Middle-earth: Shadow Of Mordor was a game driven by pure hate. Not by leaderboards, not by noble quests, not by loot, but by the burning desire to behead a very particular orc who kept calling you names. Its genius lay in its fresh and inventive Nemesis System that meant even though the orcs were procedurally generated (and so different for every player) they would remember every encounter with you. They could be scarred by it, or emboldened. It made victories poisonously satisfying and defeats massively humiliating.
The sequel, Middle-earth: Shadow Of War is set for release on August 22 for PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4 as well as the PS4 Pro and Microsoft's new Project Scorpio console, and the development team at Monolith is really building on those foundations of hate. The new game will be bigger – the map now spreads all the way to the borders of Gondor – and there are lots of new flavors of orc. There are overlords that rule giant fortresses (that can be captured to become your bases) and orcs you enslave and then abandon on the battlefield will hold a grudge. You can even dominate dragons in this game, FFS.
After seeing a playthrough of a section of the new game we spoke to design director Michael de Plater about the real stars of the show, the orcs.
What was the most important new feature that you built for the sequel?
That's like asking who's your favorite child. I know it sounds like a cheat but it's really how all the different pieces fit together. If I was going to pick one thing – there's not really a word for it – but we have these real super villain nemesis enemies. Last time they could get a scar or they could get some different upgrades, now they can fully transform into these fully epic super villains. Their identity and their personality can actually grow, they can get scars over their whole body, they can get weapons and abilities that represent that. I think it really adds another level in how much you can personalize and transform and evolve who these characters are.
In the play through we saw there was a follower who had turned against you. That's new, and it seems like a more personal vendetta
And those stories can keep going as well, because in some ways there's no sweeter vengeance over someone like that than dominating them again and re-compelling them to join your army. Then we have this whole other psychological layer where their minds can snap when that happens. They can go completely crazy like Reek in Game Of Thrones, or they can turn into rampaging psychopaths like Jason Voorhees. The way that you can actually affect them through these interactions is always about the next story that we can create.
The first game was all about turning orcs from simple cannon fodder into individuals you actually hated. This feels like it goes even deeper.
Something we really wanted to do was not only enable people to have those stories, but also to have goals around them of conquering Mordor and of creating your own bases in these fortresses and then putting your guys in there and defending them.
We saw an orc, Deadeye, save us in battle. So, we'll build friendships with the orcs in this game?
One of the interesting things that we learned from Shadow Of Mordor was that we'd see these stories of how someone would have a particular enemy and they'd hate them and hate them and then finally they would achieve this satisfying revenge and the enemy's head would go sailing through the air and they'd have these mixed emotions. A bit of sadness that the story was over.
Now we're making you love to hate these enemies. Then when those guys come on your side they're still the same personifications of evil that they were before, but now they're on your side. You sort of love to hate your enemies and hate to love your followers. There's definitely this attachment that grows as they're useful for you or as you help them survive. You have this relationship with them and there is this reciprocity that develops. Like the moment when the Demolisher (a massive troll that's been on your side) burns to death and dies, it definitely prompts some mixed emotions. Even if they're your followers when they die, they're still going to drop gear. Your loved one's gone, but you've got a nice inheritance.
The orcs and their names are procedurally generated, so was it strange to see people develop relationships with orcs you'd never seen before?
We were surprised even two weeks ago because someone managed to play through the whole game so that Ratbag actually appeared as the final enemy. So two years later people are still discovering ways to manipulate that and create stories that we hadn't deliberately put in there or even thought about.
Did any of those sort of surprises influence decision you made for Shadow Of War?
I think one area that we wanted to make stronger was that from reading threads about the most memorable orcs it broke down into two types. People would either remember them based on gameplay – 'this guy was so tough, he was immune to everything' or 'he had poison weapons and I couldn't beat him' – or people would remember them based on their personality and their identity.
What we've tried to do this time is make sure that those two things go together. So in this demo we have Stormbringer – who hates you and has turned more to the dark side – who is cursed and his this cursed weapon that affects the way he looks. That kind of thing just makes them more memorable – directly aligning the gameplay and the physical attributes, trying to make them more memorable and personal.
The voice actors for the orcs really help too
They've really just gone above and beyond this time. We really wanted to push away from the pure fantasy tropes, the orcs are definitely caricatures and exaggerations of genuine human faults and what happens when people are put in situations where they really are ruled and defined by hatred and fear and all those things.