Middle-earth: Shadow of War is one of the most anticipated titles of the year for me the many millions of fans of the J.R.R. Tolkien universe of Middle-earth. The game comes out on August 22 in North America on the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Microsoft Windows.
I got a sneak peek at it last week during a preview event, where I was able to play through an entire battle, taking over an intimidating fortress in Mordor during an Orc civil war. Taking over such fortresses is the main object of the game, so you can push back the forces of Sauron, the Dark Lord, and win his followers over to your side.
Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment and its Monolith Productions studio have been working on Middle-earth: Shadow of War video game for a few years, and they’ve only begun to reveal its content. The game is a sequel to 2014’s Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, which was perhaps the best Tolkien video game of all time.
An engaging story that is unique for every player
Shadow of War continues the narrative about Talion, a Ranger of Gondor who has become the Bright Lord, a challenger to the evil Sauron. It takes place in the fiction during the 60 years between the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Talion teams up with a wraith, or ghost, of the former great elf Celebrimbor, who forged the Rings of Power in an earlier age. Talion uses his own ring to gain power over Orcs and get them to turn against Sauron and his minions.
In the game, your experience will be different from any other player’s since you decide which fortresses to attack and in what order. With Shadow of Mordor, you dominated Orc captains and took over minor forts. But in Shadow of War, the stakes are higher. Talion now leads an army that grows as he takes over one fortress after another. Eventually, the story will bring into the foreground the great fortresses from the Tolkien novels, such as Minas Morgul, Cirith Ungol, the Black Gate, and Barad-dûr, or the Dark Tower.
Michael de Plater, director of the game, said in an interview with us that the title is orders of magnitude bigger than the original in terms of story, the size of the world, and the number of enemies that you encounter through the innovative Nemesis system (a hierarchy of Orc leaders that you must dominate). Under Nemesis, you slowly learn who your enemies are by taking out the lower-ranking Orc leaders and finding out to whom they report.
Nemesis dynamically creates enemies who remember you and grow with you. One of them will say, “I thought I killed you already” without a hint of irony. In the new game, the fortresses also fit under the Nemesis system, as you move on from one conquered fortress to the next unique fortress. Each has its own look, its own defenses and weaknesses, and its own overlord. Different tribes populate the fortresses, such as Olog Hai trolls or Orcs from the Sea of Nurn. And they have different traits.
“It’s much deeper and much longer gameplay,” de Plater said.
Talion’s revolt among the Orcs has turned into a full-fledged civil war in Mordor. We played through a level where Talion has to use his army to take over an Orc fortress, and the process wasn’t easy. We had to use all of our accumulated powers to smash walls, infiltrate the ranks with spies, take over dragons, and then rain death from above.
In some ways, we know how this story is going to end. When The Lord of the Rings story starts, the Dark Lord is still there, and Talion is not. About that, de Player said, “There’s a quote from Tolkien that I like a lot. ‘There can be no story without a fall.’ Many good stories are about some sort of fall from grace. When you deal with Rings of Power and Mordor and stories of revenge and Celebrimbor’s pursuit of power — there’s a tragic dimension or possibility there.”
He added, “But we’re doing that in a way where that sacrifice could also potentially lead to saving the world. We’re embracing that fact. Other people in Middle-Earth didn’t ultimately hear this story. Talion didn’t become famous. Why was that? What happened to him? There are interesting ways to explore that story and think about how it meshes with The Lord of the Rings. It’s a fall but also a heroic one, which is almost the definition of tragedy, I think.”
The fortress assault
You can still fight in the wilderness of Mordor in small-scale engagements, but the capstones are the fortress assaults. If you are successful, you can take over an entire region of Mordor.
The battle I fought takes place in the middle of the game, where the Bright Lord has leveled up his powers and is bringing the war to Sauron. If Talion wounds an Orc leader, the chieftain becomes vulnerable to being turned to Talion’s side. You can use these turncoats to infiltrate the enemy’s fortress and betray the enemy. Or you can use them to gather intelligence on the weaknesses of the fortress.
