MID­DLE-EARTH: SHADOW OF WAR

Talion re­turns to Mor­dor, and this time with mag­i­cal jew­ellery

XBox: The Official Magazine - - START - James Nouch

There’s a mo­ment, around half­way through our visit to Mono­lith’s Seat­tle stu­dio, when the penny drops. The stu­dio’s cre­ative lead, Michael de Plater, is de­scrib­ing the changes his team has made to the Neme­sis Sys­tem – how they’ve ex­panded this pro­ce­dural sto­ry­telling sys­tem to de­liver more dra­matic orc en­coun­ters than ever be­fore, and how they’ve worked hard to im­bue con­fronta­tions with an even greater sense of his­tory and per­son­al­ity. But it isn’t de Plater that pro­vides us with this im­por­tant aha mo­ment – it’s an or­cish archer by the name of Mozû Dead­eye.

Mozû’s our green­skinned spy be­hind en­emy lines, you see. So, while the Gon­do­rian ranger Talion stages an as­sault on one of Sau­ron’s sin­is­ter citadels, Mozû lurks on the ram­parts, blend­ing in among the ranks of de­fend­ers. Talion’s mak­ing swift progress, scaling the mighty outer walls of this dread fort be­fore clam­ber­ing onto the bat­tle­ments above. But, as the ranger sprints deeper into the fort, an Uruk cap­tain gets the drop on him. The burly jade fig­ure rains down blow af­ter blow on poor Talion. The sit­u­a­tion looks bleak.

That’s when our Uruk bestie Mozû Dead­eye fires a per­fectly aimed shot from his knob­bly old cross­bow, strik­ing our as­sailant’s sword arm with such force that the emer­ald limb is ripped clean out of its socket. As our would-be as­sas­sin stum­bles back in shock and agony, Mozû opens fire again, putting our op­po­nent down for good. The in­ter­ven­tion isn’t just well timed, though – it’s also won­der­fully pre­sented, with the in-game cam­era cut­ting from the be­lea­guered ranger to his sharp­shoot­ing saviour, be­fore switch­ing back to a view of our Uruk foe’s fi­nal mo­ments. As these events un­fold, a sense of em­bat­tled ten­sion gives way to the joy of vic­tory and even a cer­tain mea­sure of sur­prise as we find our­selves feel­ing gen­uine grat­i­tude to­wards a fic­tional orc.

“Mozû strikes our op­po­nent with such force that his emer­ald limb is ripped clean out of its socket”

Orc this way

But our re­al­i­sa­tion strikes a few sec­onds later, when de Plater ex­plains that en­emy Uruk will also be able to take down your al­lies. The thought im­me­di­ately in­spires mild panic. Be­cause, even though we’ve only known Mozû for a few short min­utes, we al­ready feel a ca­ma­raderie brew­ing and a sense of pro­tec­tive­ness, too. Imag­ine wit­ness­ing the death of your clos­est Uruk com­rade; an orc that you’d fought along­side for hours; an orc that had pulled your Gon­do­rian butt out of the fire on count­less oc­ca­sions; an orc whose strengths and weak­nesses you know and whose per­son­al­ity you ad­mire. Imag­ine the death of Mozû.

It would be like watch­ing a vet­eran squad mem­ber fall to Sec­toid fire in a game of XCOM 2 – the loss not only of a ca­pa­ble com­rade, but of a char­ac­ter whose story you’d de­vel­oped over time. And imag­ine the grudge you’d nurse against his killer – how far you’d be pre­pared to go to lodge a blade in his belly. That, in a nut­shell, is the prom­ise of Shadow Of War.

“I think we’ve al­ways thought of the Neme­sis Sys­tem as a vil­lain cre­ator,” de Plater ex­plains.

“If an orc drops some­thing epic, there are chal­lenges that un­lock spe­cial traits”

“You’re cre­at­ing your own unique, per­sonal su­pervil­lain – scarred by his en­coun­ters with you, and re­mem­ber­ing that with a per­sonal grudge against you. And then if you take that idea that we want to cre­ate vil­lains, one of the most iconic and ar­che­typal el­e­ments of a vil­lain is he’s go­ing to have his lair and he’s go­ing to have his goons and he’s go­ing to have his fol­low­ers and so on.”

