In Middle-Earth: Shadow Of War, The Stakes Are Much Higher [GDC 2017 Preview]

Even though Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is nearly three years old, I still think about it often. Before it was released, I never would’ve imagined that the game would end up on my best of the year list for 2014, and I’m sure many others felt the same. With the ingenious Nemesis System catching a lot of attention — which shocks me that other games haven’t borrowed it yet — and a surprisingly well written story, Shadow of Mordor took a lot of people by surprise. Still, the size of the game felt a bit modest, not quite reaching the epic scale that the Tolkien series is known for. And evidently, the developers at Monolith Productions agreed, and now they’re ready to finally show what’s next in the adventures of the undead ranger Talion in the land of Middle-earth.

Greater Consequences

In Shadow of War, the stakes are much higher, and the ranger and his wrath ally will have to form an army of their own to fight back against Sauron and his forces. Last week, during a special presentation at GDC 2017, we spoke with the creators about the next game, while also getting an advance look at the increased scale and brutality in the upgraded follow up to one of the biggest sleeper hits in years. In the sequel, Talion looks to take the fight to Sauron, but in doing so, he may end up sowing the seeds for the eventual struggle that brings the races of Middle-earth together in their own fight against the dark lord.

Taking place sometime after the events of Shadow of Mordor, which is set in the years between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Gondor captain Talion and his wraith companion Celebrimbor forge a new Ring of Power at Mount Doom in order to combat the dark lord Sauron. After forging the ring, which grants Talion more powers and abilities, they soon find themselves behind enemy lines once again when The Dark Lord’s army of Orcs, Trolls, and Uruk-Hai recapture Mordor and the surrounding areas, expanding their influence. In order to stand up to Sauron, Talion and Celebrimbor must increase the power of their new ring, while also forming an army of their own to retake Middle-earth from The Dark Lord’s influence.

During the presentation, the developers at Monolith Productions emphasized that the scale of this title is much larger than the previous game. Much like in Shadow of War‘s predecessor, players explore the lands of Middle-earth in various sandbox maps littered with side-quests, enemy encampments, and story based missions. While in the field, you’ll hack, slash, stealth, shoot arrows, and use your mythical wraith powers to vanquish and manipulate your foes to destabilize Sauron’s influence. The fields of battle stretches out far beyond Mordor, going into the territories of Gondor and Rohan — which have been relatively stable until now. The stakes are now much higher in Shadow of War, and with all out war between Sauron and Talion beginning, the nearby human settlements are caught in the middle of it all.

Epic Scale

In addition to the explorable sandboxes, Shadow of War now features a world map mode which shows the entire game space in bird’s eye view. Looking somewhat like an RTS hub, the player will be able to search through the various territories, monitoring power struggles and the surrounding areas to keep tabs on the key locations, such as Minus Morgul and the new Nemesis Fortresses, in addition to sending allied forces down on strike missions to take down enemy encampments. The scale is much larger, and the world map is essentially HUB for players to plot out their next moves, observing the power hierarchies, before heading into the field to engage. Speaking with Art Director Philip Straub, he stated that this was reaction to the increased scale of the game, which also brought in new ways.

“The game in general is an an order of a magnitude larger across so many axes. It’s a larger world with more diverse geography, nemesis fortresses, more enemies, and more AI. It’s just bigger in every way.,” stated Art Director Philip Straub.

In the presentation, we saw the developers observing the upgraded hierarchy system, showing the Orc power structures for areas, which now applies to the new Nemesis Fortresses — which are essentially mega-encampments for the new elite foes called overlords. In the previous title, elite warchiefs were the top dogs of a particular area, but now the overlords are in charge, and usually they’ve got a major bone to pick with Talion. The much lawded Nemesis System from the original game makes return in the sequel, and the developers have fleshed it out significantly with some new features and details.


“It’s a larger world with more diverse geography, nemesis fortresses, more enemies, and more AI. It’s just bigger in every way.”

– Art Director Philip Straub

For those unaware, the Nemesis System is a procedurally generated in-game system which creates enemy personalities, looks, attack behavior, and names on the fly — making each encounter with foes unique. Aside from a few specific story characters, every enemy in the game is randomly created, and how far they go in the story is up to you. Enemies that live to fight another day will remember Talion and hold a grudge, changing their patterns and developing weaknesses and strengths. In Shadow Of War, more variables are added in the form of Orc tribes, which essentially function as classes for the orcs. In the tribes we saw during the demo, there were Feral (hunting, tracking), Mystic (necromancy), and Marauder (looting, pillage). These tribes grant the orcs special skills, weapons, and personalities, which diversifies things even more. The folks at Monolith Productions felt that adding more variables to the Nemesis System yielded more unique player experiences, which will hit a climax during the many sieges of Nemesis Fortresses.