At the start of the siege, the enemy overlord addressed his troops and insulted me as best he could.
“This is all you brought to take my walls,” he bellowed. “Should have recruited more traitors. You’re going to need them. This fortress has everything.”
De Plater noted the fortress had customized features, such as massive inner stone walls, Siege Beasts atop the towers, and poison gas traps sprinkled throughout.
In some ways, I had an unfair advantage because I watched Monolith run through the assault first. That made it look easy, but de Plater said that knowledge will come slowly over the course of the game.
For instance, one of the first things I did was to shoot Talion’s mighty bow at the Siege Beast creatures atop the towers of the enemy fortress. There were two of them, and they were both vulnerable to being shot with arrows that exploded the gunpowder barrels on their backs. Once they were gone, the artillery hitting my forces greatly reduced.
Next, I took Talion to my own Siege Beast — or a cannon strapped to a giant troll. Once I mounted the beast, I was able to direct the fire of the gun at the walls of the fortress. Meanwhile, my sappers were heading toward the main gate to blow it up. I used the gun to clear enemy archers from the walls and then blast a gap in the wall. After that, my own Orcs poured into the breach.
I ran inside and found that the Orcs were battling over a control point. I used my Ring of Power to seize the point and bring that part of the fortress under my control. The enemy retreated to the next point. There, I met an Orc chief. He insulted me, and we went into one-on-one combat. He took me by surprise and killed me the first time. And so, I started over. Clearly, it wasn’t a cake walk.
In the next playthrough, I took out one of my own Orc chiefs with a stray shot from the Siege Beast. Yes, friendly fire hampered me. And this time, rather than engage on the ground, I fired a few shots at a wild Drake, or smaller dragon. Then, I mounted the dragon and started flying over the fortress, spewing fire at the ground. The dragon took out the Orc chief this time, and I proceeded to the next gate. Climbing to the top and firing arrows was the best strategy, and I simply had to look at the minimap to see where the arrow caches were.
Eventually, the enemy shot my dragon out from under me. The next time around, I managed to fly my dragon to the inner defenses, take out more Siege Beasts, and land at the fortress keep. There, Talion waltzed in the front door to find the overlord and his bodyguards. Sadly, I couldn’t bring the Drake with me into the keep.
The overlord would have been tough to beat one-on-one, but he had a dozen bodyguards that were equally fierce. On my first try, I fired arrows at them as they charged me, and then moved around as fast as I could to do a little damage to each one. But the overlord caught me and took me out.
On the second try, I scrambled up a wall and perched atop the inner wall. But archers took me out. On the next try, I moved to the archers quickly and recruited them to my side, so they started firing arrows down on the enemy. That kept me above the poison gas that kept appearing from time to time. I picked off the overlord slowly, as the intelligence told me he was vulnerable to arrows. And then, I jumped down to take him out. But the bodyguards got me. The next time around, I finished off the overlord using arrows.
It took a number of attempts, but I managed to take down an impenetrable fortress. I can only imagine how hard it would have been if I didn’t know the various tricks to bypass the hardest defenses. But if it takes this long to take down one fortress, I can only imagine what it’s like to try to conquer all of Mordor.
If you don’t take the fortress on the first try, the consequences won’t be dire.
“It’s hard to show in a shorter time frame like this, but the good thing is, when people lose, we want to use that to generate new stories for them,” de Plater said. “Maybe you killed a couple of the war chiefs. If you attack again — time is moving forward. We’re not saying you have to go and do the same thing over again that you just failed to do. Any progress you’ve made can be kept over time unless the world evolves. You can make your followers more powerful. You can get spies going in there. Your progress can go forward.”
This is going to be a massive, incredibly customizable experience. I’m sure I’m going to enjoy it.