MID­DLE-EARTH: SHADOW OF WAR

an ex­panded neme­sis sys­tem, epic emer­gent sto­ries & enor­mous new world as mono­lith re­turnS with

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Talion sprints to­wards the walls of Seregost Cas­tle, un­daunted by the glit­ter­ing vol­ley of flam­ing ar­rows streak­ing to­wards him and his loyal Uruk army. Nearby, a del­uge of crude or­cish ar­tillery lands, ex­plod­ing into a fire­ball that blooms and dis­si­pates, leav­ing only a shower of wet earth and green bod­ies tum­bling in its wake.

Talion charges on. This hag­gard ranger of Gon­dor is tech­ni­cally a dead man – given life only by the el­ven wraith Cele­brim­bor that re­sides within his undy­ing frame – but he is feared and de­spised by Sau­ron’s forces nonethe­less, who trade foul sto­ries of the Grave­walker’s un­nat­u­ral abil­i­ties and mar­tial might.

Dur­ing his first tour of duty, Talion spent most of his time en­gaged in a scrappy guer­rilla war, shank­ing the odd cap­tain here and be­head­ing the oc­ca­sional war­lord there. But this time, Talion’s mount­ing a siege on Sau­ron’s fortresses across Mor­dor and beyond – and he’s build­ing an army to dis­man­tle the Dark Lord’s forces.

From the bat­tle­ments, a rogue’s gallery of green-skinned cap­tains hurl in­sults and pro­jec­tiles at the Grave­walker and his forces. Tu­gog – known to his friends as the Flame Of War – cack­les with glee as his or­cish archers un­leash wave after wave of fire-tipped ar­rows. Mozû Dead­eye lurks nearby, clutch­ing a gnarled cus­tom-cross­bow and cast­ing shifty glances across the bat­tle­field. This sharp­shoot­ing Uruk is ac­tu­ally one of Talion’s spies, a val­ued ally op­er­at­ing be­hind en­emy lines. We may just need him should the tide of bat­tle turn against us. And then there’s Thrak Storm Bringer. It would be fair to say that Thrak and Talion have a com­pli­cated his­tory...

“The Bright Lord,” Thrak snarls, his voice drip­ping with hate. “I fought for you, bled for you, and you left me to die.” Storm Bringer was once a trusted lieu­tenant in Talion’s army, you see, but Thrak fell in bat­tle and the ranger was forced to make a re­treat. And, as it turns out, he isn’t ex­actly thrilled to be re­united with his erst­while com­man­der. Peer­ing down from the cas­tle walls, Thrak con­tin­ues his re­buke: “I was re­born with the power of the Dark Lord. Come! Charge into the flames of your reck­on­ing!”

The siege hasn’t even be­gun in earnest yet but, thanks to these pre­ex­ist­ing re­la­tion­ships, the un­der­cur­rent of drama and sus­pense is al­ready pal­pa­ble. The bit­ter grudge nursed by Thrak lends a sense of his­tory and mean­ing to the forth­com­ing bout, while the tit­ter­ing Tu­gog rep­re­sents an un­pre­dictable wildcard in the Uruk ranks. Mean­while, the sight of our dar­ing double agent Mozû in the en­emy lines ratch­ets up the ten­sion. You’d be for­given for think­ing that this net­work of al­lies and en­e­mies was the re­sult of de­tailed writ­ing and care­ful script­ing, but the en­tire sce­nario is ac­tu­ally a prod­uct of Mono­lith’s Neme­sis Sys­tem – a pro­ce­dural en­gine that’s been

pre­cisely engi­neered to pro­duce an end­less sup­ply of in­ter­est­ing Uruk.

This orc-gen­er­at­ing al­go­rithm was the stand­out feature of 2014’s

Shad­owOfMor­dor, where it would work be­hind the scenes to pop­u­late Sau­ron’s army with orc cap­tains and warchiefs – each with their own strengths and weak­nesses – for Talion to dis­patch. Best of all, Mono­lith’s AI was able to con­vinc­ingly cre­ate the im­pres­sion that en­emy orcs would re­mem­ber each en­counter with Talion, and bear the marks of these meet­ings in fu­ture bust-ups. Flee from bat­tle, for in­stance, and you’d have to put up with some grimy green­skin taunt­ing your cow­ardice the next time you meet. Slice up a warchief but fail to land the killing blow and the hardy orc might re­spond with fu­ri­ous anger in sub­se­quent en­coun­ters, is­su­ing poi­sonous threats from his freshly scarred face.

