At gamescom 2017, I spent an hour with Middle-earth: Shadow of War, the sequel to 2014's acclaimed Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. Accompanied by Creative Director Michael de Plater and QA analyst Ellie Knapp, the first 15 minutes involved watching a brawl between a fiery Balrog summoned from the depths of hell and Carnán, Shadow of War’s spirit of nature.
The battle began underground, with Talion unable to stop a group of orcs from summoning the mighty Balrog. Rising from a lake of lava, the ancient beast mercilessly killed the orc gang with a fiery lash before turning its attention towards the Gravewalker. Lunging towards Talion, the Balrog was intercepted by Carnán, taking the form of a Graug made of twines and dirt.
The two giants start to pummel each other with punches and grapples, throwing one another against the wall and landing several blows with thunderous force. Using Celebrimbor’s spectral bow, Talion assists Carnán by shooting the Balrog’s weak spots until the beast eventually flees into the moonless nights of Mordor.
Prior to starting my playthrough of a siege assault, I actually questioned Creative Director Michael de Plater on the wisdom of having a creature made of wood trade blows with a being made of fire. That confounded him a bit, and he managed to blurt out “Well... she has access to other elements too, like ice.“ after a few moments of hesitation. It was a bit awkward.
But then again, so was the fight itself. The whole battle felt underwhelming, like watching two bears fight in the woods -- the creatures were constantly locked in a pre-animated fight sequence, with the player taking a very passive role. Aside from shooting little glowing spots with a bow, there was very little for Talion to do in the fight.
The demo ended, I got the chance to play the game myself. Presented with the whole of a region to explore but a very limited time frame due to multiple gamescom appointments, I jumped straight into a siege assault.
Animator J Vargas from Monolith Studios sat beside me and guided me through the playthrough session. J has been in the company for two years, and only came onboard after Shadow of Mordor launched. In Shadow of War, he has mainly worked on death animations -- “Whenever you see someone dying or being killed, there’s a good chance you’re seeing my work”, Vargas told me. Given how many screenshots of mid-air decapitated orc heads I have on my Steam folder, it’s safe to say I look forward to seeing J’s work.
Prior to the siege, you get to see a list of the enemy fortress captains and lieutenants and what defenses they have employed. There is a sizeable number of options available, and they act as counters to each other -- spear emplacements prevent caragor riders from climbing the walls, while flamethrowers stop battering rams from breaking down the gates, for example -- forcing you to adapt your tactics and army composition on the fly. Each captain allows you to pick one of three unique bonuses, adding a degree of strategy to the proceedings.
The preparations done, the siege begins. Talion raises his sword to the sky and the army of orc followers charge forward, running towards the gate under a rain of arrows and explosive barrels. I teleport up to the battlements via the Shadow Strike ability and proceed to take out the defenders, forcing them to focus on me and give my followers a little bit of breathing room.
As I slash through several archers, I notice the combo counter seems broken -- instead of being able to use a special ability every six or eight hits, like Shadow of Mordor and all Arkham games, I sometimes go dozens of hits without my sword glowing. It turns the combat into an inconstant and significantly unsatisfying experience, and I seriously hope that was a bug instead of a feature.
To each side of the gate, two graugs have been converted to siege machines. Carrying pouches of explosive ammo and with huge catapults strapped to their backs, they constantly rain fire upon the -- my -- besieging army. I shoot the ammo pouches off the back of one of the graugs, engulfing it in flames and Shadow Mount the other. As my followers break down the gate, I aim the catapult towards the fortress courtyard and fire a couple of rounds into the defenders, before jumping off the graug and destroying the siege weapon.
Suddenly, a drake flies overhead. Tolkien’s version of a dragon, I had selected one as a bonus during siege preparations, but they are aggro towards everyone equally and you never know who they’ll attack. I aim my spectral bow towards it and use Celebrimbor’s Shadow Mount to take control of it, taking to the air.
Circling around, I perform several strafing runs upon the fortress, clearing it of elevated archers and siege weapons. As I’m about to jump into the fray, I spot a second drake in the distance -- this one generated at random by the game -- and jump off my current mount to try and teleport towards the other. However, I fall below a building’s threshold and get myself stuck inside a wall. Oops.
Unable to move out or use any ability, I’m forced to restart the siege from scratch. Jay is slightly embarrassed, but I assure him it’s okay -- this is a press demo, so I don’t expect it to play perfectly. Restarting the battle, I jump straight into the fray and teleport up onto the walls to take out the archers, but my followers almost immediately break down the gate this time. I take care of everyone in the battlements along with the siege machines and jump down into the courtyard.
