Mid­dle-earth: Shadow of War

Plenty of so­cial or­cward­ness

Games Master - - Contents -

The in­dus­try’s fore­most orc friend­ship simulator re­turns.

This se­quel starts off fa­mil­iarly. As you scurry around Minas Ithil, cap­tur­ing tow­ers, get­ting back into the dance of com­bat, and do­ing mis­sions for peo­ple you strug­gle to care about, you’ll ques­tion whether the Mid­dle-earth se­ries had peaked with 2014 sleeper hit Shadow Of Mor­dor. But a cou­ple of hours in it re­veals a widened web of sys­tems that em­bed you deeper than ever in the chaos of or­cish pol­i­tics. You see, Shadow Of War re­ally ham­mers home that this se­ries is about orcs. The pro­tag­o­nist, Aragorn knock-off Talion, and his elf-wraith side­kick Cele­brim­bor are just a con­ve­nient tool for in­ter­act­ing with orcs – dis­mem­ber­ing them and paus­ing in photo mode to see their be­wil­dered faces, build­ing re­la­tion­ships with them through shared con­quests, be­tray­als, and com­bat, and lis­ten­ing to them as they hurl in­vec­tive at you.

Orc­strav­a­ganza

The orcs are more ver­bose – some talk in rhymes, oth­ers are in­tel­lec­tu­als (by orc stan­dards), while oth­ers still just scream ma­ni­a­cally. Trolls are now voiced as well, and they too can be dom­i­nated (forced to serve you by way of Cele­brim­bor’s magic). The ex­panded Neme­sis sys­tem means they’ll am­bush you, they’ll re­turn to wreak re­venge, and some­times they’ll even re­sist your at­tempts to dom­i­nate them. Even if you do get orcs on your side, there’s al­ways a chance they’ll be­tray you at a cru­cial mo­ment.

It feels gen­uinely in­ti­mate, and you’ll be gut­ted when an orc you were des­per­ate to re­cruit gets cut down by one of your cap­tains, or when one of your top gen­er­als, who you trained up your­self, be­trays you, forc­ing you into a fight that ends with you ten­derly cleav­ing him in two at the waist (why did you do it, Shaka The Mys­tic, why?).

At the same time as things have be­come more in­ti­mate, they’ve ex­panded in the way of war­fare. You can send dom­i­nated orcs to am­bush other orcs, back­stab warchiefs, and level up by fight­ing to the death in fight­ing pits. It’s now a game of schem­ing as well as ex­cel­lent, if fa­mil­iar, hand-to-hand

“In Shadow of Mor­dor you were build­ing a rowdy gang; here you’re build­ing an army”

com­bat. Watch­ing one of your prize orcs fight in a pit, know­ing they might die, is the most grip­ping AI-vs-AI spec­ta­cle since Foot­ball Man­ager.

Even­tu­ally, you build up an army ready to as­sault one of the major forts across the game’s murky re­gions (de­spite dif­fer­ent biomes like snow, in­dus­trial, for­est, and, er, more in­dus­trial, Mor­dor is still a mis­er­able en­vi­ron­ment). As you pre­pare for your siege, you as­sign your orc lead­ers troops, Caragors and siege equip­ment, then you charge into bat­tle along­side them to cap­ture points a la Bat­tle­field. Where in Shadow Of Mor­dor you felt like you were build­ing a rowdy street gang, here you’re build­ing an army.

Com­bat is much the same as be­fore – a dance of death based on tim­ing, hordes of en­e­mies, spec­tac­u­lar ex­e­cu­tions, and an awe­some sense of panache with de­cep­tively sim­ple con­trols. There don’t seem to be any sig­nif­i­cant new an­i­ma­tions, while some new moves – like fir­ing ar­rows in mid-air – have been added, and oth­ers re­moved. The net re­sult is pos­i­tive, though not in a sig­nif­i­cant way. More no­table is move­ment across the world, which is has­tened by a double-jump and the abil­ity to scale just about any ver­ti­cal sur­face with­out need­ing ledges. With a bit of tim­ing, you can vir­tu­ally fly up walls.

