At the beginning of August we wrote a preview for Middle-earth: Shadow of War detailing the online concepts of Monolith's ambitious sequel and how they aimed to change the formula from the first one. This time around the discourse is set upon the story elements and end game content, the second being a severely lacking aspect of the otherwise extraordinary first game in the series.
Whilst talking to the creative team about the vision of the narrative development in the second game, we got to try a battle with one of the mighty Balrog (without the help of almighty Gandalf the Grey), and before heading into our showdown, we asked Michael de Plater about what aspects he personally likes the best from Talion's new adventure. De Plater emphasised the ecosystem of Mordor and the immense variety in the different journeys one can undertake due to the excellent nemesis system, and that's when we were forced into battle, as we had a bigger nemesis to fight.
One of the best and most epic moments associated with the original Peter Jackson trilogy is the encounter with the demonic Balrog during the visit to Moria. The specific memories associated with this scene created an even bigger anticipation for how Talion could venture into the same epic territory, although from what we played the encounter with the Balrog didn't deliver in ways we had hoped for. Even though the visuals were gorgeous and the design stunning, the battle against one of the most devilish creatures of Middle-Earth seemed more like the classic platform villains of the '90s, with big glowing weak spots that made it easy to take down. About halfway into the battle a mysterious mythical creature came and offered assistance as well, but it only managed to turn the battle into a button mashing experience. At this point, then, we felt the demo had a long way to go.
In regards to the story itself, de Plater told us about how the Shelob character will play a huge role in the narrative and her importance to the lore of Middle-Earth. Shelob acts as the Mordor counter to the magical Galadriel character, with similar powers, and in contrast to the original trilogy, de Plater wants the characters to be more morally grey, with no entirely good or entirely bad characters. Comparisons were made with Game of Thrones, for example, due to the characters offering more complex personalities with many layers rather than Gandalf and Aragorn who are classic hero figures. Moreover, de Plater told us that at the core of the narrative is the notion of Death and Deathlessness.
From a strictly story perspective, this seemed like an interesting take on the world of Middle-Earth, since the books as well as the films are clearly divided into good vs evil. Shadow of War likewise showcases this with their nemesis system and the stronghold mechanics where what once were evil characters fight alongside you in combat. Talking of strongholds, another new mode introduced in Shadow of War is the Shadow Wars which, in comparison to the underwhelming Balrog fight, was the most interesting experience.
In the same way that the new online elements want to keep the players engaged beyond the story's conclusion, Shadow Wars will keep you playing long after the credits role. As an extension of the nemesis system and staying with the emphasis on creating a living world with its own identity, Shadow Wars is a reverse conquest mode where the enemy will try to recapture your strongholds around Mordor after the story is finished. It generally works in a similar fashion, where the player suddenly has to defend an array of different areas whilst fighting back the invading enemy, and it's a phenomenal way to create extra depth to the world and secure investment beyond what the main narrative has to offer. Whether it gets tedious after a while is of course unknown due to the short time we played, yet we were intrigued nonetheless.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is without a doubt one of the biggest and most promising games of autumn 2017. The online system has received a bump in the right direction, the story seems much more interesting, and the inclusion of Shadow Wars only added to our hype level. Despite the underwhelming fight against the Balrog, everything else we got our hands on felt great and only time will tell whether this was just a one-time occurrence and will be tweaked before the final release. Nevertheless, we are very excited for when the game drops in October.