Middle-earth: Shadow of War

Platform(s): Android, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, iOS
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Developer: Monolith
Release Date: Oct. 10, 2017


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PS4/XOne/PC Preview - 'Middle-earth: Shadow of War'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on June 21, 2017 @ 1:30 a.m. PDT

Middle-earth: Shadow of War features an original story with the return of Talion and Celebrimbor, who must go behind enemy lines to forge an army and turn all of Mordor against the Dark Lord, Sauron.

Pre-order Middle-earth: Shadow of War

The original Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor was the rare game that lived up to what sounded like impossible hype. A lot of games talk about dynamic enemies and thriving worlds, but Shadow of Mordor managed to make orcs some of the most memorable characters in gaming. As a result, Middle-earth: Shadow of War has a lot to live up to. The original game was ambitious, but can a sequel live up to that ambition? Based on what we played at E3 2017, it does that — and more.

The defining feature of the first Shadow game was the Nemesis system, which was a series of randomly generated attributes for orcs that give them distinct personalities. Some orcs may fear fire, others may be enraged by sneak attacks, and others may fear bees. Some are snarky, some are insane, and some are oddly charming. Even their looks are randomly generated, so you'll have a battle-scarred brute, an orc who is barely held together by crude metal plates, or an orc whose flesh is writhing with maggots.

Shadow of War plays up the Nemesis system even more by emphasizing the recruitment of your army. Orcs who are recruited can be used as your personal army. You can even assign one as a bodyguard who you can summon to your side when the going gets tough. This is a neat feature, since you get to pick the orc that complements your playstyle. If you have trouble with archers, you could select an arrow-immune orc. If you're worried about shield-carrying brutes, then choose an orc that can smash them.

Recruiting orcs isn't just for fun, though. One of the major new features is fortress battles. Enemy orc overlords have their own fortresses, which are the combined defensive power of everyone under that orc's command. Some orc warlords may improve the fortifications of the walls, increase the number of powerful soldiers inside, or create siege beasts who can make it harder for your forces to invade. This also applies to your own orcs, who have abilities that make it easier for you to invade enemy fortresses.

Fortress battles are effectively your forces versus the enemy's forces, but it's done in such a way that you can weight it in your favor by using the Nemesis system. For example, if you know an enemy orc warlord will reinforce wooden walls with stone, you can assassinate that warlord. Without him, the walls would be much weaker. On the other hand, you can also find an orc with the stonebreaker attribute and recruit him to your army. If you assign him as one of the warriors in the battle, he can smash through the enemy's defenses. The goal is to capture victory points by holding them for a few moments and then breaking into the overlord's throne room to challenge them in combat.

War battles are as easy, or as difficult, as the effort you put into preparing for them. If you like a challenge, you can invade with the forces you have and deal with the consequences. Another option is to spend your time picking off or dominating the overlord's underlings so that by the time you invade, he has little more than a motley crew of rejects and traitors.

A nice thing about the improved Nemesis system is that it plays into what was fun about the original Shadow of Mordor. The orcs have more personality and more focus, but more critically, the orcs are now actual characters instead of disposable minions. This is represented in a lot of little ways. I'm very fond of the fact that I can actually heal my orc minions, so it makes them feel like someone I want to keep around.

A critical thing in Shadow of War is that it understands the flaws of the original game. One of the big ones was that Shadow of Mordor got too easy after a while, with abilities that trivialized or overwhelmed foes. Shadow of War fixes this not by ruining those abilities but by playing into the Nemesis system to make them more punished. The powerful Vault skill now has enemies who will punish you if you try to do it or become enraged and far more powerful. Even the simple act of movement has been upgraded, with Talon now having access to a double-jump, quick-vault and super-speed dash that make basic traversal a lot faster and more fun.

Talon is also more customizable than ever before. There are a bunch of new special abilities that you can find or access, and they can be upgraded even further with traits. Only one trait can be equipped at a time, but they can significantly change how Talon plays. You can use a powerful AoE burst of wraith-fire that stuns enemies, and you can modify it to freeze enemies or ignite them, depending on what works for you. You can freeze time to snipe enemies while jumping in mid-air, or you can summon a powerful ghostly Elvish glaive that you can further modify to perform combo attacks.

In addition, you can customize Talon's equipment. His armor, bow, cloak, dagger, sword and the new Ring of Power can all be customized with special loot that is dropped from enemies. Not only does this change the look of the character, but these customizable pieces of equipment also have further challenges associated with them. Talon may find a cloak that increases the damage that his dominated beasts do, but in order to activate its full power, he'll have to kill five enemies while mounted. The cloak can be further modified by equipping powerful gems that increase stats, the amount of money that enemies drop, or other traits.

Of course, the game isn't just about killing orcs. In our demo, we tried out a pair of story missions. One involved a battle against a strange forest spirit that's quite unhappy with Talon and expressed it through a series of fights, starting with a wolf-like Caragor carved from wood, which transformed into a giant Graug and finally into a fire-breathing dragon. The other was a stealth mission where Talon had to interrogate a group of enemies to find out about The Chosen, a group of orcs who are working for the Nazgul.

The regular missions haven't changed much from Shadow of Mordor. Both missions also had optional objectives you could take on, such as headshotting the beasts summoned by the forest spirit or dominating several archers without getting noticed. As in the first game, these aren't required but give you extra money for doing so.

Middle-earth: Shadow of War is a complex series of interlocking systems, but they all work together quite well and play into the core Nemesis system. Everything you do in the game feeds back into the same core systems and even in our short demo, we got a good feel for how well everything comes together. Shadow of War was one of the highlights of the show, and if the final version lives up to the demo, it will be a sequel worth waiting for when it hits shelves this October.

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