Why I’m Hyped for Middle-Earth: Shadow of War

Not too long ago, Monolith announced a sequel I’ve been waiting a long time for.  A few years back they made Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor.  It’s an open-world adventure game that takes place in the Lord of the Rings universe.  It tells the story of Talion, a ranger of Gondor who guards Mordor.  After the death of his family, he swears revenge against the Evil One who caused their deaths.

After becoming fused with Celebrimbor, the craftsman of the One Ring, Talion becomes part man, part ghost, his sole purpose in life to wage war on Sauron.  Shadow of Mordor saw the player take him on a journey to destabilize and take control of Sauron’s army.

Talion possessing a Caragor
Talion possessing a Caragor in Shadow of Mordor. (Photo: PlayStation Europe via Flickr)

I was a huge fan of the Lord of the Rings movie games as a kid, and Shadow of Mordor proved to be an incredible series return to gaming.  It was smooth, challenging, and had collectibles galore.  As I played through the game further, I grew measurably stronger thanks to the deep progression system.  The game pitted me against an army of thousands, but my wits and skills made me a one-man army.  This kind of power was something I never felt in similar games like Assassin’s Creed.  It’s exactly the kind of feeling I always wanted from a Lord of the Rings game.

Talion on the plains of Mordor
Talion on the plains of Mordor. (Photo: Stefans02 via Flickr)

The mechanic in Shadow of Mordor that caught everyone’s eye was its Nemesis system.  When fighting through Sauron’s army, there was a clear hierarchy of orc commanders.  If one commander fell, another took his place, a new one with a unique set of skills.  As orcs in higher ranks died, those in the lower ranks climbed to take their place.  Some would even return after dying, battle-scarred, and remember Talion.

In this way, Shadow of Mordor created a system of player-generated narratives.  As one particular orc became stronger, killing him became all the more satisfying.  Same went for orcs who kept coming back from the dead.  No two players ever played Shadow of Mordor the same way.  You might wonder, is it possible to improve on this system?

Somehow, Monolith has found a way.  For the game’s sequel, Middle-Earth: Shadow of War, Monolith is doubling down on the Nemesis system.  The narrative aspect is even stronger, as in a set scenario, enemies can come back from death or the player can nearly die, only to have his commanders intervene and save the day.  The player therefore forms personal relationships not only with enemies, but with allies.

Orc generals also have a lot more character, with personalized forts for the player to attack.  Whereas Shadow of Mordor was a contained, Assassin’s Creed style of experience, Shadow of War scales the conflict up to include lots more territory.  Talion is much more powerful, but he faces a larger threat to compensate.  This will mean more strategy, more interesting battle scenarios, and all-out war.

A rainy overlook in the cliffs of Mordor
A rainy overlook in the cliffs of Mordor. (Photo: Stefans02 via Flickr)

I can’t say for sure if Shadow of War will deliver on the initial wave of hype.  I feel pretty sure that it’ll land near the top, even if it doesn’t hit its target.  If it does hit the target, though, it will be my dream as a Lord of the Rings fan.  It will be the experience of making war on Sauron himself, and an incredible merging of action and strategy games.  Monolith hit it out of the park with Shadow of Mordor, and with Shadow of War coming out in August, I’m more excited than ever.

Terraria, Adventure, and Quality Versus Quantity

The indie hit Terraria usually gets the short end of the stick by getting called “2D Minecraft.”  In truth, the two games look similar on paper, but have different design priorities.  It took me a long time playing both to realize it, but for a less realistic-looking game, Terraria is basically high fantasy.

To illustrate the point, I’ll cover the shallow common ground between these two games.  You begin the game unequipped.   You can then go on to build, mine, and explore a random world.  Minecraft better executes this style, but Terraria is completely different in the long run.

Terraria ice biome
An icy biome in Terraria. (Photo: PlayStation Europe via Flickr)

The focus of Minecraft is construction, expedition, and intrinsically rewarding play.  It’s simple, atmospheric, and usually pretty grounded.  Playing Minecraft kind of feels like living out a life.  As I talked about in my previous article about Minecraft, this stuff is probably how it became so huge.

The Hallow Biome
The Hallow biome, accessed in Hardmode! (Photo: PlayStation Europe via Flickr)

Terraria exchanges the z-axis for much, much more content.  This is oversimplifying it a little bit, but I’ll explain.  The shift to 2D has a few important consequences, like a zoomed-out, side-scrolling camera angle and 2D sprites instead of 3D models.  The art style is more colorful, but the world is entirely pixel art.  Building in this game doesn’t feel as good, and doesn’t have much of a payoff.  True, it can be cool if you like making 2D art and have the in-game resources, but this isn’t the focus.

Terraria giant house
A pretty impressive house in Terraria. (Photo: Tamahikari Tammas via Flickr)

The trade-off is, it’s much easier to include more content in the game.  Terraria‘s progression is more like a traditional RPG, with different materials and weapons to obtain, modifiers, events, and bosses.  The world even shifts to hardmode after you defeat the Wall of Flesh.  Terraria is about magic and monsters, dungeon crawling, and fighting.  And it does it amazingly well.

Skeletron Prime
Fighting Skeletron Prime in Terraria! (Photo: PlayStation Europe via Flickr)

This design is a double-edged sword.  I’ve played Terraria for many, many hours and fell in love with it quickly.  I beat just about every boss and in-game event, having the time of my life the whole way.  It’s my kind of game.  I get to make cool equipment, fight monsters, and explore.  Yet, I don’t come back to this game too often.  Creativity doesn’t come too naturally in Terraria considering how much there is to do.  After doing just about everything, I saw no reason to stick with it.

Good news for Terraria, ‘everything’ encompasses a lot of really fun gameplay.  It’s like exploring my own Land of Ooo from Adventure Time.  Building myself up in this game was a blast, it’s just not something I wanted to do more than once.  Fighting a single boss takes a lot of prep, and each one feels unique.  There’s nothing like killing a boss, then fighting it later with better equipment and beating it easily.

Minecraft is easy to play aimlessly, but Terraria is more goal-driven.  Neither Terraria nor Minecraft is more fun than the other, because they really don’t compare.  Terraria is definitely more low-tech, but the sheer volume of options and possibilities makes it a great time.  Actually, it’s a great game to play to understand the sandbox genre.