That de­sire to ren­der the lair of a su­pervil­lain is one of the key in­spi­ra­tions be­hind Shadow Of War’s fort sieges, which see the player lead armies of loyal Uruks against Sau­ron’s citadels across Mor­dor. Each of these cas­tles is over­seen by a deadly new class of Uruk warrior – an over­lord – and these fear­some lead­ers an­swer di­rectly to the Dark Lord and his Nazgûl. To take a fort for your­self, you’ll have to breach the fort’s walls, kill its cap­tains, and fight your way to the keep for one fi­nal show­down. In our demon­stra­tion, this cli­mac­tic en­counter saw Talion go­ing toe-to-toe with a py­ro­ma­niac War Troll, dodg­ing fire traps and swarm­ing goons in this cus­tomised arena.

In any other ti­tle, the en­counter might have made for a pass­able fi­nal boss bat­tle, but Shadow Of War is an ac­tion-ad­ven­ture game on a mas­sive scale, with ev­ery region of Mor­dor of­fer­ing its own sprawl­ing sand­box and its own malef­i­cent fort to con­quer. And these en­hance­ments are by no means the only changes to the tem­plate es­tab­lished in Shadow Of Mor­dor, with a greater em­pha­sis on loot and gear one of sev­eral ways that Mono­lith hopes to catch the at­ten­tion of play­ers for the long haul.

“A big part of the mo­ti­va­tion is just that it’s such an enor­mously larger game, so we want play­ers to be en­gaged and sus­tained for so much longer,” de Plater tells us. “Be­cause in many ways, there’s re­ally good tem­plates for RPG gear, ob­vi­ously – Di­ablo and so on, and that’s re­ally en­gag­ing and fun. But I think what’s re­ally cool is how it ties to the Neme­sis Sys­tem. So, which­ever orc you take down – what are his at­tributes? What’s his tribe? What’s his class? It can all de­ter­mine what he drops. The story that you’ve got with him – if you’ve sent him a death threat, or it’s a re­venge target – can in­crease the chance that he’s go­ing to drop some­thing epic. If he drops some­thing epic, they come with chal­lenges that you can then per­form to un­lock spe­cial traits. It’s a hunt­ing sys­tem or a craft­ing sys­tem, as well as a gear sys­tem. The coolest gear that you get is also go­ing to cor­re­late with the coolest and most per­sonal sto­ries of these dif­fer­ent orcs that you know as well.” Tolkien heads These emer­gent sto­ries – driven by the player’s ac­tions and in­ter­ac­tions with Mono­lith’s ad­vanced AI – play out in tan­dem with a much larger nar­ra­tive. It’s one that at­tempts to bridge part of the 60-year gap be­tween the events of The Hob­bit and the start of Fel­low­ship Of The Ring. “Sau­ron’s back in Mor­dor,” de Plater be­gins. “But why did it take him 60 years to gather that army and come out and try to con­quer the world? Why didn’t he just do that ten years later?”

And while he re­mains tan­ta­lis­ingly tight-lipped on the specifics, Talion (aided, as ever, by the el­ven wraith Cele­brim­bor) has some­thing to do with that de­lay. But if this lowly ranger hopes to up­set Sau­ron’s plans, he’s go­ing to have his work cut out for him: the Witch-king is al­ready lead­ing his Nazgûl in an as­sault on the hu­man city of Mi­nas Ithil at the game’s out­set.

De Plater’s en­thu­si­asm is al­most in­fec­tious. Later, in a chat with stu­dio head Kevin Stephens, he lays out just how in­te­gral de Plater has been to both the cre­ation of Shadow Of Mor­dor and its se­quel. “Once Michael knew Mono­lith was work­ing on Mid­dle-Earth games, he sought us out. He came to Warner first, ac­tu­ally, and said, ‘Hey, I’m in­ter­ested. I’m a de­signer’,” Stephens ex­plains. “He was hired, be­cause he’s in­cred­i­ble.”

“De Plater is the vi­sion­ary for the cre­ative [side of the game]. He un­der­stands the lore bet­ter than any­body in the stu­dio, for sure. There’s a lore ex­pert that works in the de­part­ment that’s a pro­fes­sor in Tolkien. Lis­ten­ing to them talk, it’s like they’re peers,” Stephens con­tin­ues. “It’s not like she’s teach­ing him; it’s like they’re teach­ing each other.”

Come this August, we’ll be at the front of the class for this par­tic­u­lar les­son in Tolkien stud­ies.

Pub­lisheR Warner Bros De­vel­oper Mono­lith For­mat Xbox One ETA 25 August 2017

Main The Gon­do­rian city of Mi­nas Ithil is un­der siege at the game’s out­set. As you can see, it takes a bit of a beat­ing. The game opens with Talion and Cele­brim­bor forg­ing a natty new ring of power

LEFT The Caragor are back, and this time you’ll now be able to sum­mon one as a toothy mount at any time.

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