Monolith Discusses Gameplay, Lore, Nemesis Improvements in Middle-earth: Shadow of War

Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is set to usher in a whole slew of new features and improvements that fans have requested from the first game. We got to sit down with Shadow of War’s Art Director, Phillip Straub, at GDC 2017 to discuss the sequel to 2014’s Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. Be sure to check out our in-depth preview to see what we thought about Middle-Earth: Shadow of War.

[Hardcore Gamer] Middle-earth: Shadow of War is coming three years after Shadow of Mordor. Set the stage, what have Talion, Celebrimbor and Sauron been up to?

[Phillip Straub] We ended Shadow of Mordor hinting at the promise of forging a new Ring, so the story takes place shortly after Shadow of Mordor. Talion and Celebrimbor have decided to come together once more and forge that Ring so that they can take on Sauron. They’re really trying to build their army to take on his forces. In the meantime, Sauron’s forces, like the Witch-King, are moving on Minas Ithil.

Shadow of Mordor only had two regions you could explore, Udun and Nurn. How big and open will Shadow of War be?

The game is larger is so many ways. We have more regions, more diverse biomes, and more verticality. When I saw verticality it’s much more than just taller towers. The layouts of the regions are just so much more diverse. Some of them have high cliffs, others are on top of snowy mountains, like Seregost. One of the most exciting things for us was to do a city. Shadow of Mordor’s regions had more natural geology and flora, but this time we got to build a massive city you get to go and play in. It is under siege when you first encounter it, but it’s pretty cool. It really is just a much bigger world.

It’s still open-world? You can explore all of the regions?

Absolutely. It’s still open-world, but now we have a larger world to explore with more things to do. We’ve layered the Nemesis fortresses on top of that. Then we have the RPG elements, which are extensive.

Shadow of Mordor featured three bosses, but only one of them was a real boss fight. The other two were more of quick-time-events. How have you approached bosses for War?

I think the first thing I’ll say is that we really do take feedback. We read all the reviews and are interested in hearing what our fans think. Obviously, when you’re making a game you can’t do everything you want. What’s interesting about the Shadow franchise is that we don’t really have typical boss battles because of the Nemesis system. The different orcs that you grow with are your boss battles, and now that we have the Overlord enemy type, these guys are the real bosses. The cool thing about it is that it’s all dynamic. It’s all based on your gameplay.

So that Overlord we saw in the gameplay demo might not be the Overlord of Seregost in someone else’s game?

Absolutely. We’ve expanded the Nemesis system into the Fortresses and Overlords. Your interactions with the orcs not only changes the way that you engage with the characters, it also changes the way you have to engage the world. Depending on what Overlord is in the fortress, the entire fortress will appear differently. There’s a whole host of different gameplay elements that are associated with that. Overlords bring their own lighting, palette, sky dome, atmosphere, and weather. There are some other cool types of characters you engage with that I can’t talk about at the moment, but there’s some cool stuff. Let’s just say we did show off a Balrog in the reveal trailer.

How has the gameplay been expanded? What new abilities do Talion and Celebrimbor have?

One of the things we’ve done is really solidify this concept of what we call the Bright Lord. What we’re really excited about that makes this franchise unique is that you have this duality. You have Talion who is a ranger of Gondor and Celebrimbor who is an elf with wraith abilities. We always knew that duality was unique to us, and that’s come together to offer players a huge variety of different gameplay options. By embracing that duality, there’s a number of cool skills players can acquire.

To highlight some things we showed, you’ll have noticed that Celebrimbor used his hammer to pull an orc toward Talion for an easy execution. The hammer is a new tool that changes the way you engage in combat. Celebrimbor also uses a glaive, which he can use for a ground pound. We don’t want to go too much into it, but those elements are quite extensive. In terms of RPG elements, we have growth across the hammer, the glaive, the sword, the knife, the bow, and the armor.

Let’s talk about lore for a second. At this point in time, Sauron does not have the One Ring. Describe just how powerful he is. What kind of threat does he pose to Talion and Celebrimbor?

I mean, he’s pretty powerful at this time. He’s still a scourge across Mordor and controls a lot of the regions. Also, Minas Ithil is under siege. It’s not pretty at the moment. His Nazgul are in the game to give him a hand.

What about the Mouth of Sauron? The Hand, Tower, and Hammer were in the first game, but not the Mouth. Plus, he was unceremoniously cut from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Is Shadow of War his time to shine?

No spoilers (laughs)!

Shadow of Mordor was developed knowing that it would have to be ported to the PS3 and Xbox 360. Shadow of War doesn’t have those type of restrictions. How has abandoning the last-gen platforms benefited your vision?

Not having to be thinking about that many SKUs has really allowed us to fully utilize the power of the current-gen consoles. The rendering side of our engine was completely rewritten. Now, we’re using physically-based rendering, true sub-surface scattering on the characters, and a new facial pipeline for more robust animations. From a systemic perspective, our systems have been refined to accomplish our goals. We can now have more NPCs on the field at once. The AI in the game, because of the amount of interactions you can have, what they say and what they have to say has expanded greatly.

When can fans expect to get their hands on the game?

Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is out August 22 on PS4, Xbox One, and PC.

Will there be enhancements for PS4 Pro and Project Scorpio? If so, can you tell us about them?

There will be, but we can’t discuss those yet.