I didn't think I would actually be this excited for Middle-earth: Shadow of War. After feeling letdown a bit by its predecessor, I was inclined to take a wait-and-see approach for the sequel. But with Shadow of War seemingly set on atoning for the previous game's sins, I'm reconsidering my position.
My Shadow of Mordor experience left me feeling... ambivalent... about Shadow of War. Apart from its flawed second half, Shadow of War's predecessor took some pretty big liberties with Tolkien's mythology. And it was hurt by a progression system that made the hero overpowered before the game's halfway point.
Admittedly, Shadow of Mordor was a pretty cool half of a game. Matching randomly-generated enemies with trait-driven personalities and stories, WB Interactive's open-world take on Lord of the Rings had me completely enthralled until the second area, where a second group of orc captains left me feeling bored and burned out. From there, what began as a fresh, innovative action game became a grind as I ruthlessly exploited Mordor's rather mechanical set of traits. The final battle, literally a QTE, was the capper on an ambitious but ultimately flawed experience. And then it ended on a cliffhanger.
On the point of mythology, Shadow of War is apt to be much the same as Shadow of Mordor. In fact, Tolkien fans may want to brace themselves, because there are signs that WB Interactive will be taking even more liberties with the lore this time around. But from a structural standpoint, Shadow of War is already looking much more interesting than its predecessor. Let's dive right in, shall we?
In The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf intones ominously that Sauron's fortress of Barad-dur has been rebuilt, and that his forces have returned to their places of power. Indeed, fortresses have a huge role to play in Lord of the Rings, whether they're Gondor's Minas Tirith or the orc stronghold of Cirith Ungol. Barad-dur and Isengard even get a nod in the second book's title.
Thus, it's appropriate that they should play a large role in Shadow of War as well. Here they serve as the frontline in the fresh war between humanity and the forces of darkness, as well as the home for a host of orc captains. They are controlled by Overlords—powerful leaders that rule over various regions throughout Mordor. The fortresses are their seats of power, and they are guarded by an army led by captains and warchiefs.
Getting to them means fighting their forces with an army of your own, which is recruited in the areas around their fortresses. In the moments before the battle begins, the two armies face off, the enemy captains taunting you with memories of previous encounters. Seeing it reminded me a bit of the lead-up to The Battle of Helm's Deep in The Two Towers, where a tense standoff is finally broken by an errant arrow from a nervous archer.
As Talion, it's up to you to turn the tide of the ensuing melee with abilities like Elven Wrath, which can ensnare huge swaths of enemies in what look like painful tendrils of golden light. Blowing up walls will open the way for more of your followers, who will assist you when you get into trouble. While all this is going on, you will be accosted by enemy captains, whom you must defeat to open the way to the Overlord's lair. The battle I saw even had a dragon to ride, which Talion used to barbeque a handful of enemies before siccing it on a troll.
Needless to say, the fortress battles feel like a very cool way to build upon the mechanics of the previous game. It lends encounters with the various captains and warchiefs a bit more structure, lessening the monotony of endlessly exploiting various traits to get the kills you need. Particularly impressive is the fact that the Overlords themselves are randomly generated, and that their throne rooms are based around elements like the clans they represent (a new ingredient in Middle-earth's Nemesis System).
When a fortress's leader falls, ownership passes to your army and you gain control of that region. You reward is money, XP, gear, and new followers, as well as new missions. You can even put one of your minions in control of the fortress, where they will rule while you're away.
What I saw was admittedly a hands-off demo, so I'll have to wait to see how it plays for myself, but I was favorably impressed by this new mechanic. The setpieces may well become monotonous, but they seem to alleviate the broader problem of padding that the previous game had. Thanks to the Nemesis System, every fortress figures to be different, with the push and pull of gaining and losing ground defining the game's overall structure. It gives Shadow of War a much-needed climax—something that the previous game generally lacked outside of the Black Captains.
We'll see how it all comes together, but at the very least it should result in Shadow of War feeling like less of a grind, which is an immediate win in my book.
'Do you know what nemesis means?'
So let's talk about the Nemesis System, which as I alluded to earlier will be returning for Shadow of War (obviously).
The first iteration of the Nemesis System won praise for being unique, and for making each playthrough different. The theme of the previous game was revenge—orcs would rise from the dead time and again to harass you, some multiple times. They would also grow more powerful as you fought them, making it theoretically possible for a random grunt to rise to the rank of Warchief.
It was a novel system, but in some ways a limited one. Traits were extremely easy to exploit, making it easy to frighten and send high-ranking orcs scurrying from their armies. Once they were out in the open, it was a cinch to catch and kill them with your interrogation abilities. Later warchiefs had fewer weaknesses, and the Black Captains were certainly no walk in the park, but there were points where the Nemesis System felt undeniably artificial.
Shadow of War builds on the foundation established in the previous game with the aforementioned Overlords, but even more interesting is what it does for your own army. If the theme of Shadow of Mordor's sytem was "revenge," then the theme of Shadow of War is "loyalty." Your army, which you build from the opening hours of the game, has much more personality this time around, and they will help you in a variety of ways. In one example, an allied sniper shoots off the hand of an orc captain, rendering their special ability useless. In another, a friendly orc leaps in to take the blow during an Overlord fight.
Allied orcs can be sent to infiltrate the ranks of an enemy army, and as I mentioned earlier, they can also run fortresses for you. Their loyalty has limits, though. If you leave them to die, they will return to the ranks of Sauron's army, where they will emerge more powerful than before. And trust me: they will die. In just one example, I saw a large number of friendly orcs get set on fire (this happens a lot in the Middle-earth games). Mordor is a dangerous place.
In the end, Shadow of Mordor was at its best when organic stories emerged from its Nemesis System, and Shadow of War will be no different. It will benefit from making the army-building a core mechanic from the start, rather than a task that's undertaken in the back half of the story, as it will make it feel like a more complete part of the game. Additionally, the interplay between friend and unfriendly orcs should make for some interesting moments.
Such elements have spurred a renewed interest in Shadow of War for me. Truth be told, I liked Shadow of Mordor quite a bit in the early going; it was only once I hit the second half that I grew tired of the mechanics. That's the danger with ambitious games like these: It's easy to run out of tricks. Shadow of Mordor did its best to keep things rolling with the Black Captains and the friendly armies; but for me at least, the Nemesis System lost a lot of its magic once the orcs stopped being much of a threat.
Shadow of War may yet run into the same problem. The fortresses may become boring once you've conquered ten of them. The Nemesis System may prove just as artificial as before. But I'm heartened by many of WB's choices so far, such as the introduction of loot and more robust gear. It speaks to an apparent desire to make Shadow of Mordor's sequel a little less superificial.
For now, Shadow of War passes the first test in my mind—it varies up the structure in a significant and interesting way. If this is a sign of things to come, then count me in.
For more on the game head over to our Middle-earth: Shadow of War - Everything we Know article.