MIDDLE-EARTH: SHADOW OF WAR
Talion returns to Mordor, and this time with magical jewellery
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.