Middle-earth: Shadow Of War
Monolith’s orc-warfare sim expands beyond Mordor
PC, PS4, Xbox One
Developer Monolith Publisher Warner Bros Interactive Format PC, PS4, Xbox One Origin USA Release August 25
One of 2014’s surprise successes, Middle-Earth: Shadow Of Mordor
rendered open-world fantasy violence with unusual skill. More than just a good action game, its simulation of orc society demonstrated an ambitious commitment to systems-driven design. Procedurally generated warlords presided over networks of lieutenants who you were free to assassinate, sabotage, or convert to your side. Each climactic kill was the result of hours of strategic play, and the characters that you bested – or who managed to kill you – would remember your encounters and return with new traits, strengths and weaknesses as a result. The Nemesis system was the highlight of the game, and for the sequel Monolith is rolling it out across a stretch of territory that extends far beyond Mordor’s borders.
“The things that worked were the Nemesis system and the combat,” design director
Michael de Plater tells us. “The things that didn’t work were the scale and payoff of the story, and because we’re so combat focused, there was a level of repetition.”
Addressing these issues means escalation across the board. Shadow Of War sees our avenging ranger Talion return from Mount Doom as the Bright Lord, armed with a brandnew Ring Of Power and with his sights set squarely on Sauron himself. Monolith treats Tolkien with the violent exuberance of a puppy laying into a new chew toy: there’s a lot of love on show, but it’s also a mauling. Talion himself is the ultimate act of fan fiction, a half-ranger, half-ghost, half-elf, orc-warboss uber-warrior who smashes straight through Tolkien’s fondness for meekness.
Though scholars of the Silmarillion may scoff at what Monolith is doing with (and to) Middle-earth, its commitment to turning every aspect of Lord Of The Rings up to 11 yields entertaining results. We’re shown a mid-game siege scenario, with the Bright Lord’s army and orc lieutenants lined up ready to take on a vast fantasy fortress ruled by a flamethrower-wielding troll overlord. Walls are climbed, battlements fought over and doors breached as armies of orcs clash on the ground. The minimap is a mess of allies and enemies as Talion’s melee prowess, bullettime archery, explosive magic, teleport strikes and new ability to summon mounts are chained together in a giddy demonstration of freedom and power.
An inner door is breached, revealing a trap: a drake, trapped inside a siege engine, whose fiery breath incinerates a portion of Talion’s host. Yes, you read that right – a dragon in a box. Talion flanks the gatehouse and destroys the drake’s cage before mounting it and flying off around the fortress to launch strafing
runs against the remaining defenders. It’s loud, spectacular and extremely silly: LOTR rendered in the style of a power-metal album cover. Somewhere, presumably, an Oxford scholar spits tea over their copy of Beowulf.
This sequence offers plenty of hints at Shadow Of War’s underlying intelligence, however. A deeper and more reactive Nemesis system powers every part of the siege. The defences and decor of the fortress (including that dragon in a box) are derived from its owner’s procedurally generated penchant for fire; a different opponent may field different defences depending on their personality.
The first miniboss Talion encounters is, as it happens, one of his former converts who happened to die on a mission. “You left me to die,” he spits, before revealing that Sauron not only resurrected him but also granted him the power to nullify some of Talion’s abilities. He later ambushes the player for a second time, only to be shot through the eye by an orc sniper that Talion converted and snuck into the fortress ahead of the siege. All of this is cinematically presented and systems-driven, and all of it is intended to provide a different narrative for each player.
“People have put a lot of effort, for good reason, into followers, allies and companions,” de Plater says. “But a lot of your verbs of interaction in the game, the buttons you’re pushing, are interactions with enemies. So it seemed to make a lot of sense to put that effort into those relationships, which are at the core of your experience.”
Shadow Of War takes what would normally be thought of as a dynamic difficulty system and applies it to storylines. Your actions are tallied up and weighted, with the game able to keep track of who you’ve killed, which orc tribes you have favoured, who you have abandoned or lost along the way, and how much you’ve died. This information is used to push the Nemesis system into delivering more surprising and dramatic moments.
“Last time we had orcs who had a trait called The Humiliator,” de Plater explains. “Every time they killed you, they wouldn’t finish you off – they’d turn and walk away. That was cool sometimes, but now we can be deliberate about when that’s happening. If it’s going to be a better story for you to not die in the moment, that’s when he’ll do it.
“The goal is to generate the best stories. If someone’s dying too much, a good story is to have someone save you.” That could be based on dynamic factors in the open world, as in the case of the sniper who helps based on proximity to Talion. Or in some cases it’s something the player controls. Lieutenants can be assigned as bodyguards, and these can be summoned with a button press. During an extended fight with the fortress’ overlord, for example, the arrival of an ally on a flameresistant mount proves decisive.
In our demo, that ally is subsequently chosen to rule in Talion’s name. This choice affects the bonuses that the player earns from the fortress, as well as altering the nature of the open-world zone that surrounds it. Shadow Of War will be comprised of many of these zones, each with their own fortress and a society of orcs. The territory we’re shown is vast, stretching from the Sea of Núrnen in the south to Minas Tirith to the west.
“Ultimately, your goal within Mordor is turning Mordor against itself,” de Plater says, “keeping it in this state of perpetual warfare.” As the Bright Lord’s territory expands, Sauron will launch counter-attacks; fortresses can be retaken and converted orcs can learn to resist Talion’s influence. While a linear plot will drive the core of the game and provide its conclusion, this map-wide push and pull will continue long after the campaign ends. If you wish, you can build up your power, contest Sauron and explore the wrinkles of the Nemesis system for as long as you want.
Five months from launch, Shadow Of War already intrigues. While caution is warranted – planned demos are never the most reliable showcase of dynamic systems – Monolith has successfully executed a design like this before. “I think sequels in videogames are sometimes easier,” de Plater says. “Things are so complex and hard that you’re going to leave a lot of stuff on the table on the first one. Number two is often the fully realised version of the ideas that you had in your head.”
“If someone’s dying too much, a good story is to have someone save you”
Mounts are more numerous and more versatile, able to scale walls and quickly bypass enemy defences
Michael de Plater, design director
The appearance of your nemeses and followers changes based on their standing, tribal affiliation, and experiences in combat