During a recent tour of preview events hosted by Warner Bros., we were given two separate opportunities to play through a siege mission similar to one previously seen in the first gameplay trailer for Middle-earth: Shadow of War (see above). With our own army ready for battle, we stormed the well-protected fortress of an orcish overlord, our goal being to wrestle control of the base from him as part of our ongoing war with Sauron.
We initiated the siege mission by approaching a marker in the game's open world. This part of returning hero Talion's adventure was roughly half way through the game (which apparently means that it equates to around 15 hours of play time). Before the actual battle takes place we took a closer look at the two rival armies and what they each have to offer. Each base has an overlord, and below him there are several warchiefs, and all of them are part of a tribe which in turn influences the appearance and fortifications of the castle. For example, we were up against a menacing enemy force that had tortured orc bodies strung up on the battlements for a grizzly visual effect.
It's well worth taking a closer look at what you're up against before the onslaught begins, and in a pre-battle routine that made us consider our options in a way not dissimilar to how we would before taking to the battlefield in a game like Total War, we had to take note of our opponent's various strengths and consider how we might best deal with them. Talion's army can be tweaked to counter the opposing force as, for example, your enemy might be good at dealing with mounted units, prompting you to make tactical choices when arranging your own fighting force, minimising the effectiveness of that area of ability. The captains have an impact on the battlefield, too, but with careful consideration, it's possible to bypass the strengths of your enemy.
This is where the army screen comes in handy, and it's at the heart of the Nemesis system that once again shapes individual characters with particular traits based on your interactions with them. The local chief and his captains are all displayed here, and in the demo we played, some research had been done into their various strengths and weaknesses (presumably, like the first game, that intel was extracted from talkative characters encountered out in the wider world). Our own high-level orcs are also lined up here, and it's from this screen that we can pick a bodyguard to keep watch over us in the coming battle. The personalities of the orcs are randomly generated at first, and thanks to the aforementioned Nemesis system these officer class units will be decisively shaped by our encounters with them over time.
Different fortresses will have different strengths, and so you'll need to tweak your forces accordingly. In one siege the enemy attached poison traps to the walls, making it impossible for our forces to climb the ramparts. However, for that battle one of our captains gave us the option to summon suicide units to the fight, and they blew a hole in the wall and paved the way for our other units to enter the base. Once beyond the walls, the troops within will also have various abilities that need to be countered, so if your opponent is vulnerable to ranged attacks, you'd better bring some archers.
Because we very much liked the way they were described, we picked a unit that summoned Shelob the spider's little minions to the battlefield, however, this turned out to be a huge mistake because it turned out that our personal bodyguard had a feral fear of the eight-legged creatures, and therefore could hardly move during the siege. During a different game, we selected the option to summon a drake, and that turned out to be an altogether more successful decision (more on them later).
All of these abilities can be purchased with the in-game currency that is gathered during your progression in the story, however, the words "premium currency" were also briefly mentioned in this regard, although nobody wanted to elaborate on that further. Will this mean noticeably slower pacing for non-paying players? We'll have to wait and see how this one plays out.
Once the battle begins, our warchiefs pursue their own objectives, and we can either support them, helping ensure that their plans come to fruition and that they don't die (snared by traps or caught in an ambush, for example), or we can simply do our own thing and play more as a lone wolf. Either way, once over the outer wall we needed to take three capture points, each one found a little deeper inside the fortress and of course held by the overlord's various captains. Upon encountering these high-ranking enemies in battle, they'll throw some trash talk your way, often to hilarious effect, and there seemed to be plenty of dialogue to keep replayed encounters feeling fresh.
Once all three objectives have been captured, it's time to face off against the boss, who's waiting in the throne room. It's at this point that your army is left behind to finish the fight outside, while we take on the overlord and his entourage alone. If you need a little help you can summon your bodyguard here, if he's still alive and not petrified by spiders. Pro tip though - don't attack your own bodyguard by accident because, as we discovered first hand, they don't take kindly to betrayal.
