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When Middle-earth: Shadow of War launches this fall, players will once again take on the role of the vengeful Talion, still pursuing his quest to overthrow Sauron. This time around, however, he'll have an entire army of orcs and various other beasties at his back, making for some big changes to the way players will leave their mark on the lands of Mordor.
While players enjoyed an introduction to one of Talion's sassy new orc friends during the E3 2017 Microsoft press conference, even more of the game's new army-driven gameplay was shown off behind closed doors on the showroom floor. Director of Technical Art Matt Allen guided audiences through an attack on one of Shadow of War's many fortresses, highlighting how much control players have over battles that now feel truly epic. That's not to say the combat was low-key in Talion's previous outing, Shadow of Mordor. But while he could be considered a scalpel in that previous game, the army you build is a massive, orc-slaying hammer in Shadow of War.
Allen first introduced viewers to the game's new Nemesis system, which greatly expands on the interconnected relationships across orc-kind in Mordor. The system is broken down into forts, at the top of which rests the war chief. Said chief usually has a collection of three or four generals beneath them, with their own high ranking officers clustered in the field below. Highlighting any orc shows their immediate connections, as well as information on if you happen to control them or have sent them out on a mission.
Allen explained that understanding these connections is key in Shadow of War, as it gives the player an idea of how the dynamics will shift depending on the outcome of a raid.
Those raids play a huge role in the new game, with players given the opportunity to prepare for war before storming the castle. The pre-fight menu gives you an opportunity to see the local war chief and their generals' strengths and weaknesses. One general may have set up catapults that launch poison, for instance, while another has a squad of berserkers on their side; insane warriors who attack without thinking.
The trick here is to decide what strengths you have that might take advantage of the listed weaknesses. For the live demo, the player picked perks that gave them units who climb walls faster, for instance, as well as an army of attack spiders.
Once you've made your selections, it's time to dive into battle. Again, this is one of the ways Shadow of War takes a big departure from Mordor. The raids are huge, and the player is thrust right into the heart of it. The main objectives are held by the various enemy generals, and your job is to fight side-by-side with your troops in an effort to claim those posts. In the live demo, the player basically stuck to the standard tactics, slicing and dicing their foes on a quest to reach the warlord. When I got hands on time, I experienced a very different battle. It was the same mission and same fort, but the war chief, generals, and various modifiers were totally different, backing Allen's claims that, once again, no two playthroughs will be identical.
On my quest to reach the war chief, I worked my way along an upper wall, taking out archers or turning them to my side to force them to fire on their former allies. I overtook a mortar and fired at will on the enemy. I also had a fire-breathing drake swoop in to assist and, guided by a helpful team member running the demo, leapt onto the thing's back and rode it around the fort, toasting everything in sight.
During the live playthrough, their Talion was killed in a showdown that boasted the rare "No Chance" death scene, where the player was not able to make a last-ditch effort to survive. Allen laughed at this.
Sorry, that was a little off script, but that's how the Nemesis system works. Even we don't know what's going to happen.
This actually gave us a chance to see how the world changes following defeat. Just like in Mordor, the general responsible for killing Talion and his war chief grew stronger. However, since the player had killed off one general before dying, the fort's defenses were not quite so tough.
Because we took out one of their captains, their defenses are weaker and the fort's level is lower. While some of the orcs have grown stronger, the fort itself should be a bit easier to overtake when we return.
Once the war chief is reached and victory is achieved, the fort now belongs to Talion and is shown as such on the map. There's a deeper loot system in play this time around, giving the player access to all sorts of stat-boosting gear that will also change your look in-game. Also, once a battle is won, Talion's own troops will pick up whatever loot was left behind and equip them to become stronger. After that, you need to install your own war chief and generals, protecting the fort against raids from Sauron's forces. This gives me reason to believe defense missions will also be available from time to time, though Allen and Co. did not elaborate further.
What I really like about these raids is that it forces the player to make new and interesting decisions. Also, it's impossible not to feel like a badass leading an army of Middle-earth baddies into what feels like a living, breathing battle. There are a lot of options once the swords get to swinging, so pretty much every type of player should be able to find a path to victory that suits their style.
Shadow of Mordor was such an unexpected darling, all the team at Monolith Productions really needed to do was give us more of the same thing and they would have probably had another success on their hands. But one of the things that set Mordor apart from the pack was the fact that the developer took a lot of chances. I'm happy to see that, with this new Nemesis system and epic fort raids, they're taking even more chances that seem to be paying off.
Middle-earth: Shadow of War launches for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC on Oct. 10.