So, when Mono­lith set to work on its new game im­me­di­ately fol­low­ing the launch of Shad­owOfMor­dor, the course was clear. “Once we saw the re­cep­tion for the Neme­sis Sys­tem, and started see­ing peo­ple’s sto­ries come out, I just thought: that’s a thing we’ve got to massively double down on. We’ve got to take that to new places, while ex­pand­ing on the types of sto­ries and the depth of the sto­ries,” ex­plains Mono­lith’s vice pres­i­dent of cre­ative, Michael de Plater. “Shad­owOfMor­dor was very much our first at­tempt to cre­ate pro­ce­dural en­e­mies and sto­ry­telling. So ob­vi­ously [we wanted to] enor­mously ex­pand on that.” And once Talion’s army crashes against the tow­er­ing walls of the Seregost ci­tadel, it be­comes clear that Mono­lith has man­aged to ac­com­plish ex­actly that.

lore and or­der

But we’re get­ting a lit­tle ahead of our­selves. Be­cause Shad­owOfWar doesn’t start with a valiant charge against Sau­ron’s armies – it starts pre­cisely where the pre­vi­ous game left off. The Dark Lord’s feared lieu­tenant, The Black Hand of Sau­ron, is dead; Talion’s slaugh­tered fam­ily is avenged; and Cele­brim­bor is free to leave the ex­hausted ranger’s body and jour­ney at last to the Undy­ing Lands. But rather than ac­cept­ing eter­nal rest, our twin pro­tag­o­nists recog­nise that, to­gether, they might just have a chance to put an end to the Dark Lord and his cruel de­signs for Mid­dle-earth.

And that’s where Shad­owOfWar be­gins, with the forg­ing of a new ring of power in the fires of Mount Doom. Cele­brim­bor – whom Sau­ron once ma­nip­u­lated and de­ceived to cre­ate the orig­i­nal rings – wields his smithing ham­mer to cre­ate an­other mag­i­cal band, which Talion slips onto his finger. It’s this ter­ri­ble power that the two will wield to dom­i­nate the Uruk of Mor­dor, com­pelling these loath­some crea­tures to fight against their erst­while mas­ter.

But while these events are tak­ing place, the Dark Lord isn’t just twid­dling his no-doubt pow­er­ful thumbs. His forces are al­ready on the warpath, sow­ing death and de­struc­tion in the lands of men. Most sig­nif­i­cant is the Gon­do­rian city of Mi­nas Ithil, a proud fortress stand­ing near the bor­der of Mor­dor, that is now suf­fer­ing un­der a sus­tained as­sault from Sau­ron’s forces. “So we start on ba­si­cally the fram­ing of this mas­sive siege,” says de Plater. “That lets us bring in a lot of hu­man stakes and hu­man char­ac­ters and that no­tion of what it is that we’re fight­ing to save and de­fend. [We do

“talion’s mount­ing a siege on sau­ron’s fortresses across mor­dor and beyond – and build­ing an army to dis­man­tle his forces”

“when the ring of power builds up en­ergy you can un­leash it, which means that there’s a lot more scope for skilled play and va­ri­ety”

that] on a much big­ger scale than maybe what we could do on the Black Gates of Mor­dor with Talion last time.”

It isn’t just reg­u­lar old orcs stag­ing this par­tic­u­lar siege, how­ever. This time it’s the Nazgûl mount­ing the of­fen­sive, led by their ter­ri­fy­ing leader: the Witch-king. While Tolkien buffs are no doubt quiv­er­ing with ex­cite­ment at the prospect of wit­ness­ing the Witch-king do his thing, we asked Mono­lith’s res­i­dent lore buff to ex­plain the char­ac­ter’s sig­nif­i­cance. “The Witch-king is the leader of the nine Nazgûl,” de Plater pa­tiently tells us, “and he’s the num­ber two to Sau­ron. He’s the bailiff to the em­peror, ef­fec­tively, and the leader of these guys.”

