When it arrived in 2014, Warner Bros.’ Shadow of Mordor delivered a masterful action role playing game set in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth. But the game offered just a hint of the developer’s actual vision, says Bob Roberts, the game’s design director. Shadow of Mordor told only about half of the story they originally envisioned, and its most novel design feature — the “nemesis system” that generates new stories for everyone who plays — was also pared back.
Middle-earth: Shadow of War, the sequel to be released this fall, offered an opportunity for Monolith Productions to fill in those blanks. Both the scope of the storytelling and the nemesis system have been greatly expanded, and they come together in the game’s fortress sieges — a series of epic, chaotic encounters that have been a highlight of this year’s E3.
Shadow of War picks up where Mordor left off, with the widowed ranger Talion still fused to the ghostly presence of Celebrimbor — an elf tricked by Sauron into forging the Rings of Power. (The story takes place between The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring, but stands alone.)
As you fight your way through Middle-earth, you encounter nasty orcs known as Uruks who are hell-bent on killing you. If they succeed, they are promoted and gain new powers, making them more difficult to kill when you are reborn. Moreover, they’ll taunt you when you return, often in crudely hilarious terms. If you succeed, you can kill them — or you can take control of their minds and press them into your service.
In Mordor, you could use these dominated Uruks to trigger infighting within orc ranks. But in War, they become your army — and with the orcs at your side, you can storm entire fortresses and claim them for the Bright Lord.
At the suggestion of a Monolith employee, I started my time with War by attempting to seize a fortress. If Mordor was primarily a hack-and-slash affair, War demands a more tactical approach. First, I used some skill points to bolster Talion’s combat abilities. Next, I assigned four dominated Uruks to join me in battle, with each one leading dozens of orc soldiers. I could also designate one Uruk as my personal bodyguard, who I could call for assistance in battle with the press of a button.
Before the siege, War will show you the fortress’s defenses — its strengths, its weaknesses, and what sort of terrors are lurking inside. You can also spend in-game currency on items that will help you win — poisonous spiders who will eat away at your enemies’ health, for example, or a dragon who will roast everything in its path. When you’re ready, you tap a button and lead your army into battle.
Taking a fortress is a four-step process. First, you must capture three “victory points” scattered around the fortress. You do this by clearing out enemies with the help of your army. It’s tricky, though, because victory points are guarded by war chiefs — heavily armored Uruks who can take you out with just a few swings of their swords. Only after dispatching the chiefs can you challenge the fortress’s overlord to a fight, and you capture it by defeating him.
A more patient player might attempt to attack war chiefs when they’re away from their fortresses — though they will themselves be surrounded by well armed bodyguards. I was on a tighter time frame, and charged directly into battle — and quickly paid the iron price. War chiefs slaughtered me on each of two attempts to capture a fortress, and after a pair of defeats I waved a white flag and asked if I could play one of more manageable story missions. (It was delightful.)
But I’m eager to get back to the sieges, particularly during a proper playthrough when I’ve re-mastered the game’s controls and can take a more thoughtful approach to battle. Roberts tells me that most players will attempt their first siege only after several hours of gameplay — it’s meant to be a culmination, not an introduction. In a separate demonstration, I watched a Monolith employee successfully claim a fortress over about 20 minutes of gameplay, and it was thrilling to watch. Her team of Uruks stood up to their enemies with ease, and her clever attacks reduced the overlord to a pile of cinders.
Roberts tells me War’s best attribute is in the way its various systems collide — combat, role play, open-world questing, and the nemesis system, all working together to create a unique path for every player. It’s unpredictable in the best way, he says, before telling me a story about a recent moment in which a nearly-dead orc tried to retreat from Talion. “You haven’t seen the last of me,” the orc taunted — and as he was saying it, a giant beast known as a graug suddenly appeared, picked him up and ate him. The team at Monolith didn’t even know that could happen, Roberts says. “That may never happen again,” he adds. “But it happened for us. And it made our day.”
Middle-earth: Shadow of War is due out October 10th on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.