2014 was not the best year for gaming thanks to a litany of disappointing and broken releases. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, however, was able to stand apart and achieve critical acclaim. Developed by Monolith Productions, Shadow of Mordor featured an original story set in Tolkien’s universe, gameplay similar to the Batman Arkham games and the Nemesis System. The Nemesis System gave AI NPC characters their own personality and the ability to remember their interactions with Talion. Now, three years later, Monolith is getting ready to launch Middle-earth: Shadow of War and they’re betting heavily on the Nemesis System.
We were able to see Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor during GDC 2017 where Monolith took us through some significant changes. While the original game was limited to just two regions, Shadow of War will offer a lot more, including areas outside of Mordor. Our demo took place in Seregost, where Talion, Celebrimbor and their army of orcs and trolls are looking to end the life of its Overlord and take the seat for themselves.
Orc hierarchy has been shaken up for Shadow of War. Each region is in control of an Overlord that must be taken out to claim the region. To do this, Talion will need to lay siege to their fortresses, kill their war-chiefs, and face them in combat. Who the Overlord, war-chiefs and orc captains are is all dependent on the Nemesis system, which has been revamped considerably. Talion can now interact and form relationships with his orcs and how he treats them will determine their actions.
For example, a war-chief in Seregost was previously mortally wounded and left for dead by us. The forces of Sauron saved him and he now holds a personal grudge. Sauron also granted him the powers of necromancy, giving him the ability to subdue some of Talion’s abilities. Later on, when facing the Overlord, Talion was about to die but was saved by a Beast Rider who had become protective of him. The Nemesis System is smarter than ever and how you play and interact with the orcs will have a significant impact on how the game progresses.
Another welcome change is the inclusion of fortresses. Shadow of Mordor’s regions may have been vast, but they also didn’t have much architecture. Shadow of War fixes that easily with the inclusion of mighty fortresses and they’re an exhilarating thrill-ride. You’ll help breach walls, clear rooftops of archers and destroy traps laid out by the enemies.
Enemies themselves are far more varied with unique weapons and skills. One war-chief Talion was pitted against was a glutton fire. He poured boiling oil on my allies, unleashed a wave of fire from a captured fire drake and even lit his own axes on fire when confronted. His boss, the Overlord, actually wielded a flamethrower. There’s going to be a lot of different enemies in Shadow of War and players will have to come up with new strategies to counter them.
Gameplay is mostly the same as the original title. Talion still attacks, counters and execute enemies, and Celebrimbor can shoot arrows and teleport Talion towards enemies. However, that isn’t to say there haven’t been significant changes. Talion and Celebrimbor’s new Ring of Power grants them devastating new abilities such as a ground pound with a high area of effect. Celebrimbor can also use his elvish hammer to pull enemies toward Talion. There is also a slew of new creatures Talion can tame and mount, such as the fire drake. After freeing it from its restraints, Talion can hop on board and unleash its fire from above. Flight controls looked comfortable enough, though that’s mostly an observation as the demo was hands-off.
Another new addition that could prove controversial is the Gear system. Gear can be found throughout the game in chests and dropped by enemies. Each piece will offer various stats boosts, changing the appearance of Talion. While it’s admirable that Monolith wants to add more RPG and customization options to Shadow of War, a cynical person would think Gear was only added so the game would have some form of microtransactions. While it’s too early to know if this is the case, it is something to think about.
What hasn’t improved are the boss fights. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor’s boss fights were lacking in the gameplay department and Shadow of War seems to be falling into the same category. The battle with the Overlord and war-chiefs boiled down to quick slashes and partial-executions that slowly chipped away at their health. It wasn’t particularly exciting, especially after such a fantastic siege. Hopefully, potential fights against Sauron and the Witch-King will have more involvement from the player.
After taking down an Overlord, players will be prompted to choose a follower to become the new Overlord of the fortress. The look of the fortress will change depending on who you put in charge. In our demo, a beast tamer from Nurn was made Overlord, who proceeded to decorate the fortress in gold. Your Overlords will also defend your fortress when Sauron’s forces retaliate.
Middle-earth: Shadow of War is shaping up to be a solid sequel. Monolith is expanding on what works, adding in new features the fans have requested and making the Nemesis System even more complex. There’s still lots of questions, such as how big and explorable each region will be and exactly how many regions there are, but we have time to get those answers.
Middle-earth: Shadow of War is out August 22 on PS4, Xbox One and PC. The game will be enhanced for PS4 Pro and Project Scorpio, but Monolith isn’t discussing what those enhancements are just yet.
For more on Middle-earth: Shadow of War, be sure to read our interview with Monolith Productions.