5 ways Middle-earth: Shadow of War is bigger and better than the original

At E3 2014 I watched a gameplay presentation of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. I came away from that presentation seriously impressed, and called the game the best thing I saw at E3 that year. Some readers were skeptical at the time, but Shadow of Mordor eventually came out to nearly universal acclaim.

Surprisingly, the Middle-earth setting was a relatively small part of the game's overall appeal, and the title stood on its own feet even for those with little knowledge of The Lord of the Rings. The combination of Assassin's Creed-style combat gameplay with a sprawling map filled with orcs to kill in an enormous variety of ways was a big hit, but what really made the game stand out was its Nemesis system. That system procedurally generated enemies with distinct strengths and weaknesses, and explored emergent storytelling with foes that would remember you, seek revenge, or carry the scars of former battles. 

I was back in another theater at GDC 2017 watching another gameplay presentation, this time for Middle-earth: Shadow of War, and what I saw on display was every bit as surprising and impressive as Mordor. The new game looks to evolve the series beyond the open-world action of the first game, and now includes an overworld map and real-time strategy elements as the ranger Talion and the wraith Celebrimor lead their orc armies on to conquest. 

Here are five ways you can expect Shadow of War to be bigger and better than Shadow of Mordor

#1 War for Mordor

As shown in the 16 minute gameplay video released today, organized battles and fortress assaults are a big part of Shadow of War. There will still be plenty of solo Talion play of course, with sidequests, collectibles, and exploration in multiple distinct regions, but your overall goal in the game is to lead your armies against Sauron's forces in an effort to conquer Mordor and the surrounding regions of Middle-earth.

This conquest plays out in two layers, as you plan your assaults on a strategic overworld map before leading your forces personally as the Talion (or Celebrimor or The Bright Lord or whatever. It's tricky to know how to refer to the game's protagonist). As the Shadow of War dev team describes it, your actions over the course of hours of play will set you up to succeed or fail in these climactic fortress assaults, and properly equipping your armies for the specific challenges and defenses of a given fortress can make the battle easier. 

Shadow of War's new structure is a departure from the original, but it looks to be an exciting one. Unlike the Arkham and Assassin's Creed series, which have delivered much of the same sort of game again and again, Middle-earth is offering something different while still keeping the core of what made the original so entertaining. 

#2 The Nemesis system has been taken to the next level

The Nemesis system was one of the best parts of Shadow of Mordor, but it did a far better job of creating memorable enemies than it did withemergent storytelling. Over the course of a single playthrough certain patterns—especially enemies who cheat death and come back later with a grudge—repeated a bit too often, and the seams and limitations of the system started to show.

It's too early to tell if Shadow of War will fix all these issues, but the early fortress assault gameplay showed off some exciting new ways your memorable enemies and allies will play a role in your overall story.

A bitter orc who once served you now commands a castle full of defenders standing in your way. A spy on the inside of a fortress saves you from harm at a critical moment. A loyal servant earns a promotion for valor, and changes the look, feel, and nature of a region when you name him overlord. These are just a few of the dramatic events that might play out in a fortress assault, and they look to add a sense of narrative and character to the game's large-scale battles.

If the developers at Monolith can manage to refine the Nemesis system and improve on what was great about the original, Shadow of War could end up being a game you play over and over again just to see what the procedural generation cooks up. 

#3 Rich in Middle-earth lore

While Shadow of Mordor was full of Middle-earth lore and references that rewarded dedicated Tolkien fans, most of the Lord of the Rings goodness was subtle.The gameplay was mostly just killing orcs in a variety of satisfying ways in either a brown open world map or a green open world map, and it was all a lot of fun while also being a little bit generic at times. 

Shadow of War, in contrast, looks like it could be a dream come true for fans of the source material. The game features fortresses, cities, and regions that are all straight from the books, many of which have never been featured in a film or game before. Locations which have previously only existed in a few lines from Tolkien and a classic illustration or two will be brought to full rendered life, and will now be the sites of epic battles to rival Isengard or Osgiliath.

Shadow of War features much more diverse geography, geology, and architecture than Shadow of Mordor, and that means more visual variety to go along with the enhanced gameplay. As with the previous game, it doesn't look to be necessary to know much of anything about Middle-earth before diving into Shadow of War.  But if you're the kind of person who knows what Minas Ithil is and can't wait to see that city fully realized, then there's a whole deeper level to the game for you to enjoy. 

For more on the design of the world in Shadow of War, check out our interview with Director of Art Philip Straub

#4 More creatures 

The caragors, graugs, and other beasts from Shadow of Mordor return in Shadow of War, each requiring their own special tactics to defeat or use to your advantage in combat. These beasts were a lot of fun in the first game, providing some variety in between your rampant orc murder, and today's gameplay video shows off some of how they work in fortress assaults. 

But new Middle-earth creatures are joining the fray in Shadow of War, including drakes as aerial mounts and siege units. Being able to fly around a fortress and rain death down on orcs is a big step up for Talion, and battles against enemy drakes are sure to be challenging. 

And it doesn't look like the menagerie will stop there, if the game's announcement trailer is any indication. That trailer features a Balrog and Nazgûl wraiths, some of the heaviest hitters to be found in all of Middle-earth. Will we have to fight those creatures? Almost certainly. Will players actually get a chance to command them and use them in their own armies? That remains to be seen.

But dang, wouldn't that be fun? 

#5 Advances in orc diversity 

Shadow of War introduces two major new factors in the diversity of your orc foes and friends in the form of tribes and giant orcs known as Olog-hai. Tribes provide both visual and gameplay tweaks to orcs, influencing their strengths and weaknesses, and delivering major effects when it comes to fortress assaults, overlord throne rooms, and region effects.

Some tribes work better with animals and cavalry, and if an orc from that tribe is in charge of a region there will be more wildlife there, and more creatures used in the defense of that region's fortress. Other orc tribes possess dark necromantic powers, or focus on fire-based weapons. The tribe of the orcs you are facing off against will be an important part of your battle strategy, and once you've claimed a fortress you'll also want to pay attention to the tribe of the orc you install as the new leader, since that will change the region as a whole. In a nice touch, the new orc leader's armor and regalia will also reflect their background when they become an overlord, with the pirate-like marauder tribe sporting golden gear they clearly stole from one of Middle-earth's other species. 

Finally, Shadow of War brings us the imposing Olog-hai, massive units (probably trolls) that stand head and shoulders above the rest of the battlefield, and which will be some of Talion's toughest foes and most powerful allies. Remember near the end of The Return of the King movie when Aragorn is nearly killed by that giant thing wearing a bunch of armor? That's an Olog-hai, and they look to be just as fearsome in Shadow of War as they were in that movie. 

There's still a lot we don't know about Middle-earth: Shadow of War, and we'll have to wait until the game comes out this August for consoles and PC before we know if it can truly manage to live up to the first game in the series. But there's a lot to like about what we've seen so far, and I'm just as optimistic about this game as I was about Shadow of Mordor.