Grudge match

With the ba­sics of the nar­ra­tive es­tab­lished we re­turn to the fortress at Seregost and the be­gin­nings of Talion’s as­sault. But this event, how­ever re­mark­able in scale and am­bi­tion, isn’t some one-off set- piece or a feature of Shad­owOfWar’s endgame – ev­ery re­gion of Mono­lith’s mas­sive new world fea­tures its own fort for you to wrest from the Dark Lord’s wicked grasp. These citadels are cen­tres of power for each re­gion, and the bale­ful in­flu­ence of their or­cish com­man­ders em­anates out­wards into the sur­round­ing lands.

For­tu­nately the Grave­walker won’t be tak­ing on these pow­er­ful Over­lords alone, since you’re able to choose which of your cap­tains you want to bring with you on any given fort as­sault. As such, the charg­ing Talion is flanked on ei­ther side by a pair of pow­er­ful brain-washed cap­tains, two more prod­ucts of the Neme­sis Sys­tem’s pro­ce­dural wiz­ardry. To our right, there’s Az-Laar the De­mol­isher, a hulk­ing Olog-hai. Or, to put it in lay­man’s terms, a war troll. This mighty crea­ture will es­sen­tially serve as our mo­bile bat­ter­ing ram, as­sist­ing Talion’s forces in breach­ing the fort’s re­in­forced gates and stone walls. And to our left, there’s Rag­dug Iron Mount, a wiry war­rior who sits perched atop a fear­some Caragor. As an­other wave of fire-tipped ar­rows soars through the sky to­wards Talion’s army, Rag­dug turns to the Grave­walker and dead­pans, “Look – they cel­e­brate our re­turn with fire­works.” The mounted war­rior isn’t just be­ing cocky – his ar­moured steed of­fers him re­sis­tance against fiery at­tacks.

As the Grave­walker’s army gets stuck into the as­sault, Talion him­self breaks right, sprint­ing away from the fray and hop­ping onto the cas­tle’s walls. The ranger was no slouch in

Shad­owOfMor­dor, but this time he leaps and bounds up the craggy stone walls in a mat­ter of mo­ments, the out­line of Cele­brim­bor’s ghostly form vis­i­ble as he clam­bers up the sheer sur­face and pulls him­self to his feet. But Talion barely has time to get his bear­ings on this bustling bat­tle­ment be­fore he’s charged by Thrak, who bears down on the ranger with cold fury in his eyes. Thrak swings his sword wildly, and the Grave­walker only has time to throw up a hasty block be­fore some­thing strange

hap­pens: the on-screen min­imap fades from view, re­placed with the burn­ing Eye of Sau­ron. For a mo­ment, Talion looks drained and hag­gard. “You feel it, don’t you?” Thrak hisses. “This is the power of the Dark Lord.”

The power to which Thrak Storm Bringer refers is a cursed weapon, and this damnable blade leaves Talion ut­terly un­able to tap into his ring of power. Stripped of his su­per­nat­u­ral abil­i­ties, the ranger is forced to fight the old-fash­ioned way, strik­ing at his op­po­nents and coun­ter­ing en­emy blows us­ing the Arkham-style com­bat con­trols. It isn’t long be­fore Thrak’s on the ropes, and our re­lent­less at­tack pushes him to the very brink of the cas­tle walls. The Bright Lord rears back to ready an­other strike, and the ghostly white shape of Cele­brim­bor ap­pears, smithing ham­mer in hand. “Suf­fer me now!” he bel­lows, be­fore em­bed­ding his ham­mer in Thrak’s thick Uruk skull. As the Storm Bringer’s limp body tum­bles off the bat­tle­ment and into the dusty yard be­low, we take a mo­ment to qui­etly re­flect on the life of Thrak – our one­time ally turned bit­ter neme­sis – be­fore con­tin­u­ing to cut a path through the or­cish de­fend­ers.