“There’s a huge amount of content, and a variety of content that we’ve created and assigned unique visuals to them to the unique character and personalities,” stated Straub. “Think about it this way. In Shadow of Mordor, we had those unique personal villains, and now we’ve attached them to the Nemesis fortresses throughout the world. They’re quite unique, and there’s a lot of dynamic content to them. […] They’re totally nemesis generated, not bespoke at all. Anyone can become an uber enemy, from a grunt and then naturally move up to the uber position [of Overlord]. We really spent a lot of time building up the nemesis system, and really don’t need those bespoke enemies like The Black Hand from Shadow Of Mordor again. It’s just all about those player stories.”

A Hero With An Army

With Talion up against an entire army led by a dark lord pulling out all the stops to retake Middle-earth, the undead Ranger will have to level the playing field with an army of his own. In addition to an upgraded Nemesis System, a brand new Follower System has been added. Much like the last game, Talion will have to use his wraith abilities once again to manipulate the orcs to work for him, but this time, they’ll stick around far beyond the singular fight or espionage mission to infiltrate orc hierarchies. Essentially the inverse of the Nemesis System, the Follower System tracks orcs and other creatures, including Olog-hai (trolls), recruited by Talion and will develop the kinship based on by players actions, strengthening their bond even further.

During the presentation, we saw Talion’s forces going into battle against a former follower turned major nemesis at Seregost Fortress, while also observing some elite followers in action. While battling a warchief, Talion was caught off-guard, and just before the orc could strike, our ally — a feral orc archer — came in with an eagle-eyed arrow shot to the head of the warchief.

While Talion’s ring of power increasing with every battle, his powers are now stronger as a result. His ring of power significantly increases his wraith abilities, and grants him more powers than his last adventure. In addition to new moves such as instantly summoning wargs to ride, he’s now able to use his powers to command large dragons controlled by Sauron for his own army. During the siege of Seregost Fortress, Talion lept onto the back of a drake and took control of it, which finally allows players to fly across the field laying waste to the orcs below with dragon fire. If this wasn’t enough for you, then you’ll be pleased to here that Shadow of War now features an expanded RPG system, which includes loot to collect. After completing missions and defeating orcs, players can deck out Talion with new weapons and armor, which changes his visual look along with his stats, special skills, and adding in new perks that buff specific actions and abilities.


“In addition to new moves such as instantly summoning wargs to ride, he’s now able to use his powers to command large dragons controlled by Sauron for his own army.”

In the final section of the siege of Seregost Fortress, Talion entered the throne room of the Overlord, an Olog-hai warrior with a love for fire. The throne rooms in the Nemesis Fortress are essentially the crescendo moment. During the fight, the Overlord will utilize the traps hidden in the throne room along with waves of minions to gain the upper hand. Here, Talion had to move around the room fighting several orcs and the Overlord, all while avoiding the flames jetting out of the floor, which is one of the Overlord’s strengths. After taking out foes, another of Talion’s allies, an orc with beast master abilities, rides in on his warg, allowing Talion to seize the moment to cripple the Overlord and plants his wraith flag into his head, taking the fortress for himself.

Unpredictable Outcomes

One thing that the developers stressed from sequences like this was that it was all randomly generated by the Nemesis System. Or rather, the conditions and set-up for the fights, are all determined by what the Nemesis System presents and how players choose to tackle these challenges. The Fortresses are massive levels on their own, and whether they’re isolated from the main sandbox levels remains to be seen. The developers were tight-lipped about how the sandbox traversal works with the world map HUB menu, though they stressed that the size of the areas are much larger than the previous game, which also gives way to more interactions with allies and enemies alike.

With all that said, my one big negative might seem somewhat of a nitpick, but I do get the impression that they’re stretching the Tolkien lore a bit far, and in some cases taking a number of liberties with the material. I’m certainly all for taking risks and challenging the material to make something new, but given how they’re limited to only material from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, I worry they might be muddying the waters a bit. While the gap in time between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy is mostly a murky period in the timeline, The developers are mindful of the delicate nature of working with established lore, they’re doing their best to keep things believable in the world of the Middle-earth.

“We obviously respect the lore greatly, we’re all big fans, Michael De Plater (Game Director) is Mr. Lore Expert, and I try to do my best especially when it comes to the authenticity for the art,” said the Art Director. “We worked very closly with Middle-earth Enterprises, so for this go around it’s not one particular thing we’re focusing on, it’s that we’re always focused on staying true to the lore and expanding the components we need to to make a great game.

Final Thoughts

I was a big admirer of the original game, and the content present is definitely a large leap ahead over its predecessor. It’s very much morphing into a proper action-RPG title, which many The Lord of the Rings fans likely wanted to see. Though, while I’m sure many Tolkien fans will get a bit bugged out by their interpretation of the lore, it’s hard to deny the passion for it in the game, and from the devs speaking about it. Hopefully their ambitions for a more open and epic Middle-earth will pan out. With Shadow Of War coming out this August, fans will be able to dive into the game soon.