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Middle-Earth: Shadow of War builds on the best part of Shadow of Mordor: the stories

The “nemesis system” is being expanded to help create deeper, branching stories for each player

When you think about 2014’s Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, what is it you remember the most? It’s probably not the mix of action and role-playing game mechanics, though they were certainly well-developed. It probably wasn’t the deep plot and connection with J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic Lord of the Rings series — most fans had to get over how much Shadow of Mordor breaks with the tone and lore of the series.

No, the reason Shadow of Mordor earned most of its praise, and the reason it’s remembered so fondly today, is the nemesis system. With the nemesis system, your enemies were transformed from generic orcs into named characters who grew, reappeared and changed in appearance, rank and power as you progressed through the game, based around your actions. This single brilliant piece of game design defined the game’s legacy and led to dozens of cries for other games to steal it and build on it — a challenge no developer has really followed through on.

Now, three years after Shadow of Mordor stole our hearts (and the number four spot in our games of the year list), developer Monolith Productions is back. No one else has stepped up to evolve the nemesis system, so the people who first created it are taking on the task. Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is coming, and the procedural stories that can be experienced in this expanded world are about to get more complex and varied.

Shadow of War continues the story of Talion, the cursed human from the previous game who saw his family and everyone he knew massacred by the armies of Sauron. Though he too was murdered, Talion was resurrected by a mysterious ghostly figure who granted the ranger new powers in his quest for revenge.

Following the first game’s abrupt finale, Talion’s power has grown. With the help of his incorporeal companion, he has forged a new Ring of Power, the MacGuffins of the world of Middle-earth, which grant incredible abilities to those who wear them.

Along with the new ring, Talion has a new approach to the fight against the eternal evil of Sauron. While Talion began taking control of orcs in the first game, in Shadow of War he finds himself commanding a full military organization, placing orcs in positions of power and leading armies to take over whole territories.

This light strategy gameplay is where a lot of additional depth to the nemesis system will be added to Shadow of War. The game features a greatly expanded world, with many different territories. Each territory is controlled by a fortress, and Talion will need to siege that fortress to take over.

According to Philip Straub, director of art at Monolith Productions, the increased number of regions in the game has led to greater visual variety.

“We’re really getting a broad range of geography, and a broad range of different biomes,” Straub told Polygon last week during the Game Developers Conference. “Another thing we’ve pushed with Shadow of War compared to Shadow of Mordor is an increase in verticality of those environments.”

That improvement in variety of looks to the game (as well as the focus on verticality) is immediately apparent in Shadow of War’s fortresses. The bad guys in control of each fortress will be procedurally generated, creating unique opponents for each player to face off against, and each of those overlords will shape both their fortress and the territory surrounding it based on their own personalities.

Likewise, Talion will leave his own mark on territories depending on who he puts in charge after taking over a fortress. Want a realm to become plagued by the undead? Install a necromancer at the top. Want help gathering animals and mounts for your cause? A beast master overlord will whip the local wilderness into shape for you.

At last week’s Game Developers Conference, Polygon was shown a brief demo (which you can watch for yourself in the video above). In this snippet of the game, supposedly many hours in, Talion leads an invasion of the fortress of Seregost, a mountain bastion held by an overlord named Ur-Hakon the Dragon.

While still trying to stay relatively true to the Lord of the Rings franchise — “authenticity” is a word he threw around a lot — Straub said the team at Monolith has been blessed by its choice of locations such as Seregost.

Monolith Productions/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

“One of the advantages that we have is that a fair amount of the locations that we go to haven’t really been visualized, or there’s been limited visualization,” he said. “There’s obviously a lot of content that’s open for interpretation. We certainly look at the source material, whether it be the books or some of the early illustrations that were done by John Howe or Alan Lee or Ted Nasmith.”

The siege of Seregost begins dramatically with the an introduction by one of Ur-Hakon’s warchiefs: Thrak Storm-Bringer. The Talion in this game already has history with Thrak. He was previously part of Talion’s army, until he was killed in battle. Sauron brought him back, so now Thrak has a very personal grudge against Talion.

This is another way that Monolith is expanding the nemesis system. The developer says that while the first game focused on enemies — thus the name “nemesis system” — Shadow of War will expand the system to tell stories of loyalty, betrayal and friendship. Thrak is an example of one of those stories — a one-time ally who you let down and who now wants nothing more than to kill you.

Thrak also shows off some of the new abilities available to enemies in the game. With his newfound powers from Sauron, he can curse Talion. While cursed, Talion cannot use any of the powers associated with his new ring and also is plagued by the voice of Sauron. Even with that curse, however, Talion makes short work of Thrak, finishing him with a brutal execution move.

