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Middle-earth: Shadow of War

Middle-earth: Shadow of War Hands-on

Everyone will walk the same path in this sequel to Shadow of Mordor, but it's the Nemesis system that makes each playthrough unique.

  • Text: Stefan Briesenick & Mike Holmes

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.

Middle-earth: Shadow of War

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.

Middle-earth: Shadow of War

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.

Middle-earth: Shadow of War
Middle-earth: Shadow of WarMiddle-earth: Shadow of WarMiddle-earth: Shadow of War