Monolith Productions recently released the long awaited follow up to Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, entitled Middle-earth: Shadow of War and I was lucky enough to get to review it. Does it live up to the hype and does it surpass its predecessor Shadow of Mordor? Read on to find out!
I’ll get the less important stuff out of the way first. Let’s talk about the graphics. Shadow of War is a great looking game. The environments are beautifully detailed, as are the armour and weapons of all the characters. It’s a beautiful sight to behold though a few of the areas look similar and it can get repetitive after a while. Plenty of attention to detail has been put into the Orcs themselves too. They’re always doing something, whether that be patrolling an area, making repairs to a building or sneaking off for a whizz behind a bush. It really makes the world feel alive, especially when you hear them talking about events taking place in the game and gossiping about their captains when he’s out of earshot.
One gripe I have about the presentation is that Shadow of War uses pre rendered videos for a lot of the cutscenes. I don’t know why as they barely look any better than the gameplay but the fact they’re videos means Tallion is always wearing his default armour, which is mildly annoying but even worse is the artifacting. It doesn’t happen in every scene but there will be times when parts of the screen get very blurry and it can really take you out of the moment. Now onto the meat of the game!
Unlike Shadow of Mordor, this game does not have an open world setting. Instead you have four regions you can teleport between. Each region is fairly sizeable and honestly I think this suits the gameplay better. You never have to travel far to get to a mission and the areas are small enough that there are interesting things all over the place without being overwhelming. Shadow of War gets off to a bit of a slow start. At the beginning the Orcs you fight have a lot of health and take a fair beating before going down. However as you level up and get new skills and abilities this becomes a non issue. It isn’t long before Tallion can gut a bunch of orcs or summon a group of spiders to do his bidding for him.
Sieges are a blast too. After amassing your army you can siege a fort with them. It’s a fairly simple affair. You storm the gates, capture certain areas of the castle and then move onto the boss fight. It’s great fun and it really feels like you’re fighting alongside you’re own personal army. Annoyingly though none of your warchiefs will accompany you into the boss fight. I guess they figure you’re good enough to do it alone.
If there’s one thing to be said about the combat though, it gets a little too easy after a while. You can lose all your health several times in a battle and still recover. About halfway through the game you’ll be able to take down hoards of Orcs on your own and fight multiple captains at the same time. A fight should get more tense when a third Orc captain joins the fray but it starts to become tedious. It evokes a feeling of “oh great, now I’m stuck here for another five minutes” rather than “oh shit, I’m gonna die this is terrifying!”
Now I’m not going to say I didn’t die a lot but I will say it often wasn’t my fault. More often than not Tallion will completely misinterpret the player’s intentions. I can’t count the amount of times I’ve gone to use an execution attack on a weak enemy, only to have Tallion use it on the Orc captain immune to execution attacks. Even worse is when I’ve weakened a strong enemy captain and want to dominate him. Tallion often believes I want him to try dominating one of the many grunts strewn about the place, even when I have him facing the captain 5 feet away. This had lead to many deaths since you’re vulnerable while dominating an enemy.
Also the bosses are just boring. You fight the Nazgûl something like 7 times and it’s the same every time. They have the same moveset and it’s only 3 different attacks. The first fight is tense because, holy shit it’s a Nazgûl, but then you realise they’re barely any more threatening than the orcs because at least some of the Orcs have certain immunities. Don’t even get me started on the last boss. You just mash dodge and attack. For the most part you don’t even need to move the control stick. That’s enough complaining though because the real star of the show is the Nemesis system.
It’s back and better than ever. On top of recruiting orcs to fight alongside you, you can send them to fight each other. You can send spies to infiltrate a warchief and have them betray him in the siege later on. The Orcs will also do their own thing while you’re out adventuring. Often Orc captains will fight each other, meaning there is a risk one of your own could die but you also have the option to join in the fight if you don’t trust them to win.
Shadow of War is one of few games that has made me care about NPCs who aren’t directly related to the plot. Each Orc gets a small bit of characterisation before and during a fight but it can really sting when one of them betrays you. For example, I recruited one guy and chose him as my personal body guard. We had some good times setting Orc outposts ablaze but that all changed. I asked him to tag along on one and got my ass handed to me. I went to give it another try and my guy ambushed me before I even got there. “How could I fight alongside you when you’re not even as tough as me!?” he asked. I showed him right then and there who was boss. Unfortunately he didn’t want to come back to my side and I had to put him down.
