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‘Middle-Earth: Shadow of War’ dynamically designs entire armies bent on your demise

Building on the success of Shadow of Mordor, developer Monolith Productions is doubling down on Orc mastery and manipulation in the sequel.

More than just doing right by J.R.R. Tolkien’s tomes, developer Monolith Productions’ open-world take on The Lord of the Rings, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, became the surprise hit of 2014. The game’s crown jewel was its proprietary “Nemesis System,” a ground-breaking feature that generated unique “boss” characters, and used your encounters with them to create personalized relationships and storylines throughout the game. This could mean bending a low-level lieutenant to your will, and having them do your bidding, or watching a thin-skinned baddie you’d bullied at the start of the game rise to power and come after you several hours into the campaign.

For the recently revealed sequel, Middle-earth: Shadow of War, Monolith plans to evolve and expand the Nemesis System beyond one-on-one enemy encounters. Where Nemesis System 1.0 was, according to Monolith VP of Creative Michael de Plater, about “making every player have unique personal enemies and unique stories they could create with those enemies”, he said the new version will apply that same idea to the entire game world.

More: Sequel to Shadow of Mordor arrives this August

“We want to take that idea of unique personal content and expand not just to the enemies, but to the world itself,” de Plater said.

Shadow of War picks up immediately following the first game’s conclusion, which found Ranger/Wraith protagonist Talion communicating that it’s time for a new ring. While additional story details were scarce, based on what we’ve seen in the demo and trailers for the game, it seems Talion has presumably forged this new ass-kicking accessory —appropriately called the “Ring of Power” — and is utilizing its immense strength to gather an army to conquer Mordor from within.

It takes more than one man to storm a fortress

For players, this means capturing and controlling what de Plater called “Nemesis Fortresses,” enemy strongholds that evolve and update to represent the personality of the commanding War Chiefs. Rather than just shaping and manipulating individual commanders, the personality quirks and strategic elements generated by the Nemesis System now seep down into the entire culture of the evil-doers residing in and around their domains.

The Nemesis System seeps down into the entire culture of the evil-doers residing in and around their domains.

During our walk-through, we got a brief taste of what it’s like to assault and conquer one of these heavily fortified structures. Unfolding several hours into the game’s story, the infiltration takes Talion deep behind enemy lines and through a series of special effects-spewing scenes and sprawling battles that wouldn’t look out of place in one of Peter Jackson’s LotR epics; from enhanced lighting and shadows to impressive particle and physics effects, it’s clear the studio is doing even more to harness all those horses beneath the hoods of this generation’s powerful hardware.

Before meeting our adversaries, de Plater introduces two of Talion’s followers, a Marauder Beast Mount and a “Demolisher,” a creature whose name doesn’t do it justice. The former can ride into battle atop a beast, while the latter, a hulking creature de Plater calls a “living battering ram”, works pretty much as advertised. After making short work of low-level menaces with alternating blade and bow attacks, Talion scales the towering fortress to his first formidable foe, a Cursed Dark Necromancer dubbed Thrak Storm-Bringer.

After a brief scuffle that nearly sees Talion skewered by the business end of Storm-Bringer’s blade, the anti-hero conjures a Wraith battle hammer, which he uses to swiftly turn his foe’s face into ground hamburger. As his enemy falls to his ultimate demise, Talion’s Demolisher buddy on the ground transforms the fortress gates into a pile of toothpicks. With the stronghold breached, the monster tears the head off an enemy attacker in a gore-soaked fashion that should provide plenty of fodder for our future nightmares.

Talion joins the fray, setting a small army of adversaries ablaze, before stealthily introducing his blade to the brain stems of two roof-squatting archers. Sadly, his kill streak is soon broken by the surprising return of Storm-Bringer who, according to a message that pops up beneath his ugly mug, has “cheated death.” Thankfully, it turns out de Plater —utilizing the Nemesis System— had recruited a spy/sniper sometime before our demo began; the embedded ally apparently brought explosives, as well as a mean crossbow he uses to deliver a final, deadly shot to Storm-Bringer’s skull.

What are frenemies for?

The next big bad we meet, the aptly named Fiery Warmonger Trickster, dances a creepy jig before covering the Demolisher in a flammable black substance and engulfing him in flames. Talion soon returns the favor, however, by mounting a flying Drake —another of the game’s new features— and uses its awesome fire-spitting ability to turn the fortress into one big bonfire. Cooking the stronghold extra-crispy is apparently enough to terrify the Trickster, as Talion’s able to approach him and manipulate his twisted mind with the Ring of Power.

“One of our goals is to really live up to the full potential and the epic scale of Lord of the Rings

Talion chooses to recruit the enemy, but other options include the ability to shame him or fight him to the death. It isn’t clear exactly what these other choices would yield, but we look forward to finding out. With this new, powerful ally joining the good fight, our ring-wielding hero heads for the fortress’ Overlord, a new big boss type that oversees Shadow of Mordor’s top-tier foes, the War Chiefs. Before reaching the so-called Dragon Lord, de Plater stresses that the coming encounter will be different for every player depending on their particular Mordor-molding path to his throne room. Perhaps shaming the Trickser, rather than recruiting him, would have made him an additional threat during this final fight.

The Overlord recounts all the damage Talion’s done, clenches his fist above an open flame, and sets his own palace floor ablaze. Talion puts up a hell of a fight, avoiding the flames, freeing several underling foes of their heads and limbs, and even piercing several holes in the big bad, but ultimately ends up looking down the barrel of the Dragon Lord’s fire canon. Seconds before our hero can be scorched, however, the aforementioned Marauder Beast Mount storms in and lunges at the Dragon Lord, giving Talion an opportunity to gain the upper hand. He uses the distraction to skewer his enemy through the throat.

Upon slaying this enormous threat, Talion has captured the fortress, earning experience points, loot, new allies, resources, and an upgradable stronghold. Our demo closes with Talion’s first order of business after the siege, promoting his ally, the Marauder, to War Chief of this newly-acquired stronghold. We’re not sure how this promotion will play out in the bigger narrative, but we’re guessing having a War Chief in your pocket can’t be a bad thing.

According to de Plater, this small slice of Shadow of War barely scratched the surface of what’s coming to the final game. De Plater promised that the sequel will be a significantly larger game, with a world that dwarfs the two areas in the original.

“One of our goals is to really live up to the full potential and the epic scale of Lord of the Rings,” de Plater said.

It’s a bold statement, but based on our enticing peek of the game, de Plater and his team just might deliver on it when  Middle-earth: Shadow of War lands like a skull-shattering fist August 22.