Middle-earth: Shadow of War
Available on: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Steam, Windows 10 (supports Xbox Play Anywhere)
Release Date: 10th October 2017
Developer: Monolith Productions
Publisher: WB Games Inc
Reviewed on: Xbox One
When Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor (Shadow of Mordor) first released in 2014, it rocked the gaming world because of one specific feature: the Nemesis system. It had been talked about before launch yet the game actually delivered on its promise. Orcs would remember their fights with you, could survive mortal wounds but become appropriately scarred and most importantly, could be branded and forced to serve you in your campaign to undermine Sauron’s influence.
Fast-forward to 2017 and Middle-earth: Shadow of War (Shadow of War) is here, promising a grand fight against the Dark Lord, battling him across Mordor fortress by fortress. Alongside this expanded conflict would be an even more-expanded Nemesis system, with Orcs (and their spotlight-stealing Olog-hai companions) capable of genuine friendship, betrayal, plots and more. As a huge fan of Tolkien’s works, as well as the Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit films, I was excited. Does Shadow of War deliver?
(Be forewarned, this review contains major spoilers from the game’s predecessor, Shadow of Mordor.)
Shadow of War opens very shortly after the previous game closed (perhaps just a few hours) with Talion and Celebrimbor fashioning a new Ring of Power, one that is not “marred with His shadow.” Minas Ithil is under siege from the Witch-King’s forces, a spirit of nature has been roused, a certain daughter of Ungoliant has taken an interest in the new Ring and our duo now have the strength to build an army that can directly challenge Sauron, all the while ever-growing in strength. Then, there’s the slightly concerning fact that Celebrimbor and Talion are becoming more and more difficult to tell apart, referring to themselves collectively as the Bright Lord — the distorted, unkillable wraith whose power is rapidly increasing. From there, it’s safe to say that things escalate.
The storyline here is definitely enjoyable, even if Talion remains a tad bland as a protagonist (some sarcastic moments aside) you still can’t help but feel for him. He’s weary, worn and tired, desperate to be reunited with his family yet still driven with purpose. Celebrimbor by contrast, is utterly consumed by pure, unadulterated rage, always seeming to know more than he’s letting on. A nice supporting cast of characters help round things out, though I do wish some of them stayed around longer than Act 1. One in particular plays a major role with a nice twist I really didn’t see coming.
Shadow of War does admittedly play fast and loose with some of the canon from the books, though it fits neatly in the film universe. While I found some of the changes or leaps in logic to be interesting, I can totally understand if Tolkien purists take issue, as there is no doubt that ‘reading between the lines’ is taken to its theoretical maximum here.
Gameplay & Mechanics
The gameplay here is mostly unchanged from Shadow of Mordor however, there are far more options and variety in everything you do. Every skill has two or three modifiers that can be applied, such as upgrading your stun into a chilling blast that freezes all enemies in its path. Not every modifier will fit every situation, so you’re encouraged to play around with all the tools at your disposal. It can certainly be daunting at first however, it’s not nearly as daunting as managing all the equipment available.
You’ve got several equipment slots: your sword, dagger, bow, armor, cloak and a rune to amplify the Ring of Power. There are four levels of equipment (and four types of Orcs): common, rare, epic and legendary. Depending on the tier, they can be upgraded once or even multiple times, further increasing their usefulness. If you don’t have any need for them anymore, you can just break them down for money to spend on other upgrades.
Good thing too, because managing those fortresses will take a lot of time and effort. After gathering your forces in a particular region, you outfit your siege team, choosing between purchasing different additions like extra Ologs, shielded soldiers or even fire-breathing drakes. It’s not all direct assault though. You can undermine the enemy Overlord with spies, though of course they might get discovered. You can also assassinate his Warchiefs, reducing the effectiveness of his army. Much like with your equipment, there’s an overwhelming amount of options available. It doesn’t end there though. Once you’ve taken a fort, you will eventually get to play the part of the defender, trying to maintain everything you have taken from Sauron.