There is a plot amid all this, pick­ing up where the first game ended. Talion has forged a new ring of power, which Cele­brim­bor be­lieves could pre­vent him from turn­ing into a dark lord. This un­folds over sev­eral sep­a­rate quest­lines. The ‘Gon­dor’ quest­line sees you help­ing a cou­ple of Gon­do­rian com­man­ders re­group after los­ing Minas Ithil. A Sh­elob quest­line rein­ter­prets the gi­ant spi­der as a femme fatale who has her own rea­sons for help­ing you. Then there is Bruz, a chirpy troll geezer – and best char­ac­ter in the game – who takes you on a com­i­cal, vi­o­lent whirl­wind of an ad­ven­ture.

The de­ci­sion to divvy the main story up into sev­eral dis­parate fa­bles was a good call, keep­ing at­ten­tion away from the mun­dane dual-pro­tag­o­nist – one of whom moans about his con­stant cy­cle of res­ur­rec­tion, the other em­bit­tered by a power com­plex and the fact that his best days are be­hind him (given that he’s dead and all). There are enough re­turn­ing char­ac­ters, com­edy mo­ments, and set-piece bat­tles that the main quests are a worth­while en­gage­ment when you’re not cre­at­ing a Mor­dor-wide army.

The Mor­dor mer­rier

The thing is, run­ning around Mor­dor and build­ing an army is the meat of the game, and de­vel­oper Mono­lith recog­nises that. The story can end, but your per­sonal con­quest nar­ra­tive car­ries on, pro­pelled by a stream of ec­cen­tric char­ac­ters, great writ­ing, vi­cious bat­tles, and a com­pul­sive new equip­ment sys­tem that now in­volves col­lectable weapon and ar­mour sets, and special chal­lenges that un­lock unique abil­i­ties on weapons. The asyn­chro­nous mul­ti­player feeds into this vi­cious loop, al­low­ing you to earn special equip­ment by aveng­ing the deaths of other play­ers, or launch­ing at­tacks on oth­ers play­ers’ forts.

There are a few creaky bits. The game doesn’t re­ally show what’s new un­til a good three hours in, the menu screens are slow and con­fus­ing, while the age-old As­sas­sin’s Creed prob­lem of get­ting stuck to the wrong sur­face when free-run­ning per­sists. An­other (mi­nus­cule) peeve is that you will be blocked by an in­vis­i­ble wall if you try to take the path out of a re­gion (very ‘late ’90s’). It seems that the only way around Mor­dor th­ese days is fast-trav­el­ling from the pause screen.

But th­ese are mi­nor faults in a game that does ex­actly what it needed to: turn its pre­de­ces­sor’s best idea into a ruth­less, re­ward­ing game­play loop. You’re al­ways an­tic­i­pat­ing that next be­trayal, groom­ing that next com­man­der, be­sieg­ing forts, de­fend­ing them, or lev­el­ling up. It’s com­pelling, at­tested to by the fact that Warner Bros is cash­ing in on it with mi­cro-trans­ac­tions. Ig­nore those nig­gling su­per­fluities, though, and be­come em­broiled in its deeper, wider world. Mor­dor may not be a pretty place, but you won’t want to leave for a long time.

For some in­ex­pli­ca­ble rea­son, photo mode is switched off by de­fault, but can be whacked back on in the op­tions.

Each of the game’s five re­gions has a fort, which you be­siege and take over with your re­gional army of grotesque fol­low­ers. You can even­tu­ally pick up to six as­sault lead­ers for the at­tack, equip­ping each one with units like Caragors, sol­diers, and poi­son-hurl­ing trolls. In Con­quest, you can weaken the fort by killing its warchiefs, which also re­moves the de­fences they were re­spon­si­ble for. When de­fend­ing, you don’t fight in the bat­tle. In­stead, you leave an over­lord and warchiefs in charge, each one al­low­ing for de­fen­sive up­grades.

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