Middle-earth: Shadow of War Really Dials Up Its RTS Influences

Tom Regan
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Ever since watching Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers as a kid, we’ve always wished we could experience that awe-inspiring Helm Deep battle. The Fellowship’s forces were vastly outnumbered, the city’s inhabitants bravely banded together, fighting desperately and tirelessly against a seemingly endless tide of Sauron’s forces. With arrows flooding the sky and the cries of Uruk-hai growing to an almost deafening volume, it’s one of the Lord of The Rings movie trilogy’s best moments.

Unfortunately for us, this epic siege was entirely fictional – so we resigned ourselves to running around the playground manically instead. What we didn’t count on, however, was that 15 years later in sunny Los Angeles, we would be storming a keep with a similarly fearsome orc army all of our own. We are, of course, talking about our Middle-earth: Shadow of War preview session, where we spent some time with Warner Bros’ upcoming video game at E3 2017.

This gritty and wonderfully loose take on Tolkien’s source material is the sequel to the surprise gaming hit of 2015 – Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. Launching amidst a tide of bigger games, everyone expected this bizarre licensed game to land with more of a whimper than a bang, yet thanks to its intriguing and unique Nemesis system, Mordor managed to amass its own legion of dedicated fans.

For the uninitiated, the Nemesis system saw the game’s half-dead protagonist Talion roaming Middle-earth toppling each region’s Orc warlord. What made this different from every other action games was that said warlords actually grew more powerful depending on whether or not they managed to defeat you. While you were busy defeating one orc, another power vacuum had been filled by two duelling warlords on the other side of the map. It was a game world that didn’t feel dependant on your action, you were just a part of it. Here each leader carried on their own fierce battles and ugly vendettas with or without you.

This time, however,  Warner Bros has taken that intriguing system and transformed it into something even more captivating. In the last game, players could either opt to kill their newly defeated foe or weaken them, sending them back to fight the other orcs but leaving them humiliated. In Shadow of War, this mechanic has now been transformed into what can only be described as a slightly more violent take on Pokémon. Here, after defeating each of these enemy bosses, players now have the option of recruiting the defeated warrior to join their army.

Yes, that’s right, this time around you get to command your very own orc army. While the minute to minute gameplay still consists of third-person combat and assassination missions in an open world, it’s the addition of the new Siege sections where your fearsome forces really get to shine.

Middle-earth: Shadow of War preview

Tasked with reclaiming Middle-earth from Sauron, Siege missions see you rallying your army as you attempt to take back a region by conquering its key stronghold. With each of these keeps ruled by a different warlord, refreshingly, no two Sieges are ever the same. Every orc leader has their own unique underlying bosses, meaning that each army you encounter will have their own different strengths and weaknesses. Storming a castle with an army of all your favourite badass orcs fighting at your side is a thrilling experience. As arrows rain down from the sky and your siege weapons groan under the weight of the rocks they’re launching, the first time you breach those walls feels like an achievement worthy of the movies.

Yet, as brilliant as slaying hordes of snarling orcs felt, what really impressed me was how much depth and strategy there was to each Siege. Before each assault, players are left to tinker with their forces and glean valuable information about your foe via a Siege setup menu. This gives you an overview of the stronghold you’re about to raid, revealing the stats of the warlord you’re targeting and the mini bosses that they’ve appointed.

Middle-earth: Shadow of War preview

Here, choosing the right combination of troops is essential for a successful Siege – as we soon found out the hard way. Opting to lead the charge with a team largely made up of bruiser orcs, they immediately made great headway by breaking down the stronghold’s gate. Unfortunately, our strong but slow warriors were no match for the enemy’s hidden archers once we breached the walls, leaving us to do a lot of the heavy lifting in the intense battle that followed.

Thankfully, we managed to slay the keep’s leader and reclaim the fortress as our own, opting to boot out the current soldiers and promote some of my fearless warriors to the position of castle defenders. With the rest of our Shadow of War previes session merely offering a few fun but simplistic story missions, the depth and impressive scale of the Siege felt like a wonderfully cinematic Tolkien-esque experience.

Is Middle-earth: Shadow of War going to be good?

For gamers who are looking for fast paced third person battles with a bit of an RTS flavour, Shadow of War’s Sieges look set to satisfy both of those itches in a way that a game hasn’t since 2009’s underrated Brutal Legend.

Tom Regan
Having written for everyone from Trusted Reviews to The Guardian, Tom is a London based writer who can't stop talking about games. Now he's joined the team at FANDOM as gaming editor, we have to constantly remind ourselves that he's not actually Ed Sheeran.