Ambush! Betrayal! Combat! (Middle-Earth: Shadow of War – Act I)

I played Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor with great gusto, mainly thanks to the excellent and highly addictive Nemesis System that made each encounter intensely personal and competitive.

A Troubled Pact
For those who haven’t played Shadow of Mordor, here’s a short recap. Hero of the game is Talion, a ranger from Gondor, who is stationed at the Black Gate. Talion’s got a wife who he loves dearly and a son he is very proud of and training to become an Orc-slayer like himself. But when Mordor’s hordes storm the garrison all three of them are captured. Talion has to watch as his family is slaughtered, before his own throat is cut, all part of a blood ritual executed to call forth the wraith of the fabled elven lord Celebrimbor, who once forged the Rings of Power.

Celebrimbor, a creature thousands of years old, is of little compassion and that much more ambition. He possesses Talion and together they become the Gravewalker, an undead thing half elf, half human, that is hell-bent on bringing down Sauron’s minions and, eventually, the Dark Lord himself.

While Talion wants to avenge his family and protect his fellow Gondorians, Celebrimbor reveals that he, then known as the Bright Lord of Mordor, once challenged Sauron and, just like Talion, was made witness to his family’s death before he was killed himself. They’ve got that much in common, but it is pretty much all they share. While Talion is a strong and brutal swordsman as well as a sneaky assassin, if he has to, Celebrimor is all elven grace and speed, mowing down enemies with his bow and sorcery. And he commands the power of the Ring. The One Ring, that is.

Talion/Celebrimbor then set forth to kill their way up the chain of command and start dominating Orc and Uruk captains and war chiefs until they have wrought an army to challenge Mordor. Alas, the final confrontation with Sauron does not go as planned and this is where Shadow of War begins.

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The Nemesis Systems features unique foes that challenge the Gravewalker to gain XP and promotions. This guy proves both ambitious and resilient, since, no matter how many times Talion has already defeated him, he always comes back for more…

So, in Middle-Earth: Shadow of War, the unlikely duo of hero/villain that are Gondorian Ranger Talion and elven wraith Celebrimbor is back with a vengeance. Why villain, you ask? Because Celebrimbor is a cold-hearted bastard and if I did understand the ending of the first game’s second DLC The Bright Lord correctly, he initiated the blood ritual that cost Talion and his family their lives on purpose. Which means he’s directly responsible for their deaths. Not nice.

When we last left them at the gates of Mordor, they resolved to forge a new ring to defeat Sauron once and for all. Of course, their motivations for wanting just that differ somewhat. While Talion, honorable and caring human being that he is, wants to stop Sauron from destroying all of Middle-earth, but most of all wants to protect Gondor, the wraith of the elven lord and famed ringmaker Celebrimbor continues his descent into villainy. As mentioned, for those who have played the The Bright Lord-DLC, this will not come as a surprise. What’s new, though, is that Talion starts standing up to his elven companion. And boy was the smirk evil that Talion got as an answer, when he – fed up with the wraith’s antics – asked Celebrimbor how much of his soul he had actually put into the ring!

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The sultry Shelob is a strange ally. Can Talion trust her?

Act I of the story deals with the aftermath of disaster, for while forging the New Ring of Power Talion and Celebrimbor become separated and Talion has to give up that same, newly forged ring to get the wraith back and thus avoid dying. Again.

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Better hold on to that, Talion! Or, not?

The ring is now in the possession of a mysterious ally, Shelob, who professes to being no ally of Celebrimbor, though. She’s a smart one. Talion, a little slower on the uptake, still has no clue what is going on. (As Celebrimbor tells him cryptically at one point in Act II: “When Sauron falls, humans, elves and dwarves will bicker and fight, and someone else will rise.” Guess who he is talking about?) And Talion’s new ally shows him a little of the truth, a little of the future amd what is to come for the human city that Talion and his fellow Gondorians desperately try to save.

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The landscapes and settings have been improved and look spectacular and even more detailled than before. I like it!


Badass, epic combat

Now, Talion certainly is a badass fighter with his sword and a mean assassin with his dagger, but it is Celebrimbor whose expertise as elven archer and whose wraith-enhanced elven sorcery make the encounters with Orcs, Drakes and Nazgul epic. There was one scene in particular where my jaw just dropped: the conclusion of the arena battle close to the end of Act I. It was simply awesome!

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Talion fights Sauron’s champions in the arena, and that is one hard battle with an absolutey epic conclusion as the Bright Lord returns.

