For as much as I loved Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, I was never able to enjoy it as much as I could have because it was just too easy. The Nemesis system provided a somewhat different experience from player to player, but I found it was far too easy to isolate individual orcs and dispatch them before Nemesis could really have an impact. While you were meant to become overpowered by the end of the game, the bulk of the adventure–where you’re alone in Mordor, the most hostile of territories in Middle-earth–still never caused me to feel like I was in any real danger.
Over the course of an E3 demo session with sequel Shadow of War, I think I died more times than in the entirety of the first game. Jumping into the game, I was given the choice of roaming the land and taking part in two different story missions or heading directly to assault a fortress. As the latter is meant to be the culmination of your efforts in a given area, I opted to complete the story missions first to reacquaint myself with its mechanics. It didn’t take long to fall back in love with the smooth, Batman: Arkham-esque combat, and I was quickly converting enemies to my side, pulling off Shadow Strikes (where you teleport to an enemy using your bow and execute them), and generally laying waste to the orc masses.
My first mission involved following a path through some woods to track down a powerful being, who had ensnared a number of orcs along the way. Dominating each one I came across allowed me to view brief cutscenes hinting at the events that had occurred (and were capped off with each orc’s head exploding, because why not). This led to a series of one-on-one fights against increasingly challenging foes (and several deaths), culminating in a deal being struck between Talion and this individual. For what might very well be a random story mission, it was one that I’ll remember, both because of the enemies I was facing–it felt like a rapid series of boss fights– and because it was legitimately difficult. The other mission I played felt less substantial, as you’re simply invading a camp and interrogating orcs, but the subject matter–you’re investigating the Nazgul’s use of the Palantirs–did delight the Tolkien fan in me.
With those done, I set out to conquer the local fortress, which is the highlight of what’s being demoed at E3. These assaults are massive battles between an enemy force and one of your own, almost like Helm’s Deep where you’re on the Uruk-hai side. Dozens of AI-controlled stage an attack on the fort, but before doing so, you’re free to customize the way the assault plays out. Depending on the orcs you’ve recruited, you’ll be able to purchase upgrades that give you an advantage heading into battle. A huge creature that launches mortars into the fort can be instructed to use different types of rounds (damage over time, slow enemies down, etc.). Another upgrade includes the possibility to have a drake creature take part in the battle, but this is a risky option as it won’t discriminate between attacking your troops and the enemy. Naturally, I had to pick that, and it was spectacular to see in action.
When the assault starts, it can a bit overwhelming–you’re surrounded by friendly troops rushing in, and it’s difficult to know how to even begin approaching it. I opted to Shadow Strike up to an archer and take him out before moving on to the first of three victory points, which have to be captured one after the other in order to ultimately confront the fort’s overlord. While the average foe can be dealt with easily enough, the sheer scale of everything that’s going on makes this all an exciting challenge. The chaos resulted in some close calls, including two times where I entered the last-stand mode, where you’re essentially given an extra life if you successfully time a button press just as an enemy is about to finish you off. While that allowed me to keep going, I was sure to die at the third victory point, only for the drake to show up out of nowhere, inadvertently saving me.
I wasn’t so lucky once that victory point was captured and I moved inside to directly confront the overlord. Flanked by a number of tough enemies in a large throne room of sorts, I first teleported to the archers above and recruited them to my side, thinking they would provide me with cover fire as I fought the overlord. But without having done the legwork that I could have before taking on the fort, the overlord and his minions were simply too much for me to handle. He proved to be particularly challenging with his ability to adapt to my tactics–after leaping over his head a few times to get behind him, he would no longer allow me to do so. This forced me to find a new way of attacking him while still fending off his flunkies.
Disappointing as it was to fail repeatedly at taking the overlord out, I surprisingly was not frustrated. This was partially because I still felt like there was some sense of progression. I had taken out the fort’s warchiefs, weakening its defenses, and orcs–particularly the overlord–were reacting to my failures by becoming increasingly cocky. While my goal on subsequent attempts remained the same, the fact that I wasn’t playing precisely the same encounter made for a more fun experience than succeeding on my first go through. With the potential for a full playthrough of the game to be filled with these kinds of moments, I can’t wait to get my hands on more than just this small slice of Shadow of War.