It was a shame really, I’d grown to like him but it was not to be. I have to say though that that feeling of bonding with my Orc companions didn’t last. At some point in the adventure you’re just recruiting everyone to capture the next stronghold and there are so many Orc captains and chieftains it’s hard to keep track of them all. There were several times a nemesis would introduce himself in a fight and prattle on about how he’s been waiting a long time to see me again and I’m looking at him wondering “Who the hell are you?”
One of Shadow of War’s biggest strengths is the interactions that can happen during combat and the variety they bring. There are plenty of ways to fight other than just hitting someone in the face. You can dominate a bunch of archers and bring them onto your side before taking on a captain for example. Or you can shoot down a nest of flies, poison a camp’s grog barrel, blow up the campfire and set everyone alight. Combat is never dull because you always have a wide variety of approaches to take. On top of that, enemy interaction is great. Often times I’ve had enemies kill each other for me, sometimes on purpose and sometimes by accident.
One time I was fighting an Orc captain and I wasn’t doing so great. Halfway through the fight another captain wanders into the cave and decides to help his buddy out. Things did not go to plan for either of them. I focused my efforts on the first guy as he wasn’t far from death. He was about to land a killing blow on me until I vaulted over his head. Unbeknownst to me, the one behind me had thrown a spear. What a sight that would’ve been, a sword in my face and a spear in my back. How the orcs would have rejoiced. Except he timed it badly and while I was still in the air above my nearly dead foe, the spear flew right under my feet and finished off the captain! This kind of interaction is what creates those moments that you want to tell everyone about. I wish I had been able to record it and show everyone but I know other players are going to have stories just like it and I can’t wait to hear theirs!
On the other hand, Orcs killing Orcs can be annoying sometimes. Let me give you two examples. One: I set out on a mission to kill an orc captain who was showing off his fighting skills in front of a group of his subordinates. The optional objective was a stealth kill. I had myself ready to approach when some other orc stumbled into the area and walked through a fire pit, lighting himself on a fire and stirring up a fuss. Long story short a fight broke out and everyone burned to death before I even got close. This was a successful mission but one with a rather anticlimactic end. The second example was more annoying than anything. I had been killed by a pretty powerful orc with two faces. I wanted my revenge and I was determined to recruit him. To help in my efforts I summoned my body guard. We took down my target’s guards and it was going great! The two faced warrior was weak enough for me to overpower his mind when my loyal protector decided it was best to lop his head off instead. All that effort wasted!
Overall Shadow of War is a blast! There is plenty of missions variety and the optional objectives make things more interesting and reward you with better gear. The gameplay is great right up until the end, or until the first ending anyway. I’ll touch on that more when I talk about the story.
The story overall is fairly simple and not much to write home about. It’s Lord of the Rings so you know what’s happening. Sauron wants to take Mordor and it’s up to you to make sure he doesn’t. While there isn’t much to the plot, I do think the character interactions are great. Each character is very well written and likeable, especially Celebrimbor, the wraith who inhabits Tallion’s body. There’s a great interplay between him and Tallion as Tallion is concerned about the fate of Mordor and its people whereas Celebrimbor just wants to get his ring back and put an end to Sauron’s reign once and for all, no matter the cost.
Now, I did mention something about a first and second ending and this is where the game falters significantly. The first ending is ridiculously anticlimactic. Not only is the boss fight a cakewalk but even when you win, you don’t really win. I won’t spoil it but suffice it to say, it was not worth all the effort. After that ending though the game continues. Sauron is attacking your forts with very strong armies and you have to defend them all one by one before getting the true ending. This section is pure tedium. You’ve already taken all the forts but Sauron’s army is stronger than most of yours so that means having to recruit a bunch of new warchiefs, which means grinding and grinding and grinding.
Up until now I hadn’t thought much about the lootbox system in the game but it’s clear this part was meant to entice people into using it in order to get high powered Orc troops and alleviate the grind. (You get gear from them too but the gear you get just from playing is strong enough that I never needed to upgrade after half way through the game.) Not wanting to fight through another eight sieges I caved and looked up the “true ending” online. It’s even less satisfying than I imagined. I know there’s only so much you can do with a prequel but it’s not canon anyway so they could’ve gone the alternate history route and had a decent satisfying ending.
In short, Shadow of War is a pretty good game. If you go into it expecting a story on par with the books or films you’re going to be disappointed. If you go in expecting a few interesting characters and just want to build up and Orc army you’re going to really enjoy your time in Mordor.
Middle Earth Shadow of War is available now for PC, Xbox one and PS4.