Bat­tle born

With the bat­tle­ments cleared of foes, Talion sprints to­wards the near­est ledge to per­form a spec­tac­u­lar leap of faith, soar­ing through the air like a moody Ezio. We watch as Cele­brim­bor read­ies his ham­mer and strikes an Uruk camp­fire in the court­yard be­low, caus­ing a mas­sive shock­wave that sends a gag­gle of scrab­bling de­fend­ers fly­ing. It’s just one of sev­eral new pow­ers that fleet­ingly ap­pear dur­ing our demon­stra­tion of the game, and we later have the chance to quiz de Plater on these abil­i­ties. It seems that up­grades to the Shadow Strike abil­ity – which let Talion tele­port over to dis­tant en­e­mies to per­form bru­tal take­downs – are in the works, as well as the in­tro­duc­tion of a pow­er­ful new glaive that we can use in bat­tle. But one abil­ity in par­tic­u­lar had our ears prick­ing up in an­tic­i­pa­tion.

“When your ring of power builds up en­ergy, you can un­leash that. So Cele­brim­bor will come out and go all Le­go­las on ev­ery­one and un­leash lots of stuff with his bow,” de Plater ex­plains. “And the one that’s really fun – be­cause we’ve got a lot more mo­bil­ity and move­ment and we’ve got an aerial fo­cus as well – is that you can leap into the air and use slo-mo to pick guys off, and then Shadow Strike from there. There’s a lot more scope, I think, for skilled play and va­ri­ety this time than last time.”

Ex­cited at the pos­si­bil­i­ties of these new pow­ers, we watch as Talion runs deeper into the fortress, con­tin­u­ing his in­ex­orable charge to­wards the en­emy keep. That’s when an un­ex­pected face shows up, ap­pear­ing from around a cor­ner with a wicked grin. It’s Thrak, the or­cish neme­sis we dis­patched just min­utes be­fore. It ap­pears he’s ‘cheated death’, wrestling free from the inky ten­ta­cles of obliv­ion to take one more swing at the Grave­walker. At­tack­ing with a flurry of blows, he soon knocks Talion to the floor, and pre­pares to de­liver the killing blow. At that mo­ment, an ar­row ap­pears from nowhere, strik­ing Thrak’s sword arm with such force that the limb is ripped clean off. We cast our eyes about for the source of this sharp­shoot­ing and spot our double agent, Mozû Dead­eye, on the top of a nearby tower. We find our­selves al­most cheer­ing at his timely in­ter­ven­tion. As Thrak cries out in pain, Mozû read­ies an­other bolt, serenely stead­ies his aim and per­forms a per­fect head­shot. Thrak is dead, and this time Talion’s close enough to in­spect the body.

Gear­ing up

Yup, he’s def­i­nitely dead this time round, and a glow­ing loot icon hov­ers above his moul­der­ing corpse as mor­bid proof. Talion greed­ily hoovers up the new gear, adding a nifty new piece of Ro­hirrim Ar­mour to his in­ven­tory. ” Shad­owOfMor­dor was very much a pure ac­tion ad­ven­ture game,” chimes in de Plater. “In Shad­owOf War we’ve gone a long way to­wards mak­ing it much more of an RPG – ex­pand­ing the skill sys­tem, ex­pand­ing the abil­i­ties, but in par­tic­u­lar, ex­pand­ing the loot and the gear sys­tem. So, for ex­am­ple, by killing the Storm Bringer there, we’re now able to gain this epic Rohan ar­mour. So it’s go­ing to in­crease our de­fence, but we have a whole host of dif­fer­ent traits and cus­tomi­sa­tion as well.”

Now that Talion’s dressed to im­press, he heads deeper into the fort, ar­riv­ing at an­other im­pos­ing gate­way. Right on cue, the tit­ter­ing Tu­gog ap­pears, cat­er­waul­ing with de­light as thick tor­rents of inky-black oil be­gin to pour over the be­sieg­ing army be­low. You can prob­a­bly see where this is head­ing. Mere mo­ments later, Tu­gog’s un­der­lings open the gate to re­veal a gar­gan­tuan drake that promptly spits a plume of fire over Talion’s army, ig­nit­ing the em­i­nently flammable Uruk at­tack­ers.

