Platform: Xbox One
Middle-earth: Shadow of War Preview - E3 2017
We get some hands-on time with the upcoming stealth action sequel
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor was a game that I got into a while after its original release—when the PlayStation 4 version came about, to be exact. Much like Uncharted, it was a game I couldn’t believe I’d been so late to the party with. Its critical acclaim, robust mechanics (despite not breaking the mould), and interesting nemesis system, with the emphasis on stealth, really drew me in. So, when Middle-earth: Shadow of War was announced a few months ago, I couldn’t wait to jump back into the world. And at E3 2017 I had that chance, sitting down for a good hour to sample what the new game has to offer.
The human/possessed Talion and Celebrimbor, the elf that lives within him, have ventured beyond Mordor. You descend deeper into enemy territory, visiting the Island of Nurn, Cirith Ungol, Gorgoroth and more. War is on the horizon, hence the game’s title. To succeed, you must build a veritable army of followers, who you can recruit during your encounters. So, it’s a little like Pokémon.
Perhaps the most prominent addition to the game is the ability to assault fortresses with your burgeoning army. You select your forces, whether you need those who are good at assaulting fortifications, scaling walls, taking out enemies, and so on. Each siege assault begins with an introduction to one of the quirky antagonists who, like a lot of characters in the game, are much needed comic relief to Talion. It’s actually quite jarring to have Talion and Celebrimbor, who are all stern-faced, almost wooden characters, compared to the colourful enemies you encounter.
With your army selected, you can also boost various attributes to give yourself a little advantage, as well as scoping out the weaknesses of the enemy you plan to assault. So, if the creature is afraid of caragors, it might be wise to bring one along. When the assault begins, you rush into the fort, where you must capture three locations. This is done by clearing out a certain number of enemies and taking out the mini-boss who prowls the area.
Stepping back to the previous title. I can understand that some people may find the emphasis on stealth somewhat off-putting. In Shadow of Mordor, if you tried to simply go toe to toe with enemies, they would quickly overwhelm you. But you may enjoy the combat, and want to experience more of it. This is what Shadow of War does really well. While there is still that sense of a flood of enemies outside of siege battles, in the mode itself they are perfectly manageable (if tough), and combat is extremely satisfying—timed dodges, counters and slamming in an execution attack is awesome.
Upon defeating enough enemies, you must plant a literal flag. Your goal is to capture all three areas, which opens up the inner-sanctum, where the boss awaits. Now, I thought the battles before were pretty tough, but the boss battle was on another level. I know I was a little rusty, but a caragor gnawed my face off on several occasions. But that’s kind of the point; because life goes on, even if you die, you’re not always supposed to get things right the first time. Enemies will still be waiting there for you, but struggles for power and other factors may manipulate the land over time, imbuing the game with real dynamism.
Finally admitting defeat, I decided to try my hand at a story mission. Reflecting on Shadow of Mordor, I just remember the fact you had to kill a few sub-bosses and then the final guy. I was similarly lost here. I was to go through a murky forest to make acquaintance with the spirit that dwelled there.
Shadow of War changed its pace a little here. You go around, tracking the beast by viewing the memories of those who have been killed or mortally wounded by it. In snatches of memory, you piece together their sorry tale—which ends with Talion exploding their head. Eventually, the trail, which you can sense with some kind of detective vision, leads you to the beast.
The creature looks much like a four-legged warg constructed from wood. After a brief conversation, you obviously need to stab it several times for it to come to your side. The fight plays out much like a normal, fast beasty. You must utilize the dodge button, and can score headshots with your bow and arrow to complete a sub-quest. When it falls, an even larger wooden, mossy spirit takes its place.
This next stage was much tougher. The creature had a poison AoE attack as well as tree trunk-like arms that can easily swat you away. I had to dodge in and out of range, then rush in for several swift attacks. Again, I was confronted with another enemy that kicked my ethereal behind.
With my tail between my legs, I decide to fall back on an old staple: stronghold assaults. A personal favourite from Shadow of Mordor, there’s still a big emphasis on stealth. The environment itself featured numerous watchtowers, walls, and brick buildings, with great verticality that I could traverse quickly with a combination of skills and walkways.
Here, I had to defeat a certain number of enemies before the boss arrived. Stealth is still extremely fun, especially when you build up skills to sweep around fortresses, clearing enemies out. Foes still swarm if you’re sloppy, and it’s always amusing to try to flee when a literal horde is chasing you. There’s a great balance between playing to the strengths of the game while adding more melee-focused scenarios that seemingly do not detract from the game’s core.
Combat is still as effective (if not more so), with satisfying counters and death moves. The RPG mechanics of skill trees have various upgrades, like an AoE ice freeze attack, or various buffs to different disciplines. Weapon drops come in various flavours, which defeated foes drop. The spiritual nature of your weapons also make way for different implements: Talion can now perform an area attack with a double-bladed weapon as well as a hammer assault that can stun enemies.
Talion’s skill tree seems to have a lot more varied options and the ability for moves to be much more useful. I did not make use of the ability to poison a barrel last game, but now that I can explode one, sending noxious gas everywhere, I abused it. You can also choose different ways to dominate after breaking an enemy—take them down a rank, have them join you, or simply kill them.
Shadow of War feels like a grander game than before, in every sense of the word. Failure spurs you on further and the different combat encounters add great pace to the game as a whole. I’ll be waiting to hit the frontlines when Middle-earth: Shadow of War releases this October on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.