Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is a violent Tolkien fan-fiction generator

My biggest concern going into Middle-Earth: Shadow of War was stealth play getting sidelined for the large-scale combat of the fortress assault missions and a renewed focus on managing uruk forces. So at E3 when I got free reign over how to spend my time in an entire region, I figured I’d attempt to infiltrate a fort, coax the captain out, and kill him without anyone knowing I was there. Classic Shadow of Mordor stuff. Good news: stealth play is definitely viable, especially in the more freeform open world missions. At the same time, it's entirely possibly everything will go completely sideways, and you should expect that in Shadow of War. It wants you to have stories to tell, and perfect stealth runs aren't one of them. 

As in Shadow of Mordor, in order to draw out a captain, you need to meet a specific goal within the fort. In my case, I had to kill about a dozen marked guards in plain sight. Huh. Yeah, so I’m not going to get through this without being seen.

To cause a little chaos and distract the guards in the meantime, I summon a beast near the center of the fort. Dozens of guards get in on the action and I sneak along the perimeter, taking out the archers keeping watch. I manage to stealth kill five or so of the marked guards using a new Wraith Pull ability. In Shadow of Mordor, you could teleport to an uruk and kill them instantly, and in Shadow of War, you can teleport them to you. Convenient. Welcome to the bushes, boys.

Bushwhacked

I’ve been ambushed while stealthily concealed in a bush: a random event that can happen at any point as part of the Nemesis System.

But soon enough I have the entire camp on my tail. I hastily finish off the remaining marked uruks and the captain emerges, ready to bully. With enough player skill and abilities unlocked, I wonder if it’d be possible to just murder every uruk in the camp in combat, which was a mid-to-late game problem in Shadow of Mordor. Here, I worry players will be able to sidestep participating in the Nemesis System’s strategic layer through perfect combat play. The number of enemies on screen has certainly ballooned, but players have had an entire game to practice. Hopefully, it’s harder than that. 

I enable Wraith Vision to highlight all the uruks in the area in red against a blue background. It’s a damn swarm. By now, someone’s sounded the alarm and more uruks come pouring in from elsewhere. I manage to get away from the crowd and hide in a bush. These bushes, they’re good.

As soon as the uruks return to their patrols, the camera pulls out and focuses on a new bunch behind me. They’re led by another captain, who says something uncalled for and charges. I’ve been ambushed while stealthily concealed in a bush: a random event that can happen at any point as part of the Nemesis System. That's a feature sure to piss some players off, but I welcome the chaos, as long as it doesn’t happen often enough to become boring and expected.

With even more uruks on my ass and a new captain in tow, I book it up a massive tower at the fort’s perimeter, where I check out the scene in Wraith Vision again. All red. There’s something like 60 uruks down there hunting me. If I could interrogate one of the uruks, a wyrm, with a green symbol over their head, I could find out the original captain’s weakness, but I doubt I can pull off that kind of move at this point.

Towerfall

It’s just us at the top of a huge tower, two grumpy looking fantasy characters with cool swords.

I get a clever idea. I ask the person running the demo, who has mostly just laughed through all my mistakes, if I can also Wraith Pull captains. ‘Only if they’re weak to ranged attacks,’ she says. I don’t have much wraith energy left and only a few arrows, but I figure I'll look for the captain of the fort, aim with my bow, and try using ghost magic to teleport him into my arms.

Schwoop. He staggers for a second and I do the same, a bit bewildered my idea worked. Of all the possible weaknesses the uruk captain could have, he’s weak to ranged. It’s just us at the top of a huge tower, two grumpy looking fantasy characters with cool swords. I want this to be as dramatic as possible—why waste the opportunity?—so we duke it out in Middle-earth’s familiar rhythmic combat as I try to back him towards the edge. If I wanted, I could just break him and hold a button to make him join my forces, but no. I stun him with a quick blast of ghostly energy and then pull off a finisher move. I lop his head off and his body crumples to the ground and slides off the tower. I never want to see a hobbit again. This is my new canon.

I’m happy to see new tools and technology so readily produce a memorable scenario in Shadow of War’s open world. Regions are smaller, but there are more than in Shadow of Mordor and they feel denser than before. This region has several forts, a fortress, monster caves, patrolling uruks, side missions, and thick vegetation at every turn. The area feels much more alive, like an entire faction of uruks are mobilizing to prepare for war—it’s in the name after all. 

Better level design doesn’t necessarily make the open world traversal or simple side missions any more fun, but at least we’ll save time between. Most activities in Shadow of Mordor were designed to set up nemesis encounters anyway, and at a glance, Shadow of War’s open world looks to do the same, except every aspect of the game has been expanded, with more combat abilities like Wraith Pull, more layers to the Nemesis System, better tech to support more uruks on screen at once, and more creatures to commandeer and influence. Icons and missions on the map might look disappointingly familiar, but what can happen inside those instances won’t be.

With something as simple as extra variables, Shadow of War will inevitably produce more unique water cooler uruk-murder conversation than ever before, even if the controls and character feel like they've been imported directly from the first game. The real test will be in how Shadow of War produces longer narratives—tales of betrayal and friendship, revenge and tragedy—over two dozen hours. The Middle-earth series’ Nemesis System has proved that it can evoke surprise and anger. Now I want to know if it can make me feel anything else.