Siege assaults revolve around control points -- if you and your followers outnumber the enemies within a certain radius, a bar fills up Battlefield-style. Once it’s full, the Gravewalker can plant a standard to claim it, allowing the siege to progress to the other control points. After a couple of minutes killing people, J informs me to plant a standard in order to claim the control point -- turns out we were both too engrossed chatting about the game and killing orcs to notice the on-screen prompt. I press the button, and Talion morphs into Celebrimbor, who summons a ghastly looking halberd with a flag attached and plants it into the ground with a shockwave.
The enemy orcs start to flee, trying to regroup in the next control point. I mercilessly give chase, cutting them down on my way to the objective. As area after area fall to my advance, the orcs dwindle in number and lose the will to fight. Foot soldiers and captains alike run or fall to their knees in surrender, unable to resist the might of the Bright Lord. I kill a couple of the most treacherous ones, convert the others to my side, and finally walk into the fortress’ keep.
With no loading screens and acting as a mini-boss arena of sorts, the keep is where the ruling warlord resides. The guy in charge of this particular region was a humongous Olog-hai, whose sole weakness was the Execution special move. After listening to his evil monologue, I immediately drew my sword and charged towards the fat bastard.
That battle was significantly less fun, as I kept being pelted with spears by skirmishers who wouldn’t stop respawning. There was no prompt to dodge their attacks, meaning my combo count was constantly broken, making it extremely difficult to use special moves against the warlord. I called in reinforcements to help, which while able to keep the swarm of enemies off my back, did nothing against the ranged units that bothered me so much. Unable to rely on Executions to effectively bring him down, I had to slowly chip away at his health with normal sword attacks.
As a result, the battle lasted several minutes more than it should have. The inconstant combo count coupled with bad enemy balance managed to create a severely disappointing ending to what was a surprisingly enjoyable play session, and my time with the game ended as the warlord was about to go on his knees.
Overall, my time with Shadow of War was surprisingly enjoyable, but the game does have some pretty glaring problems. The special ability change from a set combo counter to a random number significantly alters the flow of combat, especially since Shadow of War used Arkham’s amazing trope of “higher combos equal faster and stronger attacks”. The overall free-for-all experience of large fights also seemed less artful and rhythmic than the previous game, and ended up feeling like a God of War game.
However, the most worrisome aspect of the game is unlikely to be addressed at this point: Talion (and by extension, the player) are frighteningly passive. The whole Balrog fight is an example of that, where the player basically watches two NPCs engage each other and intermittently shoots one with arrows. Near the end of that fight, Talion is riding on the back of Carnán when the Balrog grabs her head in its hands and starts to crush it. Instead of interfering by shooting the Balrog in the face, stabbing it with his sword, screaming at him -- doing anything -- Talion simply sits there dumbfaced and stares into the proceedings, to the point Carnán's head is crushed and she dissolves back into a spirit body. It is the wrong way of creating dramatic tension, and it comes off as frankly ridiculous.
The Nemesis system also misses a few beats by making the enemies’ introductions too long and uninvolved. Your opponents often go on 20 second long monologues during which you completely lose control of Talion, both before and after fights. During my siege playthrough, I was especially set in killing a poisonous captain who bothered me non-stop for the first half of the battle. When I was about to strike the last blow, the game went into a cutscene where he told me all about how he wouldn’t die here and would see me again, and I was forced to stand still as he turned his tail mid-battle and fled. I gave chase, but when I was about to catch him, he literally despawned in front of my eyes.
These creative decisions undermine what the story is about -- the player -- by removing player agency and forcing him to submit to an NPC’s actions. I asked Michael if those sequences were inspired by the first Assassin’s Creed and it’s famous character setups, but he denied it. “The main inspiration for the characters reveals came from the Batman Arkham games”, de Plater told me. “That franchise always did a great job strongly introducing its villains and characters, and we wanted to do a similar thing here. I never actually thought of it [the similarity between AC and Shadow of War sequences] that way, but I can see what you mean!”
Regardless of these flaws, I look forward to playing Shadow of War come October 10th. I’ve sunk countless hours into its predecessor Shadow of Mordor and all four Arkham games, and according to Vargas, that shows: “I’ve seen a lot of people play this game, during development and E3 and all that” he told me at the end of the demo, “but your playthrough is one of the best I’ve seen.”
I’m honoured by that, J. I would chalk it up to PR, but, you know, you’re not a marketing guy. I believe you.