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Middle-earth: Shadow of War - fire-breathing attack on tower
Talion rides a Balrog into battle.
Monolith Productions/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

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In Middle-Earth: Shadow of War, fortress assaults feel like the battle of Helm’s Deep (update)

Hands-on the marquee sieges in Monolith’s sequel to Shadow of Mordor

Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

During a private event hosted by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment in advance of this year’s E3, Polygon had hands-on time with the upcoming Middle-Earth: Shadow of War. Myself and a select group of journalists were invited to play through an entire 20-minute fortress assault, creating an army and testing out the newly expanded “nemesis system.” After even our short playthrough of the game, it’s clear the sequel to 2014’s Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor has been expanded in almost every way.

“It's three to four times bigger,” said Monolith Production’s vice president of creative, Michael de Plater. “But it's three to four times bigger in every dimension. The scale of the world; the depth of the world; the variety of the world; the content; even the nemesis system itself. So, it kind of ends up being Shadow of Mordor cubed. There’s an extra dimension to everything.”

Developer Monolith already told us how Shadow of War leverages the best parts of the “nemesis system,” creating dynamic storylines within every battle. The goal last week was for us to experience one of the game’s marquee fortress assaults, action-packed sieges of the enemy-controlled castles that dominate each of the game’s regions.

While there were many times fewer combatants on the map compared to the movie franchise’s signature battle, the combat itself easily rivaled Helm’s Deep.

Middle-earth: Shadow of War - fortress assault
Battle begins with the blowing of horns, the beating of drums and the thunder of running feet.
Monolith Productions/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

Ride out with me

In the lead-up to the assault, players will roam the open world uncovering the identity of a fortress’ ruler and his allies. In the save file that I was given to play, much of that work had already been done for me. I had a thick dossier on the overlord, an Orc named Kuga the Berserker Master, and his whole retinue of captains and compatriots. I had even snuck three of my own men into his service, who would fight for me once the battle began.

My guide, one of the game’s producers, warned me that Kuga was one tough cookie. He was a “legendary” overlord, with no known weaknesses. He was immune to poison, immune to curses and had a trait called “immense strength,” which let him do a massive amount of melee damage. Making matters worse, he had three bodyguards that I would have to kill during the initial assault, or risk facing alongside him in the final showdown.

Next came the assault screen, which showed the various features of the fortress I was about to attack. Kuga was a member of the warmonger tribe, and his fortress featured stout iron gates and stone walls. His army was also seeded with many shield-bearing heavy infantry, who would screen my forces from the many more lightly armored damage dealers among his ranks.

Make no bones about it, this was going to be a tough fight.

An overlord addresses his troops in the moments before battle.
Monolith Productions/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

I was able to select an upgrade for each of my allied war chiefs, of which I had two. Both had been fully kitted out, and each had three upgrades to choose from. I selected sappers — bomb-wielding, suicide bomber — to deal with the fortress’ walls and a wild drake to fly over the battlefield and rain down fire. I also had a pair of siege beasts, huge troll-like monsters that would fling stones against the enemy’s walls.

Once battle began, the first order of business was to take down the enemy’s own siege beasts, which were busy sending explosive barrels at my onrushing troops. A few well-placed shots from my bow and they exploded. But, if I had wanted to, my guide said that I could have climbed the tower myself and dealt with them hand-to-hand along the ramparts.

Next, I needed to breach the walls themselves. My guide had me mount my siege beast, manually aim a reticule and lob a huge boulder against the wall. That’s when things started to go wrong. The walls, already softened by the sappers, went down easily, but one of my own war chiefs was caught in the crossfire. I would be without my strongest warrior for the duration of the battle.

Once through the walls, Shadow of War played much like Shadow of Mordor. I was breaking enemy’s guards, staggering them and moving in for the kill. I was flipping and flinging myself out of harm’s way and, when necessary, deftly blocking attacks with a well-timed parry.

The running battle was close-quarters, fought along the muddy streets of a medieval hamlet. As each capture point was taken, the enemies would break and run seeking to reinforce the next. What stood out to me during the early battle was Monolith’s use of color language. A colored vignette would creep in from the sides of the screen at times, a warm red when Talion’s health level got too low and green when he was poisoned. When he was over a capture point, the screen turned blue.

The effect was subtle, and with so much going on, these tonal shifts made it was easy for me to sense the overall pace of the battle.

“The base color level in the game is blue and white,” de Plater explained, “which we associate with the new ring and the ghostly Celebrimbor. At the other end of the spectrum, we have the classic Eye of Sauron colors, with the orange that we see in the movie. Different effects we have in the game, whether it's the poison or the curse, all have their color languages around the idea of darkness versus light, orange versus blue, and then they're intersecting in different ways. ... There's another whole set of color language around the Nazgul.”

That color language also made the made the game feel brighter and more lively than the original.

Looking around the room at nearly a dozen stations running different save files from different places in the game world, it was easy to see how color was being used in other areas of the game as well. The warmonger tribe’s colors were orange, yellow and red and their fortress was decked out to match. But there were deep green, vine-covered fortresses, snowy fortresses with black rocks and citadels with gilded, shimmering walls studded with spikes.

No two fortresses in that demo room looked quite the same. It’s another outcome, de Plater told me, of enhancements made to the nemesis system.

Middle-earth: Shadow of War - looking out over seaside castle
An enemy fortress on an island.
Monolith Productions/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

The final battle

The one low point in the demo came in my particular fortress assault’s final battle.

Shadow of War’s war chiefs are its most important currency, and I had squandered mine early on. With no one at my side, I strode into Kuga the Berserker Master’s throne room and was completely obliterated.

Near the end of the battle I found myself running for my life, kiting a mob of enemies behind me while I dodged huge gouts of poison gas that erupted from the floor. My guide took pity on me and told me to leap onto the walls. Before long, I was several stories high. A narrow ledge ringed the room, populated by a half-dozen archers that had been harassing me for the better part of five minutes. I dominated them, using the power of Celebrimbor’s ring to turn them into my allies, and together we fired arrow after arrow into the pack of enemies below.

Before long, I began to get the upper hand. But it didn’t feel very sporting to just whittle them down from range. Making matters worse, none of the enemies below could climb up to fight me on the ledge. I was essentially invincible.

The throne room, at least in the demo that I played, was as much of a reward as it was an all-out fight to the finish. It was the opportunity for me to show off, to dissect my opponents in detail. I just hadn’t played it right. Here’s hoping that Monolith spends a bit more time in these throne room encounters before the game goes out on Aug. 22.

Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is slated for Xbox One, Windows 10 PC, PlayStation 4 and Microsoft’s new Project Scorpio hardware.

Update: The studio has announced that Middle-Earth: Shadow of War will be delayed by almost two months. The new release date is set for October 10.