Talion sprints towards the walls of Seregost Castle, undaunted by the glittering volley of flaming arrows streaking towards him and his loyal Uruk army. Nearby, a deluge of crude orcish artillery lands, exploding into a fireball that blooms and dissipates, leaving only a shower of wet earth and green bodies tumbling in its wake.
Talion charges on. This haggard ranger of Gondor is technically a dead man – given life only by the elven wraith Celebrimbor that resides within his undying frame – but he is feared and despised by Sauron’s forces nonetheless, who trade foul stories of the Gravewalker’s unnatural abilities and martial might.
During his first tour of duty, Talion spent most of his time engaged in a scrappy guerrilla war, shanking the odd captain here and beheading the occasional warlord there. But this time, Talion’s mounting a siege on Sauron’s fortresses across Mordor and beyond – and he’s building an army to dismantle the Dark Lord’s forces.
From the battlements, a rogue’s gallery of green-skinned captains hurl insults and projectiles at the Gravewalker and his forces. Tugog – known to his friends as the Flame Of War – cackles with glee as his orcish archers unleash wave after wave of fire-tipped arrows. Mozû Deadeye lurks nearby, clutching a gnarled custom-crossbow and casting shifty glances across the battlefield. This sharpshooting Uruk is actually one of Talion’s spies, a valued ally operating behind enemy lines. We may just need him should the tide of battle turn against us. And then there’s Thrak Storm Bringer. It would be fair to say that Thrak and Talion have a complicated history…
“The Bright Lord,” Thrak snarls, his voice dripping with hate. “I fought for you, bled for you, and you left me to die.” Storm Bringer was once a trusted lieutenant in Talion’s army, you see, but Thrak fell in battle and the ranger was forced to make a retreat. And, as it turns out, he isn’t exactly thrilled to be reunited with his erstwhile commander. Peering down from the castle walls, Thrak continues his rebuke: “I was reborn with the power of the Dark Lord. Come! Charge into the flames of your reckoning!”
The siege hasn’t even begun in earnest yet but, thanks to these preexisting relationships, the undercurrent of drama and suspense is already palpable. The bitter grudge nursed by Thrak lends a sense of history and meaning to the forthcoming bout, while the tittering Tugog represents an unpredictable wildcard in the Uruk ranks. Meanwhile, the sight of our daring double agent Mozû in the enemy lines ratchets up the tension. You’d be forgiven for thinking that this network of allies and enemies was the result of detailed writing and careful scripting, but the entire scenario is actually a product of Monolith’s Nemesis System – a procedural engine that’s been precisely engineered to produce an endless supply of interesting Uruk.
This orc-generating algorithm was the standout feature of 2014’s Shadow Of Mordor, where it would work behind the scenes to populate Sauron’s army with orc captains and warchiefs – each with their own strengths and weaknesses – for Talion to dispatch. Best of all, Monolith’s AI was able to convincingly create the impression that enemy orcs would remember each encounter with Talion, and bear the marks of these meetings in future bust-ups. Flee from battle, for instance, and you’d have to put up with some grimy greenskin taunting your cowardice the next time you meet. Slice up a warchief but fail to land the killing blow and the hardy orc might respond with furious anger in subsequent encounters, issuing poisonous threats from his freshly scarred face.
So, when Monolith set to work on its new game immediately following the launch of Shadow Of Mordor, the course was clear. “Once we saw the reception for the Nemesis System, and started seeing people’s stories come out, I just thought: that’s a thing we’ve got to massively double down on.We’ve got to take that to new places, while expanding on the types of stories and the depth of the stories,” explains Monolith’s vice president of creative, Michael de Plater. “Shadow Of Mordor was very much our first attempt to create procedural enemies and storytelling. So obviously [we wanted to] enormously expand on that.” And once Talion’s army crashes against the towering walls of the Seregost citadel, it becomes clear that Monolith has managed to accomplish exactly that.
LORE AND ORDER
But we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves. Because Shadow Of War doesn’t start with a valiant charge against Sauron’s armies – it starts precisely where the previous game left off. The Dark Lord’s feared lieutenant, The Black Hand of Sauron, is dead; Talion’s slaughtered family is avenged; and Celebrimbor is free to leave the exhausted ranger’s body and journey at last to the Undying Lands. But rather than accepting eternal rest, our twin protagonists recognise that, together, they might just have a chance to put an end to the Dark Lord and his cruel designs for Middle-earth.
