Epic fantasy is right.
Part of the big appeal of an epic fantasy like Lord of the Rings lies in the massive battles you get to read about or witness in a movie. That’s something that Middle-Earth: Shadow of War seems to emulate surprisingly well with its new Nemesis Fortress sieges, pitting Talion’s army against a contingency of Mordor’s Orcs. Each Nemesis Fortress is ruled by a boss, with multiple Warchiefs serving under them. During E3 2017, we managed to get some lengthy hands on time with Shadow of War, playing out an entire Fortress Siege, before seeing a demonstration of another.
Our demo began with a good amount of freedom, with a Warner Bros. representative informing us we could go straight to the siege, undertake sidequests dotted around the area, take out Warchiefs to weaken the enemies’ defenses, or just wander around at our leisure. I decided to go after a Warchief, Lugbold the Brave, in order to gain a valuable new ally for my siege.
It’s good to see that you can approach these battles any which way you want, though. You can significantly boost the difficulty by going straight to a siege, instead of bringing down a few Warchiefs to weaken the defenses. Taking down Lugbold involved a separate mission nearby, with a particular objective to draw the Warchief out. Luckily, bringing up the main menu takes you to screen where you can view the entire hierarchy of the enemies’ Warchiefs, with detailed descriptions on what they’re weak against, what makes them enraged, and what they’re resistant to. This is how you’ll want to plan your strategy each time, making sure you’re prepared. After taking down Lugbold, I felt I was sufficiently prepared to take on the siege, and that’s just when the action really got started.
The most interesting aspect of Sieges come with the preparation you get to do at the beginning. Before each battle you’ll be taken to an overview screen, with the enemy Warchiefs and your own listed. Interestingly, each character comes with their own unique perk. In the case of the enemy, this can be something like strengthening the walls so your army has a harder time getting through, or populating the battlefield with a special type of trap or unit. In the player’s case, you get to select between three different unit types for each Warchief, that they’ll then deploy to the battlefield. My favorite Warchief gave me the option between deploying a giant rideable war troll known as an Olog-Hai, thrusting a terrifying drake into the battle who’ll attack both sides, or infesting my enemies’ fortress with poisonous spiders.
Sieges are pitched like massive battles, honestly rivaling the spectacle present in the Lord of the Rings films. You get a quick introductory scene showing off the personalities of the enemy Warchiefs and your own, which in my case featured one of my insane Orc captains letting out nothing but a high pitched maniacal scream instead of some speech.
Your army acts completely independently of Talion, smashing into the gates and pouring through into the fortress. You can sit back and watch them wreak havoc, or intervene wherever you choose. The scale of these battles truly is impressive, however, as hundreds of enemies on each side pour through different areas. In order to take the fortress, I needed to capture three command points.
The good news for me was that by taking out one of the Warchiefs and gaining another ally, my army was strong enough that they devastated the enemy, eliminated the Warchiefs, and secured the points almost entirely on their own. All I had to do was come in and save the day a couple times, and use Talion to actually capture the point.
When you are in the thick of things in Shadow of War, however, the battlefield is absolute chaos. Orcs swarm all over each other and once you put yourself in the middle, you start getting attacked from every side. Talion’s moveset remains very similar to Shadow of Mordor, with basic attacks, counters and dodges all flowing nicely.
You do have a couple special moves at your disposal in Shadow of War however, like holding down the attack weapons to unleash a deadly Glaive attack, slowing down time with your bow, or using a special area of attack move to knock down enemies. Traversal has become much more streamlined this time, with Talion possessing a double jump that rockets him up walls in an instant or propels him across gaps. In short, he’s faster and deadlier than ever before.
Once you’ve conquered the fortress, you’ll need to proceed into the keep and take down the mastermind of the entire operation, a deadly and challenging boss battle that can really kick your butt if you’re not prepared. Of course, this boss has just as vibrant a personality as any other Orc, and usually loves to taunt Talion. During my playtime, I went into the boss blind, and found myself completely overwhelmed by him and his minions. The good news is, losing a siege doesn’t undo any of your progress, as you can resume it from however far you’d made it in, which in my case meant I could proceed straight to the boss.
After studying up on his weaknesses – which were executions – and assigning myself a bodyguard, I was quickly able to conquer the fortress and recruit yet another powerful ally to my cause. The entirety of my siege took around an hour, but it was definitely a satisfying experience. Combat flowed incredibly well, and the level of strategy is a refreshing new addition to the game.
More than anything, the siege felt like something ripped straight out of one of the Lord of the Rings movies, but put me front and center in the action. The presentation Warner Bros. showed us after our demo displayed a siege that played out quite different. This time, Talion went up against the full force of all Warchiefs, and had a much harder time. There was even a point where a wild drake showed up, to the surprise of the developers, and proceeded to decimate both sides of the battle. Eventually, the Orc horde was just too much this time around, and Talion was soundly defeated before ever making it into the keep.
It was fascinating to see the variation between the siege battles in both demos. I can only hope the Nemesis System continues to add that level of variety onto the entirety of the game. If it really does work that well, Middle-Earth: Shadow of War could end up being the Lord of the Rings game fans have wanted for a long time.