Hands-on with Shadow of War: The Terminator 2 of sequels
Middle-earth: Shadow of War is shaping up to be a sequel worthy of Shadow of Mordor, and a prequel worthy of The Lord of the Rings movies.
Sequels are tricky business. Players love the preceding game for a reason, so publishers, understandably, don’t want to change the formula too much. In the same breath, add or change too little, and vocal fans will call a sequel a "1.5” version or something that could have just as easily have been DLC.
From what I played of Middle-earth: Shadow of War, the sequel to Shadow of Mordor will not suffer this same fate. Shadow of War represents the kind of sequel escalation that reminds me of Terminator 2. The original Terminator is a fantastic movie, no doubt, but the sequel ups the stakes and escalates the action in bigger, better ways. The same is true of Shadow of War.
With only a half-hour slot, I was already intimidated by the “small” play section. I was told I could search a slice of the open world, complete a side mission or tackle a main quest. I chose, instead, to take on a fortress siege: a new gameplay system in Shadow of War that’s deeper than the interdimensional hole Gandalf fell into with the Balrog.
As a completionist gamer, ideally I would have scouted-out intel on the commander of the fortress and all of his lieutenants. As it stood for my demo, only half of this task had been completed. Still, even without full intel, I was informed of the main threats that each leader brought to the table. In turn, my on-hand dev guide advised me to select my own lieutenants who could counter these abilities. I could have ignored this, but considering how tough Shadow of War proved to be, it’s worth taking your time to pick the right counters.
Satisfied with the choices of my converted orc underlings, I started the battle. Shadow of Mordor was already quite expansive in its scope, but Shadow of War is positively epic. My army stormed the fortress, but its defences were strong. Apart from archers on the walls, there also giant siege beasts lobbing fiery balls of death at my advancing army.
Using the returning Shadow Strike feature, I shot an arrow that let me teleport up the wall and decapitate an archer. Making short work of the other arrow-flingers, I focused my attention on the siege beasts. The first one I obliterated by firing arrows at the conveniently highlighted explosive ordnance strapped to its back. The second was partially damaged by my army and ready for conversion. I subdued the beast, care of protagonist Talion’s shadowy elvish possessor Celebrimbor, and spun it around to the castle’s interior. Now it was their turn to taste fiery death.
The first main objective of a fortress siege is to capture a handful of points. To capture them, you have to thin out the enemies – most importantly, the leaders – to the point where it’s available for capture. Enemies seemingly can’t retake these points, which is a godsend given how tough these fights can be.
Each core enemy lieutenant may have its own underlings, and the emergent nature of the battles ensures that no two player experiences will be entirely the same. The lauded Nemesis System makes a welcome return, and it ups the ante each time a vengeful leader orc makes the kind of battle-stopping entrance that’d be right at home in the WWE.
The catch of the Nemesis System, as I’d learn the hard way, is it doesn’t just track which orcs hate you and why, it also tracks a complex family tree of orc society. While attempting to capture the final zone, one of my orc lieutenants turned on me, claiming I’d let his blood brother die. Already overwhelmed, he put me into a downed state with ease. I’d already been downed twice, and the third incapacitation means you don’t have a chance at a second-wind and just have to sit there and watch Talion die.
As he swung his axe, though, one of my underlings who I’d recently revived – and who felt particularly indebted to me – repaid the favour, blocking the swinging axe from my traitorous minion before promptly decapitating him. I was back in the fight! But only for a while. I still died.
The thing is that death in Shadow of War isn’t as simple as reloading your last save. As with Shadow of Mordor, time advances after you die, and Middle-earth keeps on spinning. In the context of the fortress siege, it meant I could have another crack at it, albeit with both armies reflective of the post-battle state. This is why it’s so important to convert, instead of kill, enemy subordinates to replace the ones you lose in battle.
During this second-chance battle, I started collecting dropped weapons and armour: rewards for vanquishing particular foes. This all seems to be controlled by a randomised system, and each bit of swag can be boosted by completing particular gameplay challenges. The challenges, as well as the inherent buffs of the weapons and equipment, add to the already swelling amount of content on offer in Shadow of War.
That half hour of hands-on time flew by, and despite experiencing a wealth of content, some returning and some new, I’m confident I didn’t even come close to scratching the surface of what Shadow of War has to offer. If Shadow of Mordor is the equivalent of Fellowship of the Ring, Shadow of War is turning out to be The Two Towers: a superior sequel that’s established its world and characters, and can delve deep into the guts of raised stakes and epic action.
Disclaimer: EA sponsored Nathan Lawrence’s flights, accommodation, and meals while he was at Gamescom 2017.