And that’s where Shadow OfWar begins, with the forging of a new ring of power in the fires of Mount Doom. Celebrimbor – whom Sauron once manipulated and deceived to create the original rings – wields his smithing hammer to create another magical band, which Talion slips onto his finger. It’s this terrible power that the two will wield to dominate the Uruk of Mordor, compelling these loathsome creatures to fight against their erstwhile master.
But while these events are taking place, the Dark Lord isn’t just twiddling his no-doubt powerful thumbs. His forces are already on the warpath, sowing death and destruction in the lands of men. Most significant is the Gondorian city of Minas Ithil, a proud fortress standing near the border of Mordor, that is now suffering under a sustained assault from Sauron’s forces. “So we start on basically the framing of this massive siege,” says de Plater. “That lets us bring in a lot of human stakes and human characters and that notion of what it is that we’re fighting to save and defend. [We do that] on a much bigger scale than maybe what we could do on the Black Gates of Mordor with Talion last time.”
It isn’t just regular old orcs staging this particular siege, however. This time it’s the Nazgûl mounting the offensive, led by their terrifying leader: the Witch-king. While Tolkien buffs are no doubt quivering with excitement at the prospect of witnessing the Witch-king do his thing, we asked Monolith’s resident lore buff to explain the character’s significance. “The Witch-king is the leader of the nine Nazgûl,” de Plater patiently tells us, “and he’s the number two to Sauron. He’s the bailiff to the emperor, effectively, and the leader of these guys.”
With the basics of the narrative established we return to the fortress at Seregost and the beginnings of Talion’s assault. But this event, however remarkable in scale and ambition, isn’t some one-off setpiece or a feature of Shadow Of War’s endgame – every region of Monolith’s massive new world features its own fort for you to wrest from the Dark Lord’s wicked grasp. These citadels are centres of power for each region, and the baleful influence of their orcish commanders emanates outwards into the surrounding lands.
Fortunately the Gravewalker won’t be taking on these powerful Overlords alone, since you’re able to choose which of your captains you want to bring with you on any given fort assault. As such, the charging Talion is flanked on either side by a pair of powerful brain-washed captains, two more products of the Nemesis System’s procedural wizardry. To our right, there’s Az-Laar the Demolisher, a hulking Olog-hai. Or, to put it in layman’s terms, a war troll. This mighty creature will essentially serve as our mobile battering ram, assisting Talion’s forces in breaching the fort’s reinforced gates and stone walls. And to our left, there’s Ragdug Iron Mount, a wiry warrior who sits perched atop a fearsome Caragor. As another wave of fire-tipped arrows soars through the sky towards Talion’s army, Ragdug turns to the Gravewalker and deadpans, “Look – they celebrate our return with fireworks.” The mounted warrior isn’t just being cocky – his armoured steed offers him resistance against fiery attacks.
As the Gravewalker’s army gets stuck into the assault, Talion himself breaks right, sprinting away from the fray and hopping onto the castle’s walls. The ranger was no slouch in Shadow Of Mordor, but this time he leaps and bounds up the craggy stone walls in a matter of moments, the outline of Celebrimbor’s ghostly form visible as he clambers up the sheer surface and pulls himself to his feet. But Talion barely has time to get his bearings on this bustling battlement before he’s charged by Thrak, who bears down on the ranger with cold fury in his eyes. Thrak swings his sword wildly, and the Gravewalker only has time to throw up a hasty block before something strange happens: the on-screen minimap fades from view, replaced with the burning Eye of Sauron. For a moment, Talion looks drained and haggard. “You feel it, don’t you?” Thrak hisses. “This is the power of the Dark Lord.”
The power to which Thrak Storm Bringer refers is a cursed weapon, and this damnable blade leaves Talion utterly unable to tap into his ring of power. Stripped of his supernatural abilities, the ranger is forced to fight the old-fashioned way, striking at his opponents and countering enemy blows using the Arkham-style combat controls. It isn’t long before Thrak’s on the ropes, and our relentless attack pushes him to the very brink of the castle walls. The Bright Lord rears back to ready another strike, and the ghostly white shape of Celebrimbor appears, smithing hammer in hand. “Suffer me now!” he bellows, before embedding his hammer in Thrak’s thick Uruk skull. As the Storm Bringer’s limp body tumbles off the battlement and into the dusty yard below, we take a moment to quietly reflect on the life of Thrak – our onetime ally turned bitter nemesis – before continuing to cut a path through the orcish defenders.
