Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor was a surprise hit when it first hit the shelves in 2014. Despite looking like a Lord of the Rings-skinned version of Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed, the game had surprising depth and a wealth of features that made it better than its obvious inspiration in many ways.
Highlights included a beautifully crafted open world in the Lord of the Rings universe, wonderfully diverse enemies, brimming with personality, a well crafted story – that unlike most AC titles actually made sense – and a nifty grudge system, that let you establish vendettas and see tribal hierarchies within your orc prey.
Having had some hands-on time with Warner Brother’s sequel Middle Earth: Shadow of War looks set to take all these factors and turn them up to 11.
The game’s plot takes place immediately after Shadow of Mordor and once again puts you control of half-dead ranger Talion, who has just crafted a new Ring of Power. Without giving away too many spoilers, the story focuses on Talion’s attempts to raise an orc army and steal control of Mordor from resident baddie Sauron.
Like the previous game he still shares his body with Celebrimbor, an infamously dark Elf spirit who supplies the half-dead hero with a range of mythical powers.
During my demo I had 25 minutes to do as I saw fit on a limited section of the game’s world map.
To start with, it was pretty much business as usual. Combat has been slightly tweaked to give you access to more skills and the loot system has been upgraded to offer more variety, as well as statistical differences between items. But at its core, the free running and combat mechanics are pretty similar to Shadow of Mordor, offering you a choice of dodge, attack and executions that can occasionally be broken up with ranged bow shots or magic.
The open world mechanics also worked exactly the same way and for the first 10 minutes I wasted my hands-on time picking up minor assassination missions by chasing icons on the map.
It was only after I located an enemy stronghold and engaged the game’s new Siege mode and saw the expanded Nemesis system that things really took off.
Siege is a special type of mission that sees you rally your forces and attempt to steal control of a region from Sauron by capturing key points in the stronghold, and then killing the main warlord. Each siege is different as the orc leader and his underling bosses all have varying personalities, skills and weakness.
Jumping into the Siege setup menu I was introduced to Shadow of War’s most interesting feature; army recruitment and management.
The Nemesis System has been massively updated and improved in Shadow of War. Unlike the previous game that simply gave you the option to execute or weaken enemy bosses after defeating them, in Shadow of War you can recruit them to your cause using Celebrimbor’s new mind control/altering power.
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Choosing to recruit my first fallen foe, a whole new wealth of options for me. Once recruited, each leader can be used as ally when raiding strongholds.
As an added layer of depth, each base has different defenses, so the allies you bring are of paramount importance as they each have their own troop types and bonuses.
Early on I mucked up my choice of generals. Recruiting a team of bruiser orcs may work well during the opening section where we were trying to break down the stronghold’s gate, but it left me shorthanded inside when I came up against long distance sniping and mortar fire enemies.
Somehow surviving the salvo and after a heated battle with the gobby orc boss ,who had a few interesting ideas what he would do with my insides, the management mechanics continued to impress.
As well as letting you choose who to bring into battle, the management system lets you promote loyal orcs and set them as the new leaders of strongholds. Here again your choice has lasting consequences in a variety of ways. For starters, the tribe of the new leader you pick will have an impact on the stronghold’s surroundings both aesthetically and in terms of gameplay.
During my hands-on I picked a member of the Savage tribe. From there the previously neat-looking stone fortress suddenly erupted with spikes and war paint and new quests tailored to the tribe’s character appeared all over the region’s local map. The strength of the leaders you choose will be important as Sauron’s troops will frequently invade your occupied territories.
Warner Brothers’ claims this is indicative of a wider flexible story mechanic that will let the game’s world, factions and narrative evolve and intelligently react to every decision you make.
It’s this small touch that helps the game feel fresh despite having the same fundamental stealth and combat mechanics and make it feel like you are forging your own story, not following a strict scripted narrative.
Shadow of War feels like a true step forward for open world action RPGs. Despite having fairly familiar combat dynamics, the new Nemesis system added a welcome layer of depth to the gameplay that I’ve felt has been missing in many competing open world adventures.
If Warner Brothers can deliver on its promise to let you truly leave your mark on Mordor, Shadow of War could well be a contender for game of the year. Though with Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed Origins looking equally awesome, it’ll be a tight race.