This year, at rAge's 15th anniversary, we had a great selection of current and upcoming games available for hands-on time. Assuming, of course, you had the resilience to tackle lengthy queues, sweaty fellow convention goers, and palpitation-inducing dubstep from nearby the esports stages. Some publishers had a myriad of games on offer, others only one or two, relying instead on video screenings (most of which we’ve already seen online since E3 or Gamescom). Credit must go to the exhausted-looking reps from the local distributors that worked tirelessly to prepare the event. I got about 30 minutes of hands-on time most of the games on display, braving each queue twice. On Friday evening, Megarom hosted a great press-only session for Ubisoft’s upcoming titles after the crowds had left, so I got an extra 20+ minutes with their titles.
The first game I sampled, played on an Xbox One X dev kit, had me equal parts intrigued and concerned as I really enjoyed Shadow of Mordor in 2014. Although it felt somewhat derivative of other open-world titles, the unique Nemesis System added an incredible dynamic to your encounters. Fall to an orc and they would get promoted, moving up the orc hierarchy, becoming part of a dynamic system that led to violent orc-on-orc struggles as the all vied for the position of warchief. On the other hand, you could systematically butcher the chieftain’s bodyguards and underlings, or later dominate their minds and turn them to your side. Defeat an orc and they may come back angrier than ever. Fall to one, and they’ll taunt you during your next encounter.
In Shadow of War, this system has been expanded and interactions are far more diverse, including spats between allied and hostile orcs. After foolishly ignoring a ridiculous number of mission markers just hovering on the ground outside a fortress, I rushed into the main siege mission. This involves selecting orc leaders, with distinct strengths and weaknesses, to lead your assault teams. You need to a) try match their army strength, b) try exploit their weaknesses, and c) protect your own orc captains. The orc warlord dismissed my siege attempt, referring to past failures (the demo presumably takes place well into the game). Meanwhile, my orc captains ridiculed the warlord with dialogue clearly based on their in-game weaknesses. It was not exactly the most cohesive, flowing dialogue but it’s a whole lot more interesting than the quips in Shadow of Mordor.
Movement and combat are instantly familiar and the game empowers you even more rather than finding an excuse to reset your skills. To keep things challenging, the devs have ramped up the number of orcs and captains you’ll face. During the assault, I scaled the walls, picked off archers, dominated a graug catapult, hurled fireballs at the forces below, and then descended into the chaos. The fortress was massive, with several zones to capture, each guarded by numerous orc captains. Not initially understanding the system, my pursuit of the warlord was halted when my own captains started dropping like flies behind me and I was forced to pull back. With hundreds of orcs and dozens of captain on the field, it was immediately apparent how powerful Tallion/Celebrimbor has become – standard orcs drop in seconds and even captains health bars are shredded in a flurry of attacks. Initially, it felt too easy, until I realised I was facing off against three to four orc captains, each flinging deadly attacks in my direction. Then was also the fire-breathing drake that landed on top of me mid-fight, finishing me off. Although soloing a fortress is no doubt possible with enough time and skill, it reinforced the core gameplay mechanics of gathering a powerful army and weakening an opponent’s forces before commencing the assault.
I only got a short time with the game but I'm worried Shadow of War looks set to repeat the same mistakes as its predecessor, and I’m not sure if the larger scale improves the situation. The demo area was restricted but opening the region map revealed dozens of potential forts or camps to raid in just that region (one out of four). Manipulating the orc hierarchy was a key component of the first game and you transitioned from simply killing captains and their underlings in the first region, to dominating them and building an army of your own in the second. Even with this mid-game switch up, the experience grew stale by the end of the 15-20 hour game.
With all previous abilities unlocked from the get-go, and the prospect of repeating this process over four massive zones, I’m worried the entertaining and chaotic battle I experienced would quickly lose its charm and players will focus on gaming the system, finding shortcuts to avoid what should be a core mechanic. I know people found hours of joy just manipulating the Nemesis system but, as someone who requires some narrative context to drive events forward, I eventually gave up on dominating any orcs other than the captains by the end of Shadow of Mordor and that sense of fatigue really impacted my enjoyment of the closing hours.
Adam is currently knee-deep in slain orcs, preparing the review, so I'll remain hopeful while waiting to hear his verdict.
Enjoys games with awesome stories and characters, along with new and interesting hardware. Dislikes day-one patches and driver updates.
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