An Assault On The Fortress: An Early Preview of 'Middle-earth: Shadow of War'

With Middle-earth: Shadow of War was formally announced, Monolith Productions was at GDC last week to give us the first glimpse of gameplay footage. Whereas the first game, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, focused on Talion’s revenge against those who killed his love ones, this game will shift direction to the broader conflict of the war against Sauron. However, you won’t have to do it alone. You’ll have an entire army of Orcs under your command.

The Charge

The main feature of Shadow of War is the upgraded Nemesis system. In the first game, you had to deal with multiple Orc captains and their warchief leaders. As you worked your way up the ranks, other Orcs would fill in the lower leadership tiers, which provided you with endless gameplay where you could kill or control the entire Orc hierarchy. In this game, the system was upgraded to include fortresses. The world features multiple regions, which contain these structures of varying sizes. Within each fortress is an Orc overlord. Under it are multiple warchiefs, and in order to take down Sauron and his forces, you’ll need to take control of each fortress.

The gameplay video we saw featured the fortress of Seregost, which has one overlord, Ur-Hakon the Dragon, and his four warchiefs. When Talion attacks this fortress, he has his own army of Orc followers. Aside from the usual rank and file, his army also includes a few notable Orc captains that have unique abilities that will aid on the assault. For instance, Az-Laar the Destroyer has increased damage against structures. There’s also Ragdug Iron Mount, who can move quickly due to his armored caragor mount, and he also has a resistance to fire damage, which is useful against fiery enemy attacks.

In order to deal with Ur-Hakon, Talion and company need to take on his warchiefs first. Some of these notable foes might have served Talion in the past, but they’ve since returned to the Dark Lord’s influence. The ability to bring Orcs over to your side was prevalent in the first game, but Monolith improved it as well for Shadow of War, allowing you to place one of your own Orc captains as a spy within the enemy fortress and posing as one of its warchiefs. This tactic is especially useful as your spy can set traps to slow down the enemy, or in the case of the gameplay footage, create a weak point within the building that allows allies to flank the enemy.

Step By Step

Once the assault begins, you can move and fight as usual. The game’s combat which borrows heavily from Rocksteady Studios’ Batman games, is back with even more visceral attacks, and the overall movement is quicker, which is important when taking over the enemy stronghold. The overall battle seems to progress through a series of stages, where you take over multiple parts of the fortress with each enemy warchief in charge of one of these stages. For example, one of these warchiefs stood on the ramparts above the main gate. Killing him meant that Talion’s forces could easily break that first line of defense and move into the fortress grounds.

Killing these warchiefs (as well as enemy captains) still grants you different bonus types to your weapons. However, they now also grant you different sets of gear that you can use on your character, and each piece can change different stats and bonuses such as the amount of health recovered or the likelihood of picking up better gear from enemies. Matthew Allen, Monolith’s Director of Art, said that the inclusion of this feature was a major step for the studio because each piece of gear wasn’t just meant for show.

“We didn’t want to it if it was pretty pictures,” he said. “We wanted all of those upgrades to mean something.” He went on further to say that you’ll be able to change multiple aspects of your overall gear such as armor, boots, and cape. Overall, there are seven areas of your character that can have different pieces of gear.

As the battle continues, you’ll notice that some of the enemy warchiefs won’t wait for Talion to fight them. They’ll have their own methods of pushing back your army. Later in the demo, Az-Laar, who was busy with attempting to take down the second door that led to the main keep, was doused with oil as the door opened to reveal a large weapon that spewed fire, burning anyone in its path. In a matter of seconds, Talion easily destroyed it by going around the enemy front line and shooting at it with his powerful bow, and by doing so revealed the source of fire inside the weapon: a small drake.

This drake proved to be a useful asset because for the first time in the series, you can mount flying creatures. Talion used the drake against its former masters by flying it around the fortress and shooting fireballs and spewing hot waves of fire on enemy troops and buildings. Once the path to the main keep was clear, Talion opened the doors and went inside.

The Boss Man

The overlord’s strengths and abilities are mirrored through the interior design of the keep. Ur-Hakon has a predilection towards fire and violence and it’s reflected in his main hall, which is dark, bloody, and full of grates that send pillars of fire into the air. When the fight between Talion and Ur-Hakon begins, Talion must dodge these grates in addition while also managing to take out the overlord’s minions and Ur-Hakon himself. But in the same way that you’re not alone when storming the fortress, you’ll also have some help fighting the overlord. Remember your Orc ally Ragdug? His fast movement and resistance to fire allowed him to aid Talion at a critical moment in the fight. This provides enough distraction that Talion can strike the killing blow, thus taking over the fortress.

With Ur-Hakon dead and the fortress under Talion’s control, Talion must now appoint one of his own Orc captains as the main overlord for this stronghold, under him are a fresh set of warchiefs. This provides yet another base from which you can train forces or defend against enemy attacks in the fight against Sauron. The new overlord will then design the fortress in their own fashion that reflects their tribe as well as their strengths in battle.

A Large World

The short demo merely showed the assault on the fortress, so other aspects of the game, such as its open-world mechanics, are still unknown. The first game featured two large regions, which was littered with enemies and captains, but more importantly, it provided plenty of room for you to run around to complete multiple missions and find collectibles. Allen didn’t delve into specifics, but he did mention that Monolith added more areas in the game.

“It’s not a continuous world, but the best way to think of it [is that there is] a very large amount of very large spaces that you can move between at any point in time,” he said. “For us, it really is about getting from region to region and having each of those regions feel different and look different and be fun to explore on their own. In the previous game we had two [regions] and in this one we have a few more.”

This brought up the issue of whether or not the studio sacrificed the size of each area for the sake of more regions. However, Allen said that the new regions are even larger in size than before, which should bode well for those who crave the open-world feeling.

The War Continues

The short gameplay demo showed a new and intricate way of climbing up Sauron’s hierarchy of overlords and warchiefs. Some of these enemies will die by your hand while others can be recruited to fight for you. One of the final scenes within the demo showed many stronghold held by Sauron’s forces and you’ll have to take them down one by one before confronting The Dark Lord.

However, there is still much that we don’t know about the game. Small details within the demo as well as Allen’s comments provided a glimpse as to what we can expect in the final game. Until then, we just might keep watching this sole gameplay demo over and over again. There’s so much action packed within those short 16 minutes that it’s hard not to look at and get excited for what’s to come in Middle-earth: Shadow of War.

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NameMiddle-earth: Shadow of War
TypeOpen-world, RPG, Action/Adventure
DeveloperMonolith Productions
PublisherWarner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
PlatformsPCXbox OneProject ScorpioPlayStation 4PlayStation 4 Pro
Where To BuySteamPlayStation StoreXbox StoreAmazonBest BuyTargetGameStop
Release DateAugust 22, 2017