Killing a warchief doesn’t always mean they’ll stay dead, however. Later in the demo, as Talion and his forces fight their way deeper into the fortress, Thrak suddenly pops up and attacks again. The game’s UI explains that he has “cheated death.”

Talion has some surprises of his own, though. As part of the preparation for sieging a fortress, players can seed their own loyal allies into the forces of the overlord they’re attempting to overthrow. In this case, Talion has assigned a sniper named Mozu Deadeye into the service of Ur-Hakon. As soon as the siege begins, Deadeye is able to help Talion’s army, and when Thrak pops back up, Deadeye is there to take him out in dramatic fashion.

It’s another mini-story wrapped into the scenario of invading this one fortress: Thrak, the spurned ex-friend who won’t stay down, finally felled by Deadeye, a double agent who considers himself a true friend to Talion. And it is — if Monolith is to be believed — completely procedural, a unique tales among millions of possibilities, so that every player will end up with their own stories.

That would be harder to believe if Monolith hadn’t already proved that it can do this.

The siege of Seregost is full of incredible moments like this. In one sequence, Talion releases a drake that the enemy forces have captured and leaps onto its back, using it to spit fire at enemies from above. Later, he confronts Tugog, a manic orc who dual-wields flaming axes. Rather than kill him outright, Talion uses his powers to sway the orc to his side.

That whole part of the game — where Talion uses his powers to essentially enslave orcs to his will — was already a little weird in Shadow of Mordor and is feeling even stranger here. One of Monolith’s big focuses in Shadow of War is imbuing the orcs with more personality, making them more memorable and, well, more human, for lack of a better word. But that makes the already ethical sketchiness of this mechanic even harder to swallow.

Middle-earth: Shadow of War - fire-breathing dragon attacks Image: Monolith Productions/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

For his part, Straub said the team isn’t too worried about making players uncomfortable with the act of brainwashing orcs onto your team.

“It’s Mordor,” said Straub. “There’s war everywhere. In war, things happen. As long as we don’t push beyond the boundaries of what we’re comfortable with in terms of this genre and this brand, what we want to do with the franchise, I think we’re okay.”

Seregost builds up to a grand finale: the confrontation with Ur-Hakon the Dragon, the overlord of this fortress, within his throne room. Each fortress invasion will culminate in a similar boss fight, but each of those boss fights will be unique, with the arena and the challenge shaped by the overlord in question.

In this case, Ur-Hakon is obsessed with fire. He wields a strange flamethrower-esque weapon that spews a stream of fire, and the floors of his thrown room are crisscrossed with vents that flames can burst out of at any moment. In addition to Ur-Hakon and his remaining orc forces, Talion has to be wary of environmental obstacles during the fight ahead.

The boss fights are also places for further progressing the stories of your troops. In this scenario, Talion finds himself nearly overwhelmed by Ur-Hakon when suddenly a talented ally named Ragdug Iron Mount bursts into the room. Ragdug is a beast master, and he enters riding some heavily armored, fanged creature. While Ragdug and his mount are not enough to take down Ur-Hakon, they distract him enough for Talion to swoop in and get the killing blow.

Once Ur-Hakon is dead, Seregost is Talion’s, which means the region around it has been conquered as well. As part of his role commanding a wider army, Talion has to assign a new overlord for the fortress. This player decides to grant that honor to Ragdug, as a reward for helping take down Ur-Hakon.

Ragdug is a marauder, which means he will focus on pillaging the region, increasing Talion’s access to resources and riches. It also means the fortress will be transformed into something gaudier, glittering and golden to show off the wealth Ragdug has plundered. With a new overlord in charge, the region will begin changing immediately, and who knows what stories might emerge from those changes.

One thing is clear: These overlord choices are important. Monolith says they will not only determine the shape of the region moving forward, but also how that fortress fares during inevitable counter-attacks from Sauron. This is not a game of taking over each territory one by one, with constant forward progress; it is a push and pull, something that requires a strategy, a long-game plan with your eye on taking down Sauron for good.

A 15-minute demo isn’t nearly enough for us to say how this expansion of the nemesis system will work out. What we can say is that it’s moving in compelling new directions, that Shadow of War at least appears to be making good on some of the promise of the procedural storytelling that Shadow of Mordor introduced us to. If they can really pull it off, it’s easy to imagine Middle-earth: Shadow of War being in the game of the year discussion once more by the end of 2017.

Middle-earth: Shadow of War launches on Aug. 22 for Xbox One, Windows 10 PCs, PlayStation 4 and Microsoft’s new Project Scorpio hardware. Warner Bros. has also announced multiple story expansions for the game already. The publisher says it will be showing off more of the game throughout the year leading up to that launch.