praise, began work on the sequel immediately, spending the last three years polishing up the product. This week I got my hands on Middle-earth: Shadow of War, coming away not only impressed, but also handing the team a nomination for Best of E3. Yeah, it’s that damned good.
Starting off with a live theater demo, the team showcased the upgrades to the Nemesis system with a fortress siege event. In Shadow of War, Talion and Celebrimbor (the dual-protagonists from the first title) have forged another Ring of Power and are using it to build an army to defeat Sauron and his generals. As before, dominating a broken army captain will grant an opportunity to execute them or recruit them into your forces, but a third option now presents itself. As Celebrimbor cannot turn anyone lower level than himself, you can now shame the Orc or Uruk-hai, lowering their level for another swipe at them later.
As we approached the fortress, we were presented with an overall army makeup, with grunts at the bottom, lieutenants and captains above them, and a Warchief at the top. This time around, however, these commanders will be making decisions on how they’ll want to defend their lair. Randomized like its predecessor, Warchiefs may choose to fully reinforce their walls, preventing siege weapons from breaching them. A captain may choose to reinforce the front gates to prevent those from being crushed, or install poison spouts to repel invaders. Another captain may place siege beasts on the walls to launch fire, poison, or curse (the latter causes your troops to run) explosives at the ground below. As later fortresses can have up to six captains and commanders, the reinforcements may reach near impenetrable levels. To keep it interesting beyond randomized reinforcements, each tribe now has a different look as well — the Terror tribe will have a different look than a Feral tribe, as an example.
Talion, not one to be caught flat-footed, brings his own bag of tricks to the siege. Seeing an overview of the upgrades the enemy has, I was able to select one of three upgrades for each type of troop. Do I field dual-axe wielding savages, or do I arm spearmen to repel Caragor-riders? Perhaps I’ll need the hulking Uruk Mystics instead. Once I had selected my troop loadout and set up my own graug-catapults, it was time to light the fires.
Before the siege, the Overlord came out and proceeded to give a motivational speech to his troops about how this is their fortress and that they’ll not let my army one step closer. Fading back to my army, my captains rallied their troops in a similar fashion.
Using Azkâr, the vicious shadowrealm bow from the first game, I spot and take out two explosive baskets on the enemy siege graugs, the explosions felling the massive beasts, allowing my graugs to penetrate the outer walls of the courtyard. As my army pours forth into the inner portion of the fortress, I spot my first enemy captain. Calling me man-filth (naturally), he announces his intent to eat my flesh — something evidenced by his orc title “flesh eater.” It makes sense. I, however, have different plans, sticking an arrow into the explosive barrel next to where the grandstanding orc is running his nasty mouth, sending him cartwheeling into a nearby wall. With a quick shadowstep, I leap his direction and plunge my sword through his face. Rushing back to the capture point, I slice a flag and claim it in the name of the Light Bringer, scattering the remaining enemy to try to defend the last two points.
Emboldened, I charge directly to the second siege point and face off, most unfortunately, against both remaining captains. Boxed and outnumbered, they make light work of me. A scrawny little orc leaps over to my body and says “Targ Slayer! I quite like the sound of that. Oooh…TARG SLAYER! From now on I’ll be known as “The Targ Slayer”. As before, time passes in the event of your death. The various captains defending this fortress fight amongst themselves, some getting promotions and titles, and some just getting dead. Minions below them step up to take their place – with one exception. Once you have slain the lieutenants that are in charge of the aforementioned fortress upgrades, they remain dead. The next time you attack, not only will you not have to face that commander, you won’t have to contend with whatever upgrade they had previously installed.
With my first run an abject failure, I immediately tried again. We had both lost a commander during the siege, so the footing remained even. If I were playing the full game, however, I could have spent the time to turn all of the commanders on the enemy side, surprising them with betrayal they couldn’t have anticipated. As I once again selected my troops, the Warchief stepped to the podium once again with something to say.
Laughing the entire time, the Warchief said, “I’m trying to take you seriously…but after how bad you cocked it up last time, I just don’t think I can!” to the uproarious laughter of his troops (and the Monolith employee next to me). The team has recorded so many of these interstitials that he’d not heard that one yet, despite more than three days of non-stop demonstrations.
Making my way to the throne room, I summoned a bodyguard (you can now summon a bodyguard you specify at the beginning of battle to your side at any time, as well as a caragor) to tackle the Warchief. A hulking beast wearing a skull mask and helmet, he was flanked by massive Uruks as well as archers on the surrounding walls. Shadowstepping onto the walls, I dispatched two of the archers on each side, turning the last two into allies to help me with my boss fight. This particular boss, however, was classified as “Legendary”, and any injury enraged him, making my encounter with him very short and unfortunate. Thankfully, having taken the other points in the fortress, I could run back into the throne room unimpeded on my next attempt – a nice quality of life improvement to ensure that you don’t have to have a flawless run to succeed.
While I didn’t get a chance to do it myself, the developers pointed out that the drake I saw devastating my marauding army can also be damaged enough to break and ultimately dominated and ridden as a mount. It seems I’ll have to experience that pleasure in the final release.
While the new mechanics are fantastic, it was the feeling of command and control that impressed me most. What felt like a welcome distraction in Shadow of Mordor now feels like the game is involving me in a much larger conflict in Shadow of War.
To push the RPG elements a bit further, the team has expanded the inventory system. Applied to both swords, bow, armor, capes, and rings, players can now collect three different type of augmentation gems. Split between vitality, damage, and one for Mirian (the currency in the game), each can apply a variety of effects depending on where they are attached. At the lowest level, the damage gem may add an additional 5% to damage when placed on a sword, but may prevent 5% damage when placed on a cape, as an example. For every three times you upgrade that gem, it’ll pop to the next tier, making it even more effective.
Legendary and Epic equipment, the top two rarity levels, have perks associated with each that require challenges to unlock them. As an example, I picked up a Raider’s Dagger from Orthog the Poet (a poor Orc chief that joined and died in my army — we will remember him for his awesome trilby hat) and it had a challenge attached to dominate an orc from the Marauder tribe that is level 40 or higher. Doing so would unlock a 30% increase in the Mirian dropped when I took out an enemy with stealth. Another challenge would yield a power that applied a poison effect every time I did a quick throw.
Given my failed attempts at assaulting this fortress, I also got to see a welcome improvement in the “Last Chance” mechanic. Rather than dragging your thumbstick to a circle and hitting the specified button in time, now you simply have to do the latter portion with the right timing.
Stepping away from my assault efforts, I tried out a story mission. The one I sampled felt more cohesive and with clearer objectives than Mordor offered. A stealth mission with some long runs between areas showcased the sprint and parkour mechanics nicely, as well as a tightly stitched connection to the narrative. It’s hard to say if this sampling will be indicative of the entire campaign, but alongside all of the other improvements on display, it’s a great start.
I came away absolutely blown away by Middle-earth: Shadow of War. The renewed challenge of combat, the new assault and combat mechanics, and the promise of eventually riding a drake to cataclysmic results will make the four month wait one of pure anticipation.
Middle-earth: Shadow of War is coming to Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC on October 10th, 2017.