Fighting in the throne room means contending with a large number of enemy troops, and it's here that Talion relies most heavily on his own skills. You can pick from a large range of abilities drawn from skill trees that cover his various strengths, with the most interesting options utilising Celebrimbor's magic. You can also pick ranged attacks and melee skills to balance things out. During a siege (or any combat encounter) you can take control of weakened or low-level enemy units, and in the final battle we found climbing up to the raised platforms that flanked the arena and taking control of the overlord's archers to be most helpful, especially as, in that particular siege, the overlord had an aversion to arrows.
Once you've defeated the boss and taken control of his fortress, you have to assign your own overlord, because Sauron's going to want to try and take it back. You can either set up one of your own captains to run the show, or, if you're able to dominate the resident overlord instead of killing him during the climactic battle, take control of him and turn him to your side. Either way you ensure the city is in capable hands once you leave, and your decisions once again feed into the Nemesis system, with certain tribes approving of your choices.
Monolith told us how the loyalty of our orcish friends is variable, and that it can change during the course of the game. This system determines whether or not an ally supports us at a critical moment, and how likely it is for them to betray us. Of course, all of this depends largely on our own efforts, because when you get along with your chiefs and help them when they need it most, they are naturally more willing to offer support in return. At one point one of our orcs rescued us after we were taken down by an axe, when we were vulnerable to a killing blow that in this case never came. Because of this we promoted him to warchief and made him our new bodyguard (remember, our arachnophobic friend from earlier didn't turn out to be that helpful). Apparently, this newly-promoted orc will remember our gratitude.
All orc leaders drop equipment when downed, and we can use this gear to upgrade Talion over time. Many of the items have special perks that are automatically unlocked once certain challenges are completed. As a guide, the level of an orc captain reveals how good the equipment is that he's potentially carrying (if, of course, we kill him). Just as before, the Nemesis system means that, over time, you can create your own arch enemy, defined by mutual encounters and how you interact with the various systems that govern his traits.
Talion's arcane abilities all derive from his symbiotic spirit, Celebrimbor, whose magical powers imbue him with several superhuman abilities. If he dominates an enemy, for example, Talion can either kill or control his foe, but a new interaction comes in the form of the new shame system. If an orc is disgraced when controlled mid-battle, it immediately lowers his level and causes him to flee from the fight. He'll be easier to kill next time we meet, but on top of that, Monolith explained how this weakens his mental resolve, something that will eventually cause him go mad.
Talion can take control of orcs, but he can also tame a range of mystical creatures. The famous Caragors and Graugs from the first game are back, but they appear here alongside majestic drakes (mini dragons, basically) that allow for aerial combat. By using Celebrimbor's powers you can mount a weakened drake and use it to rain fire down on your enemies, and while a simple system, we imagine it's one many will be drawn to straight away.
Talion's dynamic movement has also been expanded upon since the first game. We can now make use of the focus bar in order to access superhuman abilities, for instance, and these powers let us run through the world at great speed, teleport back and forth between multiple targets, freeze enemies, unleash special attacks, perform handy double-jumps when traversing fortress walls, and so on.
Combat felt familiar, with Talion rolling over enemies, dodging blows, and countering attacks when prompted. The mixture of standard attacks and magical powers gives plenty of tactical options when dealing with enemies of all shapes and sizes, and there are options for both individual battles and crowd control. One thing we did notice was how Talion literally slides into certain exchanges, with this unnatural movement chaining exchanges together to create a more free-flowing battle. It ensures that the action feels seamless, although as a result it can sometimes look stitched together.
Middle-earth: Shadow of War picks up where Shadow of Mordor left off, but it's undoubtedly grander in scale than its predecessor. The enhanced Nemesis system seems to allow for even greater gameplay variety, and upon comparing notes after two separate hands-on sessions, it turned out that roughly the same scenario yielded two very different overall experiences. The abundance of new elements is clearly noticeable, and over the course of a game, it should mean that each player has an individual experience, authored by their own actions. The simulation going on behind the scenes in Monolith's sequel is once again impressive, and we're looking forward to having our own bespoke adventure in Mordor when Shadow of War lands on PC, PS4, and Xbox One on August 25.
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