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Joining The Fight In 'Middle-Earth: Shadow Of War,' Hands On

The main attraction for Middle-earth: Shadow of War is the ability to take over an enemy stronghold with your own Orc forces, and it was featured when the sequel to Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor was revealed earlier this year. Fast-forward to last week, when Monolith Productions brought demos of the game to E3. We were finally able to play Shadow of War for the first time and try our hand at infiltrating an Orc stronghold. As it turns out, taking the fight to the Dark Lord isn't as easy as it looks, and even the best-laid plans can totally fall apart in just a few minutes.

Plan Of Attack

Before the attack began, a menu popped up that showed our Orc leaders and enemy commanders. Each of our Orc leaders had three empty slots where we could place units to aid them in battle. However, we couldn’t just pick random units to allocate in each slot. Each group has special skills and traits that could either keep our commanders alive or turn the tide of battle. For example, we could pick a Defender unit (Orcs that, as their job titles make clear, specialize in defense) to protect our melee-based commander... or we could include a group of Orcs that use poison attacks to further dwindle the enemy numbers.

There were also units of heavy melee attackers and a group of soldiers that specialized in taking down fortress gates, which could provide an early advantage. On the other side of the screen were the list of enemy commanders, and each one had a special defensive trait that corresponded to their location in the fortress. Some had basic, yet strong defensive walls, while others had units with weapons that could fire poison- or fire-based projectiles.

The only limit to the number of units per commander was cost. Each group of soldiers cost a specific number of points (which hovered around 1,000 points, and you can easily spend a massive pool of points with a large army of commanders and soldiers. For our demo, we had 10,000 points to spare, and we decided to spend 3,000 points to allocate one unit of soldiers for each commander. We assumed that one soldier unit per commander was enough to take out the enemies within the fortress, but it turned out to be a close battle on both sides.

Pieces In Motion

As the siege began, we immediately dashed towards the fortress and scaled its walls in order to take out any archers on the ramparts that had an easy shot at our forces. After taking out a few attackers, we then descended to the ground level and took out a few more enemies. Those who played Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor or any of Rocksteady’s Batman titles will find familiarity in the combat, which involves a quick flurry of attacks, counters, and executions. Fighting in those previous games was intense, but Shadow of War’s combat is even more chaotic. Enemies can come from every angle and often attack in large numbers. With each encounter, we faced a minimum of three foes, and that’s not counting the assailants  hitting us from a distance. The only way to tell the difference between a friendly or hostile Orc was by the color of its armor: blue for friendlies and red for enemies. In the heat of battle, it was difficult to tell the colors apart.

In about two minutes, our forces broke through the first wall of defenses and slowly filled the outer courtyard. We had to capture three specific points in the fort before taking on its overlord. As we took out enemies left and right, we made our way to the first capture point with a friendly Orc commander. This is where things started to fall apart. As we fought off foes in the capture point, the Orc commander was overwhelmed with other attacks to the point where he was bleeding to death. We tried to get closer so we could revive him, but we were a second too late. He died by a simple slash of a sword. Another minute later, another friendly commander was killed in a similar fashion. We were down two commanders and the first checkpoint wasn’t under our control yet. Panicking, we stayed close to our third commander as he began to hold down the capture point. Eventually, we were successful and moved to the second checkpoint.

Our strategy changed as we moved deeper into the fortress. With two commanders down, it was time to take the battle into the skies. Overhead, an enemy drake breathed fire onto our soldiers. With a few hits of our arrow, the drake was in a “Broken” state, which allowed us to teleport to it and mount it for our own use. Flying this massive winged creature above the fortress was exhilarating because it felt like we turned the tide. We cleared the path for our forces with the drake’s fire, and even took out other giants that were launching poison-infused projectiles onto our soldiers. When we were finished with the drake, we dismounted it--and purposely killed it in the process--to rejoin our allies on the ground.

Disaster struck again as our third commander went up against an enemy captain and lost. You would think that this would be the decisive blow against our army, but that wasn’t the case. We pushed on as the sole leader and fought the captain to avenge our most recent loss. In the previous game, we could turn enemies to our side through possession, and we did the same thing in this battle. When the enemy captain was near death, we possessed him so he would fight for us for the rest of combat. With his help, we easily captured the second point and moved on to the final checkpoint, which was in front of the main keep’s doors.

Capturing the final checkpoint was easier, thanks our newly captured commander and the fact that we took out another hostile drake sent by the enemy. All that was left was the overlord inside the keep. Before we could go inside, we were told by our demo chaperone to pick a bodyguard, which is basically any of the commanders in our army. He could come in at any point in the battle and help out with a tough enemy. Unfortunately for us, we didn’t get to use him in combat.

When we entered to face the enemy Orc overlord, we did so at a disadvantage, specifically in regards to our health. The constant attacks from enemies in the battle outside meant that we had low health, so we had to find a way to regain our strength while keeping the overlord and his minions away from us. At first, we tried luring the minions away from the overlord so we could take them out first. We managed to take out a couple of enemies, but we then realized that there were archers in the platforms above the keep that kept hitting us as well. It was a truly unfair fight--and rightfully so. The Dark Lord Sauron will do anything to keep his domain, and we had to fight hard to try and take it from him and turn it into another foothold on our long campaign.

Live To Fight Another Day

In the end, we weren’t successful. As we tried to fight the minions and dodge arrows, a lone archer managed to land the killing blow. Because he killed us, he was promoted to a commander’s position within the enemy fortress. A tight schedule meant we weren’t able to try the siege again, but our chaperone told us that in the final game, we could bypass the entire siege and fight the overlord directly because we took the three main capture points in the fortress.

Despite the failed siege, we came away even more excited for the game. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor had major set pieces within it to create intense combat situations. With Shadow of War, Monolith turned the dial up on that intensity, thanks in part to these sieges. The ability to command your army is one thing, but to fight side-by-side with allies is even more exciting. We could change the tide of battle with a single slash of the sword or by mounting a fire-breathing drake. But those actions don’t mean that our army was invincible, either. In either case, part of the outcome depends on our direct actions on the battlefield, and that feature combined with chaotic combat makes Shadow of War one of the marquee games to look out for later this fall.

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 DateOctober 10, 2017