The Gravewalker is not all-powerful, of course, and while he’s undead, he can be killed (burned, stabbed, poisoned, crushed, cursed, shot or mauled to death, to be precise), which is, basically, the thrill of the Nemesis System, since those warriors who defeat him are promoted, gain XP and will happily try to kill him again, should the chance arise. Their taunts are always entertaining and always make me want to take them head-on, which is, mostly, a bad idea. In Act II this fatal condition will lead to some hilarious bickerings between Talion, who cannot get used to dying, and Celebrimbor, who in case of their defeat sagely advises not to do that again the next time.

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Doing missions and killing enemies grants XP points and those accumulate into Skill Points you can spend on abilities. As you can see, there are quite a lot of them, and they can be upgraded.

Luckily, my alltime favorite wraith ability – Shadow Strike – is back and Celebrimbor has gained some new abilities, the most epic of which is Elven Rage, during which the wraith basically shoots arrows at the enemies crowding around him non-stop for a limited period of time.

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Nemesis can now turn the tables on the Gravewalker and ambush him, which is thrilling indeed.

As awesome as that sounds, some enemies are arrow-proof (so Elven Rage won’t affect them) and you will have to gain intel on the armies opposing you to gain an advantage in any case. See, the fun part is that no enemy is like the other, they each have different strengths and weaknesses. You can try to find out about them while confronting the captains and war chiefs directly in the field (and you will sometimes have to, since you often happen across enemies without warning), but it is easier if you come prepared. And, let me assure you, once you have been killed by a particularly nasty enemy, you will try your very best to exploit that captain’s weakness and avoid a humiliating second encounter during which your nemesis will tell you how great it felt killing you.

What is also new is Ambush (!), a new ability that gives the enemy an advantage over our hero(es) – I still have hopes for Celebrimbor, somehow – and has them sneaking up on them when they least expect it. That is pretty mean, but at the same time a great addition to the game.

As mentioned, the Gravewalker can be defeated and great numbers will almost always lead to his demise. Going for stealth and striking decisively and quickly is therefore as important as blocking and dodging in a fight against a horde of enemies. In this context, the ranged ability to explode fires has been upgraded or, rather, elevated to badass mode, since now shooting an arrow into a fireplace makes Celebrimbor teleport into it and strike down, burning every enemy close by.

Unfortunately, Act I does not yet grant Talion/Celebrimbor the ability to make followers out of enemies (no Ring, remember?), but you will find allies both in Gondorians, Caragors and Graugs as well as spiders. Yes, spiders. Poisonous ones.

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Contrary to the first game, where slain enemies dropped Runes you could use to upgrade your weapons, they now drop actual weapons and gear, as well as gemstones that you can combine with those weapons and gear to make them more effective. The new inventory also includes a hammer, Celebrimbor’s weapon of choice in melee combat that is actually a ranged weapon, as alternative to a bow and, of course, the Ring, once you get it back.


An epic story

As mentioned, I have only finished Act I so far and am well into the Act II. But the story has been certainly much more promising than that of the last game and I can’t wait to continue this journey. See, while the Orcs are after the infamous Gravewalker, the Witch King of Angmar and his Nazgul are more interested in recruiting his spirit, which they plan to make one of their own, a ring-wraith, and they really don’t stop trying. That is one of the sets of missions you need to complete. There’s another involving a Balrog that is pretty intense and epic too.

As for the Gondorians: while Talion insists they aid the city’s defenders, Celebrimbor, contemptuous of his narrow view and power-hungry as ever, stresses the importance of regaining his ring from Shelob, which makes him sound more and more like Gollum (“My ring! My precious!”), who also makes an appearance again. But since Celebrimbor is tied to Talion’s body and cannot actually force him to go where he wants and do what he likes, he tries manipulation and persuasion, and he also never forgets to chide Talion for his foolishly trying to actually save lives. That growing dissent between the Ranger and the Wraith is what got me hooked. See, I really like Talion, who’s classic hero material. And while I do not actively hate Celebrimbor, I certainly dislike him. A lot.

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The Witch King of Angmar is a powerful and intimidating enemy and that Palantir gives him an advantage over the Gravewalker.

So I will set forth and build my army to challenge the Witch King and then Sauron. The Dark Lord has killed Celebrimbor and Talion once already. What else could he do to them, other than turning the Ranger into a ring-wraith or, worse, letting himself be defeated and thus paving the way for a perhaps more greater evil in the form of the elven ringmaker? That, I believe, will be Talion’s challenge. To keep the elf from losing his soul for good. We shall see how that works out, once I finish Act II.

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The end of Act I offers new alliances, but this assassin also does not want to have anything to do with Celebrimbor, which should make Talion wonder what it is the wraith wants to hide.

 


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