With the battlements cleared of foes, Talion sprints towards the nearest ledge to perform a spectacular leap of faith, soaring through the air like a moody Ezio. We watch as Celebrimbor readies his hammer and strikes an Uruk campfire in the courtyard below, causing a massive shockwave that sends a gaggle of scrabbling defenders flying. It’s just one of several new powers that fleetingly appear during our demonstration of the game, and we later have the chance to quiz de Plater on these abilities. It seems that upgrades to the Shadow Strike ability – which let Talion teleport over to distant enemies to perform brutal takedowns – are in the works, as well as the introduction of a powerful new glaive that we can use in battle. But one ability in particular had our ears pricking up in anticipation.
“When your ring of power builds up energy, you can unleash that. So Celebrimbor will come out and go all Legolas on everyone and unleash lots of stuff with his bow,” de Plater explains. “And the one that’s really fun – because we’ve got a lot more mobility and movement and we’ve got an aerial focus as well – is that you can leap into the air and use slo-mo to pick guys off, and then Shadow Strike from there. There’s a lot more scope, I think, for skilled play and variety this time than last time.”
Excited at the possibilities of these new powers, we watch as Talion runs deeper into the fortress, continuing his inexorable charge towards the enemy keep. That’s when an unexpected face shows up, appearing from around a corner with a wicked grin. It’s Thrak, the orcish nemesis we dispatched just minutes before. It appears he’s ‘cheated death’, wrestling free from the inky tentacles of oblivion to take one more swing at the Gravewalker. Attacking with a flurry of blows, he soon knocks Talion to the floor, and prepares to deliver the killing blow. At that moment, an arrow appears from nowhere, striking Thrak’s sword arm with such force that the limb is ripped clean off. We cast our eyes about for the source of this sharpshooting and spot our double agent, Mozû Deadeye, on the top of a nearby tower. We find ourselves almost cheering at his timely intervention. As Thrak cries out in pain, Mozû readies another bolt, serenely steadies his aim and performs a perfect headshot. Thrak is dead, and this time Talion’s close enough to inspect the body.
Yup, he’s definitely dead this time round, and a glowing loot icon hovers above his mouldering corpse as morbid proof. Talion greedily hoovers up the new gear, adding a nifty new piece of Rohirrim Armour to his inventory. ”Shadow Of Mordor was very much a pure action adventure game,” chimes in de Plater. “In Shadow Of War we’ve gone a long way towards making it much more of an RPG – expanding the skill system, expanding the abilities, but in particular, expanding the loot and the gear system. So, for example, by killing the Storm Bringer there, we’re now able to gain this epic Rohan armour. So it’s going to increase our defence, but we have a whole host of different traits and customisation as well.”
Now that Talion’s dressed to impress, he heads deeper into the fort, arriving at another imposing gateway. Right on cue, the tittering Tugog appears, caterwauling with delight as thick torrents of inky-black oil begin to pour over the besieging army below. You can probably see where this is heading. Mere moments later, Tugog’s underlings open the gate to reveal a gargantuan drake that promptly spits a plume of fire over Talion’s army, igniting the eminently flammable Uruk attackers.
As bad as things look right now, that drake will soon prove to be Tugog’s undoing. Just as in Shadow Of Mordor, Talion has the power to dominate the beasts of Mordor, projecting his steely will over their puny animal brains. Shadow Of War offers the same opportunities on a much expanded line-up of beasties. Before Tugog can so much as yelp in dismay, the Gravewalker has mounted the irate drake, and takes to the sky to spew fire from on-high. The fortress runs thick with smoke and the aroma of seared orc flesh. And Talion’s rampage might just have continued, were it not for a pesky Graug below. This hulking creature plucks our drake from the air, sending Talion flying. The two beasts duke it out for a spell, exchanging earthshaking bites and blows before both succumb to their injuries.
