Given the exceptional reviews to 2014’s Shadow of Mordor, the developers at Monolith Productions were no doubt going to head back into the thick of that world to create a sequel. The follow up, Middle-earth: Shadow of War will be releasing this October to an audience anxious to head back into the fantasy world of J.R.R. Tolkien.
With a plethora of new content, expanded story and world, we wanted to find out more about the game. Gamingbolt had a chance to talk with Shadow of War’s Design Director, Bob Roberts, to figure out just what kind of world we’re about to dive head first into.
Given how well Shadow of Mordor was received, what kind of pressure did you face in trying to one-up that with Shadow of War?
I think a lot of it was our own internal pressure that we didn’t quite get everything done that we got done in Shadow of Mordor. We already had so much that we wanted to do to finish it and feel complete to us. Also seeing how well people reacted to it is great. The kinds of stories that people are sharing with each other afterwards is a good inspiration for where to put our effort in terms expanding the nemesis system. And where to put our effort in terms of difficulty and balance, and combat design. We get to see the people who just breeze through the game, never really die, never really experienced the nemesis system; because you need that death and revenge loop to emerge. So there’s ways to make the game harder for them. There people who got ambushed after the first five minutes of the game, and felt like it’s punishing and impossible. Taking all that feedback, it was just nice to be going through people’s checklist that’s posted on sites like Reddit.
What are your thoughts while working on this “alternative” Lord of the Rings universe? How do you balance between keeping things relatively Tolkien-esque while still exploring new boundaries?
We are obviously huge fans of the lore that we’re building on here. So a lot of our instincts are already working in the themes that are solid and authentic to begin with. We run everything by Middle-Earth Enterprises to make sure that we’re not conflicting with the established cannon. An aspect of being authentic to this license, we can just re-tell the same stories over and over. There’s something new in exciting on every page of Lord of the Rings, mysteries being spun off and not explained left and right.
It feels like we needed to do something new, and shine a light on these events to be true to that part of the experience. But also trying to modernize things a bit so that we are introducing it to a new audience. There’s people that are going to play our game that have never read the books or seen the movies. So introducing the property to a lot of people is as a challenge.
"At the heart of it, we want people to build personal stories out of things that should only happen to them. So whatever direction we can make game reactive to elements that won’t be the same for other people, that’s what we want to see when people share stories online."
The Nemesis system was fairly innovative in Shadow of Mordor. When creating the sequel, what inspired you to apply it to the entire world?
At the heart of it, we want people to build personal stories out of things that should only happen to them. So whatever direction we can make game reactive to elements that won’t be the same for other people, that’s what we want to see when people share stories online. We don’t want to see them describing the cinematic that’s the same for everyone. Obviously that stuff should be cool and exciting, but it was really exciting seeing people share crazy collision of systems, and visuals, and personal abilities that only happened because of the choices they made on the way.
Any dimension of the game, we pulled the nemesis out into the environment, we put it into the tribes, we put it into the gear, the loot drop system informing what drops when you kill it, based on your relationship with him [Talion] and continue his story through the gear. We put that into a lot of elements in the game.
Thus far, we’ve seen a lot of the fortress assaults and some of the new areas. What other regions can be expected in Shadow of War and what other kinds of side missions can we look forward to?
The regions that we’ve shown up so far are pretty diverse. We’ve got the snowy mountain, the lush forest, the volcano and the human city. There’s a huge amount of diversity compared to what we did last time. We also try to level up the narrative, the quality, and the presentation of the side missions this time. There’s a lot of story going on in the side missions that I think for a lot of players will be indistinguishable from the main missions. We try to bring that all up to a place where you’re just playing through stories and getting immersed in it, rather than thinking about it as a checklist.
What was taken from the last game that made this game so much more lively?
In the last game we were trying to establish: what does Mordor look like in this gaming world; and it’s a dark, gritty, nasty place. I think that could become overbearing for people at times, and so we still have those places. We can find more ways to bring pops of color to the world. Bright orange lava shooting up is going to help compared to the muted colors we did last times, as beautiful as it could be at times. The lighting also helps a lot. Overhauling the lighting engine and letting a lot of the color of the world come out based on the time of day, and those types of things make a big difference. Giving people more diversity and more iconic environment is always fun.
"The gear is extremely varied this time. The bonuses, the stats, the properties that you’ll find here are a lot more powerful than they were last time."
How big is the map in the game compared to the previous version?
We have way more regions this time. And each region is bigger than the last one. So we are easily two or three times bigger.
Compared to Shadow of Mordor, how much more is there to do? In terms of hours, how much gameplay do you think fans will be able to enjoy?
In a big open world game one thing we have learned over the years making Shadow of Mordor and now Shadow of War is seeing how people are approaching the game, nobody plays the same way as each other in these games. They go off in different directions, they get obsessed with different aspects of the game. The spectrum of number of hours people put into it is crazy. The typical time we see for people to finish a play test end up being two or three times larger than the last game. But you have this crazy spectrum depending on what kind of player you are. We try to support everybody with different activities, and different goals and different things they can do.
In a way, it’s interesting to see both Injustice 2 and Shadow of War have this strong focus on gear. Was it a coincidence or did NetherRealm and Monolith sort of exchange notes?
As a studio we’ve been driving through some similar philosophies and principles. We’re drawing a lot of inspiration from the same places they are, I think. We have shared ideas coming from Warner Bros. You kind of noticed the general trend of people getting more comfortable again with the RPG factor in games. Everywhere you can give people a reason to keep engaging, and get more rewards, and get more rewarded for continuing to play.
What are some of the Gear Sets that players can acquire in Shadow of War? What different benefits do they confer? Can players make specific builds to create specific, powerful styles of play?