As bad as things look right now, that drake will soon prove to be Tu­gog’s un­do­ing. Just as in Shadow OfMor­dor, Talion has the power to dom­i­nate the beasts of Mor­dor, pro­ject­ing his steely will over their puny an­i­mal brains. Shad­owOfWar of­fers the same op­por­tu­ni­ties on a much ex­panded line-up of beast­ies. Be­fore Tu­gog can so much as yelp in dis­may, the Grave­walker has mounted the irate drake, and takes to the sky to spew fire from on-high. The fortress runs thick with smoke and the aroma of seared orc flesh. And Talion’s ram­page might just have con­tin­ued, were it not for a pesky Graug be­low. This hulk­ing crea­ture plucks our drake from the air, send­ing Talion fly­ing. The two beasts duke it out for a spell, ex­chang­ing earth­shak­ing bites and blows be­fore both suc­cumb to their in­juries.

Talion strides over to Tu­gog, who now cow­ers be­fore us scream­ing “he’s a de­mon!” to no one in par­tic­u­lar. With no fur­ther ado, the Bright Lord places a hand over this pa­thetic crea­ture’s face and uses the power of the new ring to dom­i­nate him ut­terly. A range of on-screen prompts en­able Talion to ‘shame’ his de­feated foe, or fight him to the death, but we choose to re­cruit this jit­ter­ing fire­bug to our cause. Fi­nally Talion’s path to the fortress keep is clear.

A real keeper

The Bright Lord pushes open the door of the keep to find a gloomy room. But the murky hall we see laid out be­fore us here won’t be the same for other play­ers. “The key thing is, the Over­lord is go­ing to be a unique boss for ev­ery player, but even the com­bat arena in here is some­thing he’s cus­tomised to be his own unique vil­lain’s lair and fight­ing arena,” de

“you’ll have to up­grade and main­tain cas­tles to hold them – a strate­gic metagame cru­cial to suc­cess”

Plater tells us. From the dark­ness, Ur-Hakon the Dragon steps for­ward, a tow­er­ing war troll car­ry­ing a flam­ing torch. “It’s the lord of Mor­dor him­self, the Grave­walker,” Ur-Hakon growls. “You’ve made a right mess, haven’t you. My armies slain. My drake dead. So much pain…” As he speaks, this knob­bly Olog-hai holds his hand men­ac­ingly over that torch, the flames lick­ing at his palm.

It’s an at­mo­spheric in­tro­duc­tion to the fortress’s im­pos­ing Over­lord, and one that con­vinc­ingly folds the choices you’ve made so far into a lit­tle slice of omi­nous nar­ra­tive. But be­fore we can spend much more time pon­der­ing Shad­owOfWar’s sto­ry­telling smarts, Ur-Hakon the Dragon points that flam­ing torch in Talion’s di­rec­tion, and we re­alise it’s ac­tu­ally an or­nate fan­tasy flamethrower. Sud­denly, tor­rents of flame erupt from the floors and walls of the keep, and the sig­nif­i­cance of the Over­lord’s nick­name dawns on us.

The bat­tle that fol­lows is an ex­er­cise in care­ful po­si­tion­ing as much as skilled sword­play, with fiery traps and swarm­ing or­cish grunts to worry about as well as Ur-Hakkon him­self. Talion dodges care­fully, but he’s los­ing ground. Within a mat­ter of min­utes, the Grave­walker finds him­self prone, at the mercy of this py­ro­ma­niac troll. And that’s when our old friend Rag­dug comes bar­relling into the fray, charg­ing at the tri­umphant fort com­man­der on his ar­moured Caragor. He’s quickly bashed to one side, but it’s just the open­ing Talion needed – us­ing the power of the ring, time seems to slow as Cele­brim­bor lops off one of UrHakon’s trunk-like legs, cut­ting the mighty troll down to size. The wraith re­moves an arm next, strik­ing with sur­gi­cal pre­ci­sion, be­fore plung­ing a blade di­rectly into the foul crea­ture’s head. At long last, the fort is ours.

