Expectations can often dictate how one views a game, both for good and for bad. For example, Fallout 4 failed to meet my expectations when it released not because it was a bad game, but because my idea of what I thought it would be was incredibly lofty.
With 2014’s Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, I was staggered by the mechanics and depth of the game’s systems because I went into my playthrough with almost no expectations at all. That’s not to say the game was only good because of my lack of expectations, but I was potentially more surprised by it because of this.
Coming into its sequel Middle-earth: Shadow of War, the developers at Monolith Productions know that expectations are high from fans. With the previous title winning countless Game of the Year awards in 2014, the team knew that the sequel needed to improve on everything that was so good about Shadow of Mordor. After playing 90 minutes of Shadow of War for myself at E3 2017, I’m happy to say that Monolith has managed to blow me away, even with my high expectations.
My time spent with Shadow of War was incredibly open and I was offered the ability to do anything that I liked within the region that I was placed in. A handful of story missions, side missions, and other various tasks were at my disposal, but I instead opted to try out one of the most notable new additions to Shadow of War — the stronghold sieges.
If you’ve watched any of the gameplay demos released for Shadow of War over the past few weeks or months, there’s a good chance that you know what these sieges are. In the game, the Nemesis system has been restructured and the top level orcs — known as Overlords — now reside in large castle-like structures. To take down these Overlords, you must charge into the stronghold, take over some command points, and break into the throne room to face the mighty orc boss. However, one doesn’t simply walk directly into a stronghold by themselves.
The coolest thing about Shadow of War is that you now command your own orc army and can utilize them in these stronghold battles. You and the rest of your army will line up outside of the enemy walls before charging into a chaotic, bloody battle to try and take the stronghold for yourself.
Perhaps my favorite part about these battles are the modifiers and extra abilities that you can give your army before starting the war: if you want your army to contain a certain type of orc that would do better in your given battle, you can spend some funds to make that happen. The best part though is releasing wild creatures like a Drake or a Graug: these creatures don’t necessarily help your army only, but instead are meant to cause chaos and pandemonium during the battle. Be cautious though, as they will also attack you without a second’s hesitation.
All in all, the fortress battles are unlike anything that we saw in Shadow of Mordor. While the first game had some great moments, none of them were on the same scale as what I played when storming the castle with my orc army. These sections of Shadow of War add some much-needed set piece moments to the formula that already made Shadow of Mordor so great. Plus, seeing two massive armies clash in the middle of a battlefield is a technical feat to behold.
Speaking of amazing technical features, I think one of the most staggering things about my demo was just how unique every orc was that I saw. I played this demo alongside a member of the Shadow of War team and he was just as interested and invested in seeing the different orcs as I was. Even though this development team member had been demoing the game all day long, he told me that he had at no point seen any two orcs that much resembled one another his time showing off the game.
Additionally, he told me that each piece of dialogue that was said in the demo was also unique to those specific characters. While random generation has been prevalent in video games for quite some time, I was shocked by how each character in Shadow of War looked like they had been hand-crafted, even though I knew that wasn’t the case.
After I finished taking over the fortress for myself and bending the stronghold’s former overlord to my will, I started to run around the region that I was in just to get a grasp on where I was. One of my main issues with Shadow of Mordor was the game’s lack of differing environments: only two regions were offered in the game, and both of them became quite stale.
In Shadow of War, I found the region that I sprinted around to be much more unique. Between orc camps, small villages, dark woods, and an expansive cave system, this one area of Shadow of War already seemed to contain more variety than those in the first game. As of now, three regions have been confirmed for Shadow of War, with more to be announced in the future.
The RPG fan in me also greatly enjoyed the new systems that lie at the core of Shadow of War. This time around, there are a ton of new gear upgrades as well as more expanded skill trees. I couldn’t believe how many different options I had at my disposal this time around with each of the potential upgrades, allowing me to play in vastly different ways ranging from stealth to expertise in sword combat. Shadow of War allows you to approach situations in the way that best suits how you want to play, which is one of my favorite aspects of the game: I cannot wait to dive in and begin leveling up my own character.
I left my time with Shadow of War incredibly impressed by the new additions like stronghold battles and in awe of the added depth to the already existing systems from the original game. Many times with sequels, you’ll hear that “bigger is better,” which isn’t always true; simply making a game more expanded in the sequel doesn’t always work out for the best. In the case of Shadow of War however, I think that the adage proves to be true as a more expanded world and larger set piece moments seem to liven up this sequel in ways that I didn’t expect.
Middle-earth: Shadow of War releases on October 10th, 2017 for PS4, Xbox One, and PC.