2014’s Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor was a great game in its own right, taking the fantasy world of Tolkien and translating it into a compelling, brutally violent action experience. But for Michael de Plater, VP of creative at developer Monolith Productions, it was also a starting point — one the team is looking to expand upon significantly with the upcoming sequel, Shadow of War.
“With Shadow of Mordor being our first third-person, open-world action game, we were learning a lot,” he explains. “And as a result, there were a lot of limitations around what we could achieve in terms of scope. This was our ambition to do the big, blockbuster version of the ideas we’d begun to explore in the first game. It’s kind of our Terminator 2 to Terminator.”
One of the places that can be seen most is the “nemesis system,” one of the defining aspects of the first game. In Shadow of Mordor, enemies you defeated would appear later in the game, nursing a personal grudge. If they managed to kill you, they’d remember that, too, and become stronger while moving up the ranks of orc society. It created a dynamic and more personal relationship with otherwise forgettable characters. Because everyone plays differently, and because the orcs were procedurally generated, no two players’ experience was the same.
In Shadow of War, that’s still true, but the nemesis system now extends to the world itself as well. As orcs become more powerful leaders, their influence will also influence regional fortresses found throughout Mordor, as well as their surrounding areas. Different orc tribes have different cultures as well, so a fortress with a beast trapper in charge will look very different from one run by somebody else.
Going along with the larger-scale nemesis system is a newfound focus on large-scale battles. Shadow of Mordor was largely a solitary experience, with ranger Talion — with the help of ghostly wraith Celebrimbor — fighting his way through orc camps in a quest for revenge. The sequel, meanwhile, is looking to expand on that to re-create the massive battles featured in the movies. “Our goal was very much, if we think about Lord of the Rings — in particular Return of the King — there is this epic scale and we very much wanted to capture that, and live up to that,” de Plater explains.
To that end, Talion will be recruiting orcs and building his own army in order to take down the heavily fortified fortresses across Mordor. The battles are bigger than in Mordor, but maintain the same focus on violence and brutality. I watched a brief demo of the game that featured everything from dismembered arms and heads to orcs being stabbed in the eye. Gushing blood is a common site. According to de Plater, that violence is a necessary part of the experience, but for the sequel the developers have tried to lighten the mood a bit.
“The notion of power, and the ring of power, and of turning Mordor against itself, and even the nature of the orcs themselves, is definitely about power and violence and conflict,” de Plater says. “I think that because it is exploring that, it becomes equally important to make sure we have that humor and that likability offsetting that. The orcs revel in violence so much, they love it so much, they’re almost like vikings in that sense. We don’t want to wallow in it, or feel sadistic.”
That “likability” is especially important this time around, since orcs won’t just be your enemies, but also fight alongside you. One could even become your friend. “When they’re your enemies, people sometimes love to hate them, and we saw that in Shadow [of Mordor],” de Plater says. “But when they’re on your side, and they save you and rescue you or they help you, that sort of [friendly] relationship builds up. But they’re still these violent, horrible scumbags.”
This also creates the kind of moral dilemma that could only happen in a video game. “When one of them does happen to die,” de Plater says of the friendly orcs, “they’re always going to drop great loot.”
Middle-earth: Shadow of War launches August 22nd on PS4, Xbox One, and PC.