to the vic­tor

Vic­tory is not the end, how­ever. This fortress will need a new Over­lord, so Talion must se­lect one of his fol­low­ers to take charge of the ci­tadel – and by ex­ten­sion, the en­tire re­gion. “We’ll pro­mote Rag­dug for his loy­alty,” says de Plater, “mak­ing it less likely he’ll ever be­tray us.” In a cel­e­bra­tory cutscene, Rag­dug steps out onto the fort’s bat­tle­ments and looks down proudly upon his swarm­ing un­der­lings, Ur-Hakon’s blood­soaked head in his hand. Pro­mot­ing Rag­dug pro­vides the Bright Lord’s cam­paign with a tasty in­flux of cur­rency, loot and XP, as well as a horde of new fol­low­ers drawn from the lo­cal Uruk pop­u­la­tion, but Sau­ron’s forces won’t be con­tent to leave the fort in Talion’s pal­lid hands. Counter-at­tacks are a cer­tainty, and you’ll have to up­grade and main­tain your cas­tles to hold them, and this strate­gic metagame will be cru­cial to your long-term suc­cess in Mor­dor.

The en­tire siege, from Talion’s first charge at the fort’s outer walls, to our vic­tory in the Over­lord’s in­ner sanc­tum, felt tai­lor-made, im­pec­ca­bly scripted to pro­vide all man­ner of dra­matic twists and un­ex­pected turns. And yet the whole thing has been a prod­uct of Mono­lith’s much-ex­panded Neme­sis Sys­tem, which man­ages to turn fusty old al­go­rithms into Thrak’s sur­prise re­turn from the dead, Mozû Dead­eye’s per­fectly timed bolt from the blue and Rag­dug’s loyal in­ter­ven­tion in our cli­mac­tic show­down.

As you claw back con­trol of Mor­dor from the Dark Lord, Shad­owOfWar prom­ises no short­age of mo­ments such as these, and while the game is set to de­liver fab­u­lous fisticuffs and an enor­mous open-world, these will never be the star at­trac­tions of Mono­lith’s Mid­dle-earth. It’s the re­la­tion­ships the game sim­u­lates that make this se­quel so spe­cial. As stu­dio head Kevin Stephens ex­plains, “In the first game, your in­ter­ac­tion with the orcs boiled down to: ‘you can kill me, and I can kill you’. That was really the re­la­tion­ship. Now, it’s more com­pli­cated: ‘I can kill you. You can kill me. But you can kill my fol­lower, who I care about, and my fol­lower can kill you too.’” Shad­owOf

Mor­dor al­ways ex­celled at cre­at­ing lit­tle sto­ries of revenge and hate. When it launches later this year on 25 Au­gust, Shad­owOfWar looks set to cover the com­plete gamut of emo­tional orc mur­der.

Above Uruk will be equipped with dif­fer­ent ar­mour and weapons de­pend­ing on their class, sta­tus and even tribal af­fil­i­a­tions.

ABOVE Mor­dor won’t just be bar­ren land and fiery moun­tains – Mono­lith’s promis­ing a range of biomes.

be­low Say what you will about the orcs’ sav­age bru­tal­ity, but they sure do know how to ac­ces­sorise.

above Cap­ture a fort and you’ll gain con­trol of the sur­round­ing re­gion, too.

be­low You’ll find smaller out­posts and strongholds in the world as well as Uruks to shank.

above Drakes are enor­mous foes that can in­flict ter­ri­ble dam­age on Talion’s forces.

The Olog-hai are much big­ger and tougher than a stan­dard Uruk.

above As well as bring­ing mounted fol­low­ers into bat­tle, you can now sum­mon steeds at will.

The Feral tribe go ga-ga for a good fur pelt.

above The re­gion sur­round­ing each fortress will re­flect the over­lord run­ning it, right down to the type of sand­box mis­sions that ap­pear and the light­ing and weather ef­fects.

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