Mid­dle-earth: Shadow Of War

Mono­lith’s orc-war­fare sim ex­pands be­yond Mor­dor

EDGE - - GAMES -

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

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