PAX West 2017 Quick-Look: Middle-Earth: Shadow of War

When I’m out at gaming conventions, I usually tend to spend my time amongst the indie booths and displays from small studios. It’s usually the best way to play more games – everyone else is waiting in the two-hour-long lines at the AAA booths, leaving little-to-no wait elsewhere.

While my gaming tastes usually lend well to this approach (I’ll take an indie RPG over Assassins Creed 83: This Time It’s On Mars any day), it doesn’t mean I don’t have the desire to try out the latest and greatest. So, when I was offered the opportunity to go hands-on with the upcoming Middle-Earth: Shadow of War without having to wait in massive lines, I jumped at the chance.

I met up with reps from Warner Bros. Interactive at the Coterie Worklounge in downtown Seattle, where I got to pour just over an hour of time into the newest Middle-Earth game. One of the reps sat with me during my play though, communicating via headset various highlights of the game, as well as some tips and tricks for the missions I undertook.

Now, to be upfront, I have very limited experience with this series, and by that I mean I’ve played Shadow of Mordor on PC for about fifteen minutes in total. Thus, I pretty much went into Shadow of War completely blind. As such, I think it speaks well to the game how easily I was able to pick up and play.

The portion I was able to play began just outside of an enemy-held fortress. There were a number of various missions available, but I opted to spend some time getting acquainted with the controls, and so proceeded to wander in and around the fortress. Navigation and fighting both felt incredibly streamlined, with very basic controller inputs allowing me to do some impressive acrobatics.

After getting used to the basics, along with some other abilities such as riding creatures and bringing enemy orcs under my control, I went ahead and took on a couple of missions to weaken the fortress’ army by taking down some higher-ranking orc commanders.

The rep guiding me made mention of an ability to “interrogate” enemies to discover the weaknesses of these commanders I was targeting, but I mostly ignored this due to time constraints. Instead, I jumped right into the missions, which honestly started off kind of blandly. “Kill five enemies stealthily,” and “Destroy four stashes of alcohol,” came across more as generic cliche time-filler missions than anything interesting. To be fair, these were only two of what will presumably be dozens of missions that could be more unique.

Once the filler was out of the way, the real meat of the missions began: taking down the commanders. It was going into these battles that made me quickly regret not doing the aforementioned interrogations, as both enemies I faced off with had little-to-no weaknesses revealed. Still, taking them down required using just about every attack and skill at my disposal…at least, in the first of two missions I did. I managed to win the second by warping my enemy to the highest point on the map, trapping him there, and then wailing on him.

The first fight, though, proved to be a challenge. After about fifteen minutes of testing different skills, finding a few weaknesses, and finally whittling him down to death…it turned out this orc had a skill that allowed him to revive upon death. The company rep playing with me seemed genuinely surprised at this, leading to a moment of apologies for leading me to such an enemy for my first battle.

After completing these two fights (and recruiting the second commander into my army, where he became a hilariously violent bard orc), I decided to bring my army to invade the fortress and take down the ruling warlord. This began an impressively massive battle of attrition, leading my army (mostly made up of pre-selected orcs for the demo, along with the crazy bard orc) against the enemy masses and the other commanders I hadn’t eliminated.

Taking down the fortress required constantly changing approaches, along with a number of tactical decisions. Should I destroy the artillery creatures attacking my army, or attempt to bring them under my control? Should I ditch a fight to go revive a quickly-dying allied orc, leaving a wing of my army open to attack? All of the chaos going on around the battlefield fueled an impressively brutal atmosphere.

I did manage to make my way to the warlord’s chamber, and engage him in a final battle for control of the fortress. Unfortunately, my sixty minutes worth of skill with the game proved to not be enough to be victorious. Despite numerous approaches, including a few stealthy methods, I eventually fell…to a random wolf-like creature, rather than the warlord himself.

If there’s one thing that really impressed me about Shadow of War, it’s the sheer scale and oppressive atmosphere. There were moments that made this game feel (using an oft-overused word) truly epic. This demo didn’t even dig in to many of the game’s various underlying systems, including the much lauded Nemesis system carried over from Shadow of Mordor, but this surface-level experience still provided a massive number of options on how to approach the game.

Shadow of War has come under fire for a number of marketing decisions, that I will admit. Taking just the game itself at face value, though, it is shaping up to be an excellent experience. Like I said, I can’t really relate it with its predecessor, but as a newcomer to the now franchise, you can color me impressed.

Images sourced from game’s Steam page and trailers.