For its sophomore effort in the Middle-earth: Shadow series, though it's actually the team's third game set in Tolkien's seminal fantasy world, developer Monolith carried over all the open-world gameplay from its predecessor, sprinkled it with pixie dust, and then threw in a whopper of a new gameplay mechanic: full-on, large-scale, army-versus-army sieges. I was able to spend a little over an hour getting my hands dirty with some of Middle-earth: Shadow of War’s gaming goodness, courtesy of publisher Warner Brothers, and it looks like there's quite a bit to be excited about.
Let's begin with what everyone wants to know. Sieges are here, and they look hectic and fun, just the way they should. There's a lot to soak up here, and it's pretty daunting being thrown right into the middle of it. Before the siege can get going, players will spend some time on the Army Screen. This is where players assign their orc forces, which must first have been "recruited" via the domination system, to specific siege positions. Though this sounds like something you'd find in a strategy game, it's really more a matter of assigning specific generals of your own to take on the enemy overlord's warchiefs and bodyguards. Certain orcs have special siege abilities that will provide additional benefits, such as summoning special forces like flying drakes that can be ridden in battle and hulking siege beasts that can lay waste to enemy walls and towers.
The goal of any siege is to take out the enemy overlord. Before he can be reached, a number of victory points within the fortress must be claimed by defeating the opposing warchiefs. Once all preparations have been made, the actual siege plays out as one large action set piece, with Talion running right through the middle of it, taking part in each little victory.
As the warhorns blew to signal the start of the siege in the demo, Talion summoned a caragor that carried him up walls and into the fortress itself, dodging charging attackers great and small. By the time Talion dismounted, battle was already in full progress. Orcs of both forces were having it out in an area that appeared to have just been the target of a catapulted poison bomb; combatants and ground were covered in a sickly-green substance, while fresh fighters kept joining the fray.
Combat hasn't changed on a basic level, with on-screen prompts helping to dodge and parry, but has been polished up to be more acrobatic, and, in cases like the fortress sieges, much more chaotic. Being infused with Celebrimbor's spirit allows Talion to perform aerial flips and long-distance warps. In one particularly memorable scene, while surveying the siege battlefield from atop a drake, Talion saw a mob of enemy orcs conveniently huddled near an explosive grog barrel. Vaulting off the beast in mid-flight, he phased into Celebrimbor's form, slowing down time to a crawl. Within the space of a few feet's fall, he took careful aim at the barrel, released the arrow, and, as orc guts and body parts fly across the battlefield, turned in mid-fall, centering his sights back on the drake, and teleported back into the saddle before the beast even knew he was gone.
After each victory point was won and its corresponding warchief slain, Talion and his troops finally gained access to the fortress overlord, Olrok the Advisor. Though armed with a cursed blade and flanked by fierce protectors, he soon perished courtesy of immolation, and the fortress and its surrounding area were wrested from Sauron's grasp. But capturing the fortress is just the first step; players will need to assign a new overlord from their own ranks to govern the area, and work to defend it from Sauron's future attempts to claim it back. Assigning a friendly overlord to a captured fortress alters the gameplay consequently available in that area. After the battle, Talion's forces pick up any loot dropped during it, and players are free to continue exploring the open world again.
Other than the sieges, I didn't notice anything wildly new offered in standard play. Missions are scattered about the map. After the siege presentation ended and I got my hands on a controller myself, I set out to track down and kill an orc general, which, if done in free play, will leave an open spot in the enemy ranks in a future siege in which he would normally have taken part in. The process was the same as in the previous game: approach mission beacon, lock on to target, and attack until dead. Dominating opponents is also still an option, letting players shame the target to reduce his level, kill him, or recruit him to your army. Alternatively, the new ring Celebrimbor has forged also lets you simply drain a dominated opponent's health. In the words of our presenter, "Orcs in Mordor are now walking med-kits." Talion can also issue death threats against orc generals, which levels them up and makes them tougher to beat, but causes any loot they drop to be that much better.
Before my time with Shadow of War was over, I got a chance to see a facet of the game that I'm personally most excited for. I'm a sucker for good story, and if the story mission "Forest of Carnán" is any indication, there's a lot to look forward to. The mission begins with a couple of orcs bursting forth from a forest's underbrush, running for their lives while casting terrified glances back at a wall of fog shrouding the forest entrance. Of course, Talion simply has to know what big bad that can spook orcs this much is lurking in the forest. Slowly, I entered the forest.
The atmosphere shifts dramatically once inside Carnán's forest. Disquieting whispers are heard all around, while eerie, unearthly music plays; it's like a nightmare world where anything can jump at you without warning. Following a path created by the fog – never a good idea under normal circumstances – Talion makes his way past chittering ghuls and caragors feasting on the corpses of fallen orcs, though they make no move to attack him. Celebrimbor warns him that, while they will not harass Talion, they certainly will defend themselves if provoked.
Wisely keeping my sword sheathed, I eventually make my way to an orc ensnared in a tangle of roots on the ground, desperately clinging to the last of his life. With Celebrimbor's aid, since the orc is too weak to speak, Talion is able to wrest the creature's dying thoughts from him, before putting an end to his existence, perhaps mercifully. They paint an incoherent picture, made of scenes of blood, trees, frantic chasing, and predators lurking in the dark. A second victim found a little ways down the path recalls a similar experience. All of this – the music, the visions, the storytelling – is presented in a very cinematic fashion, and is a welcome break from the hectic battlefields found in other parts of the game. I won't spoil what awaited Talion at the end of the path of fog; suffice it to say, I did not survive my first encounter with Carnán. Perhaps revenge will be that much sweeter when the game is finally released.