Middle-Earth: Shadow of War Preview: Epic fantasy and vendettas

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is one of my favourite games of the past few years. It organically blended the free running and assassination mechanics from Ubisoft’s open world games, a counter-based combat system akin to Rocksteady’sArkham series and its own Nemesis system, which created personal stories between you and individual enemies as they would level up and progress just like you. It’s still incredibly unique in the genre, and I’m surprised other development teams haven’t tried to appropriate it in other open world series.

According to Design Director, Bob Roberts, Shadow of Mordor was merely a stepping stone for what developer Monolith Productions hopes to achieve with Middle-Earth: Shadow of War. During E3, Stevivor had the chance to preview a 30 minute live presentation of a Monolith developer breaching a stronghold of orcs with their own dominated army, as well as trying it out for ourselves in a 45 minute demo (and failing, miserably).

Monolith’s new Lord of the Rings action RPG expands on everything Mordor delivered and failed to do. The map is divided into four different locations, each controlled by a stronghold fortresses that you can eventually claim as your own. The Nemesis system has equally expanded, allowing you to create armies of orcs with designated orc generals and such to conquer and command, instead of one cluster.

“People felt the environment was a little too similar and that there weren’t enough landmarks, so we tried to push the diversity, size and uniqueness,” Roberts told Stevivor. “We go to the snowy mountain tops, glacier caves, [a] lush forest area on an island near the sea of Nurnen, the iconic Mordor volcanic exploding lava area right at the base of Mt. Doom, to the dense human city of Minas Ithil.”

The new Nemesis system focuses on the relationships between Talion and orcs, and those between orc ranks. Those who played Mordor on PS4, Xbox One or PC will be glad to hear that you can export the Nemesis system from your save file intoShadow of War. As Roberts says, the original mechanic “was about death and revenge,” but here, Monolith aim to create more complex and consistently evolving personalised stories.

“One thing people responded to really well last time was that the living world was going on with its business with or without you on some level,” said Roberts. “When you die and time moves forward, it’s not just the guy that killed you that keeps doing his thing, there’s other guys who are on their own missions who level up and gain new traits. That can be a little intimidating to people sometimes but it made the world alive and more like these guys have lives of their own.”

The designs of the orcs have also been greatly improved and varied. Orcs will adapt to how you interact with the world but can also be driven to actively pursue you. One such orc in the live presentation, dubbed the ‘Lord of the Spiders’, chased after the player and was covered in spider webs, carrying a burning stick and screaming profusely.

“Letting these guys grow and respond to whatever situations emerge while you’re fighting them is a big part of [creating] a living world,” said Roberts. “If you use the environment in different ways, [for example,] if you keep trying to draw a guy into patches of spiders and let the spiders chew him up, it’s possible he’ll gain a fear of them and try to avoid them, or that guy may have gone through that cycle and just decided to embrace them and become, ‘of the spiders.’”

“When you’re raising an army to siege a fortress, there’s a good opportunity to build your allies and the friendship [between you and them],” he continued. “Have them show up at the right moments and be on call, let you command them to do things and becoming spies…We’re still secretly always looking for a way to make you really hate them and want to kill them, and to get the most epic revenge story so they can betray you at the most inopportune time.”

Of course, there are moments that play out like Shadow of Mordor but a lot of War‘s mechanics and level design encourages large “epic scale battles.” The difficulty and duration of taking down a stronghold is all dependant on how strategic you are in preparing your army. Hunting down high ranked enemies, dominating their generals and deploying a spy among their ranks will create chaos and disorder among the enemy lines when invading. Failing to assist your allies and take down enemy artillery and wyverns can make soldiers unenthusiastic about following you, with some even choosing to defect.

The final assault in a stronghold is set in the leader’s chambers, fire erupting and clusters of enemies failing to plan your team, take down enemy artillery and wyverns will make advancing into a final battle with the stronghold leader’s chambers unnecessarily difficult. Strongholds feel very fitting in the Lord of the Rings universe, recreating moments of orcs flooding Helm’s Deep and knocking down walls in a violent frenzy.

The story also follows immediately after the events of the first game, which Roberts admits ended quite poorly.

“We got the criticism last time that the final boss fight – the ending – was a little weak,” he said, “We agree. We’re going to overcompensate this time and make sure that everybody feels it’s an absolutely satisfying clear conclusion.”

Talion’s and Celebrimbor’s quest leads them to forging a new ring of power and taking the fight to Sauron directly. Much like Shadow of Mordor, Roberts told Stevivor to expect to see iconic Lord of the Rings characters like Gollum and Sauron return.

“We get a little bit derailed out of the gate with going to the city of Minas Ithil where there’s still a human stronghold that’s trying to hold off an orc siege,” Roberts said. “Talion’s pretty invested in trying to keep these humans alive, trying to do what he couldn’t do on the Black Gates in the beginning of the last game, and help support them. Celebrimbor has just forged a ring of power and as a thousand year old elf, always has the bigger picture in mind.”

Monolith weren’t willing to comment any further but admitted that the Witch-King of Angmar, Nazguls and various new species of orcs and wildlife were introduced in hopes of building a more grounded animate world.

“We added the Ologs – those big war trolls that are now part of the Nemesis system,” Roberts said. “Bruce from the Microsoft press conference is a good example. Even within the orcs, there’s so much room for personality and diversity, how they play and how they talk, what they think about the world… They’re not just a bunch of dumb brutes that go fight. It’s not a really simplistic model for how orcs behave. There’s guys that are really into that and have the bloodlust, guys who are cowardly and don’t like fighting [as well as] funny guys, serious, clever, twisted, messed up and gross.”

Earlier this year, Monolith decided to delay the game three months shy of their original release. Playing the game at E3, it was shortly apparent why; the current state of the game is enjoyable to watch but mechanically unresponsive at times to the point of frustration. I noticed several moments where enemies clipped through parts of the environment and free running controls were awkward and unresponsive. In one scenario, I was stuck free running up a tower, holding onto the ledge of the entrance of a castle as my army rushed into the fortress. Still, Monolith has expanded the Nemesis system in big ways, and seeing your personally crafted units readying for battle and charging forth creates a great sense of epic fantasy.

Middle-Earth: Shadow of War heads to Windows PC, Xbox One and PS4 on 10 October.