One major point of improvement over Shadow of Mordor is the boss battles. They are plentiful and spread throughout the game, with some very creative mechanics applied, a far cry from the quick-time events that plagued the end of Shadow of Mordor. Even the bosses you create for yourself through the Nemesis system are awesome, with Overlords using customized throne rooms to their advantage and recurring foes developing nasty tricks that’ll keep you on your toes.
The pacing as a whole is well done, with each Act (1 through 4) having a different structure and primary purpose. Act 4 has been accused by many of being a grind fest however, I honestly have to disagree. Maybe if you rush through things but if you are doing the various side activities and take a keen interest in maintaining your power and your forces, I don’t think you’ll have an issue. Not once did I purchase any of the microtransactions, which are annoying and available but completely unneeded. The very fact that they are present is concerning though and gamers should be on guard against more extreme implementations in the future.
At the heart of this game however is one shining mechanic: the Nemesis system itself. Every single Orc you encounter has a chance to become your greatest ally, your deadliest foe, or through time, both. One particular stand-out example early on in my journey was the saga of Bagga the Machine. During a pitched battle, I was repeatedly ambushed by various captains and their troops. Cutting dozens down, I was eventually overwhelmed and it was a random, scrawny grunt by the name of Bagga that delivered the final spear throw.
I hadn’t died for several hours prior to this and I was ticked. Tracking the newly promoted Orc down, I promptly removed his right arm, right leg and life with two quick sword strokes. Alas, it was not the end of Bagga, merely the birth of a monster. He survived my ‘fatal’ blow and using a metal peg leg to walk, he sewed his arm back on and came after me again. So I put him down again, cleaving him in two and impaling him through the left eye. Was that the end? Of course not.
His luck now straining incredulity, he was put back together by some all-too-enthusiastic Orc engineers, now consisting of more armor plate and riveted joint than orc, picked up an automatic crossbow and metal hooked chain, and took on the title of the Machine. At this point, I flat out gave up my notions of revenge, instead branding him and promoting him to Overlord. This is just one (admittedly ridiculous) example of the Nemesis system. Every single action is remembered, every character playing a part in a living world.
Graphics & Sound
Shadow of Mordor looked good so it certainly makes sense that the sequel would follow suit. The environments look great and there’s quite a bit of variety present, with the ashen, volcanic, machining industry-laden land of Gorgoroth providing a nice contrast with snowy, mountainous Seregost and lush Núrnen. Even on the base Xbox One on a 1080p TV, it looks really good and does an excellent job of drawing the player in. There is however a bit of an odd exception, as some textures, hidden away in the corners of forts or caves, are extremely low-resolution. It’s not a deal breaker by any means (and I’m sure it isn’t the case on the PC or upcoming Xbox One X versions) but it’s still disappointing.
The soundtrack is a bit of an odd case, as there are definitely epic moments or somber tunes however very little truly stands out. It’s most definitely serviceable, with some awesome standouts that accentuated the boss fights or story cutscenes. Still, it’s shocking to me that a game within the Lord of the Rings universe wouldn’t have a riveting soundtrack all throughout. Fortunately, the sounds of everything else are absolutely on point, from the Orcs’ hilarious accents to the roar of Drakes in combat.
Ultimately, the replay value comes down to two simple questions: Do you enjoy the Nemesis system? Then, do you enjoy the gameplay? Your answer to those provides your reason to replay (or not replay) Shadow of War. If you love the Nemesis system like I do, you’ll have a blast and want to continue taking fortresses, experiencing everything the game has to offer. As much as is theoretically possible, anyways.
While I did enjoy the story, this is a massive game, and doing everything here will easily take 50 hours or more. As a result, I can’t see myself replaying it solely to enjoy the story, rather that comes as a bonus on top of the gameplay systems at work here.
Please see below for my summary and overall score of Middle-earth: Shadow of War.