Game Impressions – Middle Earth: Shadow of War

Tactical depth meets a playable The Lord of the Rings and a Rogue One story

It’s a scene right out of The Lord of the Rings: flaming balls fly towards the fortress, Orcs rushing to the gates, ready to smash the enemy. Archers return fire, I’ll send a couple of them flying when my siege beasts unleash their trebuchets. So yes, when I went hands-on with Middle-earth: Shadow of War for a couple hours, this felt like an entirely new approach to Monolith’s RPG-styled gameplay over the first one. No worries, you can still sneak around, hide in the shadows, be a middle-age assassin. It just happens on a much larger scale and you feel way more like a commander, not just a single guy running around slashing Orcs. Let me give you an example: in the first game you would sneak around, hide and kill a couple archers to move closer to your target. On your way, you’ll probably open some Caragor cages, create a bit of chaos to do whatever you should. In Middle-earth: Shadow of War you must act like a commander and there is much more strategic depth to it. When I kill the archers on a tower, ghost walk to the walls and do a bit of work there, it serves a certain purpose: I want to open the gates for my army, which will massively reduce casualties. But I don’t have to and that’s the beauty of great open-world game design.

Thanks for asking: Yes, Shadow of War looks that good. Super sharp texturing meets superb lighting and extremely detailed character models.

What’s freedom in a game? Getting all the tools to be a creative general

Monolith Studios from Seattle, who did the brilliant shooter F.E.A.R. back in the day, is one of only a few developers who understands what freedom truly means. Shadow of War is not an RTS and I can’t control these units, but I am the one who sets the strategy and that starts before the battle even begins. Each one of my four war chiefs can be accompanied by a special type of unit and I can choose between three or four of them. You can go for a crossbow strategy which involves massive arrow volleys. If you want to do that, you can outfit multiple war chiefs with this kind of units, or orcs with a shield and axe. Or, two axes which increases their damage output, but decreases protection. The possibilities are endless.

Like in the first one: It’s super important to gather intel about the enemies’ weak points. This Troll was grilled once, doesn’t want a second barbecue.

What I especially like is that you can specify their roles. There are fire dragons or the ice dragons, freezing enemies which makes them easier to kill. Graugs, on the other hand, come with a catapult attached to their spine and they can fire huge stones for massive damage or explosive ammunition, which is great when one of their war chiefs fears fire. It’s a pleasant surprise because it gives Shadow of War almost as much depth as The Lord of the Ring: Battle for Middle-earth, a great RTS game from EA and Danger Close. It’s a unique combination of an RPG with a lot of skill trees, epic gear, a ton of armament and several rings and runes to boost certain abilities. It’s not just that, it uses elements from games like Creative Assembly’s Total War in a fresh new way.

Almost a bit like Total War, but different

Have you played Total War? Here you can place spies to get information about enemy camps, their strength and weakness and you can even order assassins to kill their commander which weakens their morale. In Middle-earth: Shadow of War (still feels weird to not have The Lord of the Rings attached in the name) you can specialize spies in not only intelligence (basically your very own orc CIA) but also sabotage. So, my spies sneak into the city before the attack, strategically place petroleum oil barrels on the south wall, and then the main attack happens in the west so when this gate is destroyed and they are sending all their units to defend it, I am personally lighting up an arrow, targeting the barrels – Boom. It doesn’t only send these crossbow dudes on the walls flying, but it opens an opportunity to outflank the enemy. The objective is to control three or more victory points before you can tackle the warlord, the commander of a fortress. There are small ones, where you just should destroy one wall and your army can storm in. Others have multiple security layers, especially Minas Morgul, which used to be the Gondorian city Minas Ithil. A large bridge leads to the gate, and there is an entirety of five different security areas all guarded by their own wall. I guess that gives you a sense how intense and big this kind of battles can get.

That’s where it all begins: At the gates of Minas Ithil, a proud strong city fortress of Gondor.

Peter Jackson is a fan of this Rogue One take on Tolkien

Middle-earth: Shadow of War feels more like the books when we talk about diversity. In the movies, Orcs look different and they have their hierarchy with Uruk-hai giving orders to guys smaller than they are. But even six movies in total apparently were not enough to show the personality of these tribes. The feral tribe is stocked with trackers and hunters, the Marauders are all about industrialization and huge war machines. This comes into play when you’ve occupied a fortress and you have to name a new commander over your defense forces for that bastion: Depending on the faction they use different “interior design:” some like to hang Graugs on the ceiling, others skulls. Well, we are not talking about a Gondor mansion here, as Orcs will always be filthy, stinking Orcs with bad taste. But at least they can build some smart defenses for your fortress, depending on their tribe. There are the ones that use big Graugs with trebuchets on towers. Others like fire and set-up a bunch of barbecue traps.

Monolith had to come up with an idea why Sauron needed 60 years to attack Middle-earth. A second ring was in dire need…

Obviously, there is an epic story behind it, which sounds a bit bonkers, but makes sense when you take a closer look. “We want to answer many questions fans have for such a long time,” says Michael de Plater, Vice President at Monolith. “How was Minas Ithil conquered? A giant city fortress with multiple security layers comparable to Minas Tirith. You will witness these moments in the first hour of the game and it explains certain challenges Gondorian soldiers were facing,” he explains. “And there are so many more questions: How the heck did Sauron end up being captured in the flaming eye of Barad-dur? And why did it take him 60 years to build up a new army strong enough to attack Middle-earth?” Monolith had to come up with an alternative story line and a second ring – “because we needed something strong enough to create this giant civil war among the Ork tribes of Mordor. Only because they’ve slaughtered each other, Gondor and Rohan had 60 years to prepare their fortresses and armies. It’s the story behind the story, I’d like to call it our very own Rogue One moment.” And there is a guy that called these ideas brilliant that you all know: Peter Jackson, the mastermind behind The Lord of the Rings.

Published by Benjamin Kratsch

Benjamin has been a games industry professional now for 8 years. His body of work contains interviews and features for GQ, Playboy, Red Bull and a lot of market-leading gaming, lifestyle and business magazines.