“Delayed” is a tough label for a game to shake. Once it’s delayed, it’s delayed, and even when it eventually releases, it will still be a “delayed” game. As soon as a game announces a delay, everyone will wonder why. Is there something wrong with it? Turmoil in the development studio? Rumors swirl and speculation is wild and uncontrollable. Anyone wondering that about Middle-earth: Shadow of War can put those concerns to bed.
Having played close to two hours of Shadow of War, I can say that reports of its downfall have been greatly exaggerated. The next Middle-earth game will be just as good as its predecessor, if not better – and I strongly feel that it will be better.
Once More Unto the Breach
In the demo, there were three main objectives: capture a stronghold, do a side-quest, or do a story mission. Despite the warnings of the production assistant at Monolith Studios, I decided to go straight for the Stronghold with no practice and none of the extra benefits that the other two options may have provided (extra gear, skill points, experience). I figured why the hell not? I’m an Arkham Pro after all. I’ve fought off scores of Joker Henchmen in a similar hit/counter combat system with out even taking a hit.
I know there’s some idiom about hubris that might be appropriate in this context, but it’s more prudent to discuss the main revelation behind this mindset: with very few exceptions, Middle-earth: Shadow of War is not trying to be Batman: Arkham, and that’s something I couldn’t have said as easily about Shadow of Mordor.
The combat is so much more than a shallow attempt at hits and counters like we saw in games like The Amazing Spider-Man and its sequel. Like Arkham, there is a surprising amount of depth hidden underneath the Xs and Ys, and, in Shadow of War, it’s an entirely different system, not based solely on hacking and slashing, and it’s difficult. I tried to take this stronghold and failed twice, embarrassing myself thoroughly along the way, before opting to do some of that practice that production assistant told me so much about.
Live, Die and Live Again
I didn’t have much of a choice either. During my second failed siege, the enemies captured one of my ally leaders. That meant that I would have to either face the stronghold a third time, but now a man down, or I would have to do a newly available side mission to rescue this ally, which I, of course opted to do. Raid a small area where he was being held, dominate the nemesis there, and I had him back in my team.
However, in my now two deaths during attempted sieges, those defending became stronger, while I still became weaker. They remember my death, they taunt me each time I come back. Luckily for me, though, they don’t have the same benefit of multiple lives. So, if I kill a nemesis inside a stronghold, he will not return, although a new one could be promoted to take the fallen warchief’s place.
This is also when the new gear and loot system. Enemies you face can drop new weapons, which may or may not be better than the weapons you already have. So, maybe you kill some other orcs after dying in a stronghold and get better gear to equip and use to aid your next attempts. Higher level gear even has various challenges that will unlock new bonus for each weapon or piece of armor. In these ways, Shadow of Mordor is much like a single-player MMO. The world changes as you play, nemeses can attempt to siege your strongholds as you take theirs, and you have meaningful stat and weapon progression.
The Enemy of My Enemy
The side mission and the main story were treats in and of themselves. Placing you about halfway through the game, the E3 demo gave you a difficult story mission against a formidable opponent (or I was just awful at it, which is a distinct possibility). Dying during a story mission does simply reload the last save, which I definitely figured out the hard way even when I had already learned it.
But that speaks to the challenge of the game, even from someone who is experienced with these kinds of action RPG games. There’s so much to learn, even for those who have played Shadow of Mordor, that the game will provide a new and different level of challenge regardless of experience.
What stuck out most about the story is not just is attention to Lord of the Rings lore and world-building, but how the regular gameplay directly feeds into the story and vice versa. You can make new enemies in Middle-earth: Shadow of war that feed into this nemesis system and show up later to torment you. You’ll even run into two hostile orcs fighting one another and be tempted to simply let them fight, but, of course you’ll want to get in on the action.
Once again, anyone who is worried about the two-month delay of Middle-earth: Shadow of War needn’t bother. If I didn’t know it had been delayed, I never would have guessed. In fact, my albeit limited time playing Shadow of War has me wondering why it hasn’t already gone gold. If Shadow of War can provide a comparable experience to its E3 demo, we’re in good hands with Monolith Productions.