PAX West: Middle-earth: Shadow of War Diversifies Its Open World

By Mark Delaney, 17 days ago
Just a few weeks ago, our TA Playlist community playthrough of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor concluded after a great month of discussion and a podcast to cap it all off. Fresh off that experience, I was able to open my PAX West weekend with over an hour of gameplay of this October's sequel, Middle-earth: Shadow of War. From battling towering creatures to riding a dragon into an enemy settlement, and overtaking a Uruk stronghold, my lasting impression was how this follow-up seems intent on diversifying its open world structure with a lot more to do — and a lot more ways to die.

Middle-earth: Shadow of War

The playthrough began in front of a stronghold, but the general area was littered all over with side missions. For the purposes of the playthrough, Talion, the story's hero, was already at level 40 with an additional ten unspent skill points to divvy up. The fact that Talion had a numerical level was already something new from the previous game and his skill tree was much bigger than before too. I spent some time looking over the plethora of unlocks available to me but ultimately decided on a lot of defensive and health-focused upgrades. Going into the middle of an intricate, systems-heavy game like this can be daunting, so I expected to hit some rough patches. As it would soon turn out, I only occasionally hit some smooth patches.

The first mission opened with sneaking into an enemy camp, eliminating archers with shadow strike and finally battling a mage-like Uruk who could teleport. He wasn't easy, but his health down was down to a minimum before he retreated into a cave as I gave chase. Inside I was met with a behemoth of an enemy. I don't recall its name but I imagine a Tolkien fan could re-educate me. Outmatched, I summoned a graug to better meet the height requirement of the bout. As the two towers' brutal melee went on I was meant to shoot arrows into the enemy's glowing spine. Doing this caused him damage and after a few rounds he too tried to get away. I then took control of the Graug and followed closely behind. After many swinging, clobbering arms were traded, the demonic looking enemy was defeated. For only an optional side mission, the interaction was very complex, with cutscenes and the multiple sections making it feel like something mandatory.

From there I decided to take down the nearby enemy stronghold. This is a new layer to the series' famous nemesis system, with high ranking Uruks now residing in impressive castle-like structures and many underlings ready to defend them. I too had a group of my own to bring into battle and after selecting my accomplices among my enlisted orcs, we charged into battle.

I don't recall the name of this creature, but I remember him being tough to bring down.I don't recall the name of this creature, but I remember him being tough to bring down.

These strongholds unfold in waves, with each one requiring you to perform specific tasks. After shadow striking up to the top of the gates, I exploded a nearby graug, taking several Uruks with it. I then jumped down to capture the first point of contention, or rather, I tried. With so many high ranking enemies crowded in the small capture point, it became quite difficult to get the upper hand. It was made more difficult due to the varied types of enemies and their unique strengths and weaknesses. People once complained of the variable enemy types in Batman: Arkham City; the diversity of enemies in this stronghold felt much more elaborate. As they struck me down, the nemesis system played its part and reorganized the chess-like outlook of the Uruk hierarchy. The underling that dealt the killing blow was promoted and even gave himself a nickname: "Tark Slayer".

Because I had a limited time with the game, I cut my losses and tried a new mission type. In it, I relived a flashback from the life of Celebrimbor, the spirit who shares my corporeal form. I found myself riding a dragon into an enemy siege. They were storming a friendly settlement and it was up to me and my fire-breathing ally to stop them. I rained down upon them with flames but the controls seemed a bit difficult to master. It may be because I missed the tutorial that surely took place before this section I was given to play, but my accuracy with the fire was a bit off. I failed the mission as too many enemies eventually overwhelmed the settlement.

Three side missions into the demo and I hadn't found great success, but I had found an array of mission types never seen in the original game of the series. I had time for one more, and I chose to stick with the side mission theme and play a Siege Beast mission, wherein I ride a caragor and rip apart enemies. This one was familiar to me, as it's something players are tasked with in Shadow of Mordor, but this time Talion had a sharp jousting pole to help him shank and beat down the Uruks. At one point they killed my caragor but I was able to summon another without needing to tame it thanks to an ability Talion now possesses. I finished off the Uruks after a long battle, once again attributed to the sheer diversity of the ugly villains.

Shadow of War's map is much busier than its predecessor's.Shadow of War's map is much busier than its predecessor's.

My time with the game ended there, several optional missions deep with varying levels of success. Most exciting in my mind are the strongholds. They build on the game's nemesis system in what appears to be an interesting way while giving battles that feeling of epicness briefly felt at the end of the first game. Storming the gates of an enemy settlement as friends and foes trade steel and blood all around you feels like a moment right out of the books or movies. Although in many other ways the series now drifts further away from the original vision of Tolkien, only the lore purists would feel betrayed by this. If you enjoyed the first game, Shadow of War seems to offer a whole lot more — and in more ways — of what the series does well.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He's the Editorial Manager on TA, loves story-first games, and is one of three voices on the TA Playlist podcast. Outside of games he likes biking, sci-fi, the NFL, and spending time with his fiancée and son. He almost never writes in the third person.