The gear is extremely varied this time. The bonuses, the stats, the properties that you’ll find here are a lot more powerful than they were last time. They are also informed by the nemesis system and the relationship and interactions you had with the specific works. So if you build up a crazy grudge and rivalry with a guy who’s name is the Flame of War, or something, and you burn him to death, the sword that drops from that might be a flaming red sword with the fire property. It’s got a challenge on it or you can upgrade.
Complete to upgrade and turn that named piece of loot, like, the Flame Bringer or something. It’ll actually contain a quote from the guy you kill to get it. So you almost kind of commemorate the battle and continue the story into your loot this time. There’s absolutely a ton of thought and balance put into constructing different builds. Letting people really emphasize one aspect of stealth, or combo, or elemental, and there are all kinds of different possibilities. One thing I think people will have to keep an eye on is the nemesis enemies they’re fighting are so different. You might even want to be careful about getting into intel first, and deciding if the build you built is actually the right one to take on that particular guy.
"There is legendary loot. It’s going to be pretty rare. If you’re into collecting the gear and powering up that will be a good draw to keep hunting orcs and try to find those legendary guys."
I notice while playing the E3 demo is the level of theatricality. Some enemies will talk, and talk, and talk. What’s that inspired from?
First of all, Orcs in out world are not just dumb brutes. There is a like full spectrum of humanity in them. They’re just soldiers in the trenches, like going through extremes of cruelty. There are clever guys, sick and sadistic guys, there are commanding general types, and there are the cowardly little guys who just want to get out of here. There’s a full spectrum. We want there to be so much personality to these guys that, again, it all fades into the unique stories. It shouldn’t look and sound like everyone else’s nemesis.
What kind of end-game component can we expect in Shadow of War, especially with such a big focus on gear? Is there something that people can enjoy once the main story is finished?
We haven’t really talked about our end game plans yet. We are ridiculously excited to get to that point and start talking about things. So I can’t really say much here. But there is legendary loot. It’s going to be pretty rare. If you’re into collecting the gear and powering up that will be a good draw to keep hunting orcs and try to find those legendary guys.
Can you give us any information on season pass content that players can look forward to?
We announce the Gold addition, which include all of the DLC? There’s new tribes that we’re going to introduce that will expand the sandbox of nemesis characters. There’s also the big story DLC for you get to play as the Blade of Galadriel. And another story expansion that I don’t think we’ve said anything about yet.
Is the ultimate plan to make a trilogy out of this series? I mean, it surely looks that way, right?
What I can say is we took very seriously the criticisms of the ending last time. We know it didn’t end on a strong note and it was kind of a cliffhanger. It will absolutely feel conclusive and complete when you finish this game. I think people will feel like we overcompensated a little bit.
Shadow of War will feature Xbox One X specific enhancements. What can players expect if they are playing the game on Xbox One X? Is 4K/60fps on the cards?
It’s 4K and I think it will be 30 frames, not 60fps. But we’re pushing the graphics as far as we can. It still plays really smooth at 30. It plays great. It doesn’t seem to have issues at 30. We’re also putting all the power in to implementing HDR at 4K graphics.
What can you say about the PS4 Pro version?
We’re still optimizing for that. Obviously it’s more powerful than the base PS4. The specs aren’t quite as high as the Xbox One X. But I think we can still get most of out of the graphics. Will still have HDR. I think we’ll still have 4K but I can’t guarantee that right now. I think we’re still optimizing.
"On the normal Xbox One dev kit, it will take us a few minutes to load one of our worlds. It’s pretty big and takes a while to rev up. The Xbox One X loads it a few seconds. So that’s a big deal if you’re trying to iterate quickly to get more cycles on something."
From a development perspective, how do you find the Xbox One X to be? With so much GPU power, we are sure you must be doing some amazing things.
I personally don’t have a dev kit at my desk. I know the people that do have Xbox One X dev kits and are testing on those. We spread the consoles out around the team so people are testing on different devices. The guys who have the Xbox One X, for them the biggest thing about it is the load times. On the normal Xbox One dev kit, it will take us a few minutes to load one of our worlds. It’s pretty big and takes a while to rev up. The Xbox One X loads it a few seconds. So that’s a big deal if you’re trying to iterate quickly to get more cycles on something.
It’s a day and night difference between the two?
Yeah, it’s huge.
How is the game running on the original Xbox One and PS4, frame rate and resolution wise?
It’s doing great on those. We can be confident that even with epic hundreds of enemies battles we’re still going to maintain a solid 30 frames all the time on those consoles as well.
Do you have any plans to bring it to the Nintendo Switch?
We have no Switch plans right now.
Can you explain the reasoning behind that?
I don’t know all that went into that decision.
Does it have anything to do with the processing power?
I’m really not sure. I know that our tech team got it up and running on the Xbox One X dev kit within a day. I think that’s a big deal for us: how much work do we have to devote to supporting another console versus making the game better? I really don’t know to what degree if they got those kits, and decided it would be too much. Or they never got them because Warner Bros. didn’t want us to invest our time there. I have no idea. It could have been at a higher level at Monolith. It could have been down to the tech. Anything is possible.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
For me the best thing about working on the game, the best thing about the game when I play it too, is the nature of the sandbox. There’s all these dynamic systems that can collide and chain react in exciting, weird, unpredictable ways. When I used to make games that were more linear and scripted, you get to that millionth iteration of reviewing a mission, and you still try to get excited and invested in it.
Everybody starts to become a little numb, a little blind to some of those details. But with this game it was similar with Shadow of Mordor. Every time we get together in a room and review a mission, something weird and new happens. Everybody’s laughing and having a good time and it just makes the environment more fun to be in. It just makes the game more fun to play when you never know what’s going to happen.