Talion strides over to Tugog, who now cowers before us screaming “he’s a demon!” to no one in particular. With no further ado, the Bright Lord places a hand over this pathetic creature’s face and uses the power of the new ring to dominate him utterly. A range of on-screen prompts enable Talion to ‘shame’ his defeated foe, or fight him to the death, but we choose to recruit this jittering firebug to our cause. Finally Talion’s path to the fortress keep is clear.
A REAL KEEPER
The Bright Lord pushes open the door of the keep to find a gloomy room. But the murky hall we see laid out before us here won’t be the same for other players. “The key thing is, the Overlord is going to be a unique boss for every player, but even the combat arena in here is something he’s customised to be his own unique villain’s lair and fighting arena,” de Plater tells us. From the darkness, Ur-Hakon the Dragon steps forward, a towering war troll carrying a flaming torch. “It’s the lord of Mordor himself, the Gravewalker,” Ur-Hakon growls. “You’ve made a right mess, haven’t you. My armies slain. My drake dead. So much pain…” As he speaks, this knobbly Olog-hai holds his hand menacingly over that torch, the flames licking at his palm.
It’s an atmospheric introduction to the fortress’s imposing Overlord, and one that convincingly folds the choices you’ve made so far into a little slice of ominous narrative. But before we can spend much more time pondering Shadow Of War’s storytelling smarts, Ur-Hakon the Dragon points that flaming torch in Talion’s direction, and we realise it’s actually an ornate fantasy flamethrower. Suddenly, torrents of flame erupt from the floors and walls of the keep, and the significance of the Overlord’s nickname dawns on us.
The battle that follows is an exercise in careful positioning as much as skilled swordplay, with fiery traps and swarming orcish grunts to worry about as well as Ur-Hakkon himself. Talion dodges carefully, but he’s losing ground. Within a matter of minutes, the Gravewalker finds himself prone, at the mercy of this pyromaniac troll. And that’s when our old friend Ragdug comes barrelling into the fray, charging at the triumphant fort commander on his armoured Caragor. He’s quickly bashed to one side, but it’s just the opening Talion needed – using the power of the ring, time seems to slow as Celebrimbor lops off one of Ur-
Hakon’s trunk-like legs, cutting the mighty troll down to size. The wraith removes an arm next, striking with surgical precision, before plunging a blade directly into the foul creature’s head. At long last, the fort is ours.
TO THE VICTOR
Victory is not the end, however. This fortress will need a new Overlord, so Talion must select one of his followers to take charge of the citadel – and by extension, the entire region. “We’ll promote Ragdug for his loyalty,” says de Plater, “making it less likely he’ll ever betray us.” In a celebratory cutscene, Ragdug steps out onto the fort’s battlements and looks down proudly upon his swarming underlings, Ur-Hakon’s bloodsoaked head in his hand. Promoting Ragdug provides the Bright Lord’s campaign with a tasty influx of currency, loot and XP, as well as a horde of new followers drawn from the local Uruk population, but Sauron’s forces won’t be content to leave the fort in Talion’s pallid hands. Counter-attacks are a certainty, and you’ll have to upgrade and maintain your castles to hold them, and this strategic metagame will be crucial to your long-term success in Mordor.
The entire siege, from Talion’s first charge at the fort’s outer walls, to our victory in the Overlord’s inner sanctum, felt tailor-made, impeccably scripted to provide all manner of dramatic twists and unexpected turns. And yet the whole thing has been a product of Monolith’s much-expanded Nemesis System, which manages to turn fusty old algorithms into Thrak’s surprise return from the dead, Mozû Deadeye’s perfectly timed bolt from the blue and Ragdug’s loyal intervention in our climactic showdown.
As you claw back control of Mordor from the Dark Lord, Shadow Of War promises no shortage of moments such as these, and while the game is set to deliver fabulous fisticuffs and an enormous open-world, these will never be the star attractions of Monolith’s Middle-earth. It’s the relationships the game simulates that make this sequel so special. As studio head Kevin Stephens explains, “In the first game, your interaction with the orcs boiled down to: ‘you can kill me, and I can kill you’. That was really the relationship. Now, it’s more complicated: ‘I can kill you. You can kill me. But you can kill my follower, who I care about, and my follower can kill you too.’” Shadow Of Mordor always excelled at creating little stories of revenge and hate. When it launches later this year on 25 August, Shadow Of War looks set to cover the complete gamut of emotional orc murder.