Slogging through skill trees and ticking off encampments has become a rote feature of open-world combat games, and it’s pretty boring. I often find myself done after around 20 hours of such fare, and sometimes even less. But I’m pretty sure Middle-earth: Shadow of War is going to be an exception.
I spent around 30 minutes playing the game at E3 today, working my way through various missions around Gondor, using my deadly Ranger skills against orcs. I have to confess, right now, that I absolutely loved 2014’s Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, the first game in this series. I sucked the marrow out of that world’s bones.
Both games feature Talion, a vengeful Ranger who carries within him the spirit, the skills and the schemes of a dead elf lord.
If I had to pinpoint why I liked that first game so much more than other open-world efforts, I might identify the satisfying combat system, or the variety of missions, or the excellent stealth. I might mention the famed Nemesis system, in which surviving enemies become obsessed with Talion. They rise through the orc hierarchies with an eye to vengeance.
In truth, I’d have to say that the orcs themselves are the big attraction. These gross, verbose, hideous fellows are full of hilarious lines and acidic insults. They have their own personalities and quirks. Playing today, I once again relished their funny little ways. I also enjoyed killing them. Developer Monolith has created a smooth, complex combat system that employs fine animations.
Shadow of War is one of those sequels that doesn’t change a winning formula. When I asked a Monolith rep what was changing in the new game, he said it was a case of “bigger and more.” Bigger maps, bigger story, bigger encampments. More orcs, more skills, more creatures. That sounds just fine by me.
Playing once again, I was struck by how much complexity and how many options this game stuffs into the business of fighting and assassination. The protagonist’s magic system gives him immense powers over his enemies, allowing for major confrontations with large swaths of opponents. This is satisfying, but rarely easy. Some of the bigger new enemies deal out large amounts of damage.
Orcs swarm and seem slightly less stupid than in the previous game. Then again, there are new environmental aids that can help confuse the enemy, or even take them out in large numbers. At one point I employed a bees’ nest, meat bait and a poisoned barrel, all within a few minutes.
I used my powers to bring certain orcs onto my side within the context of individual confrontations. And I got to sample the new business of building up my own army and assigning certain orcs to specific tasks. I chose one massive brute to be my bodyguard, whom I could summon when things were looking bad. Very useful.
Shadow of War is out Oct. 10 on PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One. Based on this showing, I’m definitely ready.