In Middle-earth: Shadow of War, Orcs Can Save Your Life

The Nemesis system in Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor was undoubtedly the game’s greatest accomplishment, bringing procedural gameplay to a character-driven story. Orc warlords weren’t just generic baddies; they were unique characters, complete with names, motivations, special abilities and remembered encounters with Talion, the protagonist.

Shadow of War, the latest game in the series, brings the concept to a whole new level, allowing for orcish allies who can act as spies, siege fortresses and even save your life.

I saw an extended demo for Shadow of War ($60; PS4, PC, Xbox One; Aug. 22) at GDC 2017. The game looks incredibly ambitious — so much so, that I can’t help but wonder how much of it was representative of the final game, and how much was scripted just for the presentation. Still, I had the same concerns about Shadow of Mordor when I first saw it, and the Nemesis system wound up being just as innovative as promised.

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The game’s developers started off by laying the groundwork for the story. After the thoroughly, incredibly and unbelievably disappointing ending in Shadow of Mordor, Talion the Ranger has his sights set on the impossible: toppling the Dark Lord Sauron. To gain enough power to do so, he and Celebrimbor (the forger of the three Elven Rings of Power, now bound to Talion’s body as a wraith — just roll with it) create their own ring to rival Sauron’s.

It's not so much about staying faithful to the original Lord of the Rings mythos; it’s more about creating a setup for subverting it in clever ways.

Now, an empowered Talion must upend the Orcish order of Mordor, claim its lands for himself, and use Sauron’s former servants to wage war against the Necromancer (Sauron, Gorthaur, Annatar, whatever you want to call him).

As a devout fan of all things Tolkien, the story is, charitably, aggressively non-canon. But, as with Shadow of Mordor, it’s not so much about staying faithful to the original Lord of the Rings mythos; it’s more about creating a setup for subverting it in clever ways. In the original books, for example, orcs and trolls were invariably servants of Sauron, without a redeeming feature shared among an entire army of them. In Shadow of War, they can become allies, and perhaps even friends.

The demo showed off Talion, equipped with a whole host of Ranger and Wraith abilities, about to siege a fortress. Unlike Shadow of Mordor, which pitted the Ranger against one warlord at a time (for the most part), capturing and upgrading fortresses will be an integral part of his mission. As such, he’ll have to take down huge structures, packed to the gills with minions, minor warlords and major overseers.

Before he began the siege, Talion was able to choose a few allies to take into battle with him. One was a troll lieutenant, who acted as a living battering ram against the fort’s outer doors. Talion also called upon an orc who had been acting as a spy within the walls to turn the tide and lead his forces against the reigning warlord: a troll who was immune to fire damage.

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The Nemesis system is back in full swing, as the first orc lieutenant within the fortress remembered Talion from an earlier encounter, and still resented the Ranger for defeating him but sparing his life. Talion defeated him once on the way in — then again toward the end of the siege, as one of his signature abilities was “Cheat Death.”

As the battle progressed, Talion’s soldiers breached various parts of the fortress, rendering them open to different angles of attack. The environments don’t seem to be 100 percent destructible, but you can definitely tear down doors and walls en route to the enemy’s inner sanctum.

By the end of the game, you can have a whole network of keeps across Mordor, providing you with better equipment, more allies and other useful perks.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the demo occurred when Talion went toe-to-toe with the troll warlord at the keep’s center. The battle started off well, with Talion demonstrating his skills with the sword and the bow and arrow. The warlord wasn’t taking much damage, though, and soon had Talion on the ropes. That’s when Talion’s orcish spy burst in and delivered the killing blow to the warlord, saving Talion’s life and successfully completing the mission. According to the developers, stories of loyalty and heroism like this won’t be uncommon.

Afterward, Talion entrusted the orcish lieutenant with the fortress’s safekeeping, gaining gameplay benefits in the process. By the end of the game, you can have a whole network of keeps across Mordor, providing you with better equipment, more allies and other useful perks.

Since it’s not clear how much of the demo was scripted for GDC and how much was emergent gameplay, it’s hard to say how big of a leap Shadow of War will be over its predecessor. But at the very least, it seems like a bigger, more ambitious game, with a storyline that purposely diverges even more from Tolkien’s canon. The game will be out Aug. 22 for PC, PS4 and Xbox One, and cost $60.