In my first five minutes of Middle-earth: Shadow of War, I hired spiders to torment an uruk bard. He wanted me dead—sang about it and everything—but we were going to lead an army together and sweep the land with song. If only he hadn’t made such a fuss over my spider mercs.
My goal was to siege a fortress and take it back from Sauron’s uruk army, a massive castle with thick stone walls, battlements peaking into sharp points, each occupied by hulking artillery units dropping curse bombs in big AoE circles on the dozens of fragile uruk soldiers below. In any other game it would feel like the final level and final boss encounter, but there are quite a few of them in Shadow of War, and taking control of each will be a unique experience—not just between fortresses either, but between players. That’s Monolith’s goal, at least.
Leaving everything to chance
During my demo last week in Santa Monica, I played an entire fortress siege sequence. In the final game, taking over a fortress led by an enemy uruk overlord takes back the territory from Sauron’s forces, allowing you to push further behind enemy lines into another region, giving you a crack at another fortress, and so on.
For the skinny on how the Nemesis System has evolved to include foes and friends, check out Wes' preview and the accompanying video walkthrough from a few weeks back.
Fortress encounters all share the same skeleton: you bring your army to their gates, charge, breach a series of walls, take over a few circular capture points by keeping you and your uruk friends in and enemies out (or dead), and then bust down the overlord’s front door and kill or subjugate their—I’m not being cruel, just honest—very ugly ass. In any other open world-ish game, as you become more powerful, the process would become simpler. In Shadow of War, that's a little true. For instance, enemy captains drop loot, which generates stats based on how they died—if an archer does the deed, you might get a new bow, and so on.
But being more powerful doesn't mean you're prepared. The traits of enemy captains aren’t the only variables anymore, though those have been expanded too. You can still look at the hierarchy of uruks in a given region, and inspect each (if you’ve encountered them or have the right intel) to determine their particular strengths and weaknesses. Some might be afraid of spiders, or stealth, or beasts, but they could make up for it with leadership skills that buff the uruks in their charge, or they might be totally immune to stealth damage. And because there are about a dozen uruks in leadership roles in a single fortress, there’s no possible way to prepare for everything. I spent 10 minutes in the hierarchy menu trying anyway, and it wasn’t nearly enough. Eyeballing those ugly boys, their fears, faces, and rank, made it easy to forget that Shadow of War is a third-person action game and not a streamlined Total War spinoff.
Each fortress is equipped with defensive and offensive buffs based on the overlord’s personality and traits. During my session, because my overlord was a big, tanky brute who loved animals and fire, his fortress had reinforced stone walls, artillery trolls, some specialized spearmen that were especially good at killing beasts, and molten lava was dumped out of big cauldrons over the walls and onto my good uruk boys. My poor, poor uruk boys.
The sound of music
But the most disarming uruk was Ogg the bard. I met Ogg on the final capture point. Things were going smoothly. I’d countered the spear-throwing units by hiring a force of uruks bearing tall shields. In place of a drake, I deployed a shag carpet of giant spiders. I couldn’t ride the spiders, but they’d scurry by ranged units without issue, while the drake would’ve had a rough time with the spear-wielding uruks. But even Smaug himself couldn’t have saved me from my impending heartbreak.
Like Shadow of Mordor, meeting an enemy war chief kicks off a short cinematic where the uruk says something mean, usually, and then comes at you. Ogg sang a cute (mean) song about killing me, which sent my imagination racing. I’d break Ogg, use the elf ghost inside of me to bend him to my will, then travel the land, searching for more bards to convert until I had an entire fortress led by uruk bards. We wouldn’t defeat Sauron with fire and blood, but a chorus of mucus-strained voices, crying out for peace and winning over the meanest, ugliest brutes with sick lute solos.
I can’t help but think Tolkien would approve.
And then the giant spiders I hired before the siege leapt on him. He stopped singing for a minute to scream. My wall-busting troll units marched alongside my spider-buds, busting up big walls and urku egos. Ogg writhing through it all, spiders still piling on, still screaming.
I stabbed him through the head, a somber note for Ogg to end on. If only I could have sang with Ogg and learned from him—but no. He was gone, and my dreams of singing Sauron to death were halted. It was only a demo, I told myself. Only a demo.
Capturing the fortress was easy. I didn’t feel like I had to retreat from battle often or utilize stealth at all. I didn’t need to babysit my forces too often beyond reviving one or two incapacitated captains early on. The overlord’s bark was bigger than his fat, slow bite—a few arrows finished him off with ease. Even so, I felt like I failed.
Shadow of War’s fortresses reframe Shadow of Mordor’s nemesis system in a much grander scale with more variables in how uruks look and behave. By drawing out relationships with foes and friends over the course of dozens of battles and chance encounters, Shadow of War could become the ultimate fantasy soap opera.
The stakes are much higher than before, and will be more often, but I’m still not sure how different the uruk captains and grand encounters will feel over a complete playthrough. By fortress seven, I worry that my army will be so complete and my combat abilities so strong that the only challenge will be in preserving and capturing uruk commanders. If Monolith really has expanded their pool of uruk faces and personalities, then there’s probably nothing to worry about. By expanding the Nemesis system alone, Shadow of War is already unique among other open-world adventures. What other game lets you choose your friends and feed them to spiders?