Developer: Monolith Productions
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Format Played: Xbox One
Platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One
Released: October 10, 2017
Copy supplied by publisher
Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor remains one of the biggest surprises of this console generation: an open-world action game that offered not only an interesting take on the Lord of the Rings property, but introduced a legitimately innovative new mechanic known as the Nemesis system. Three years later, Monolith is back with a full sequel — the awkwardly-titled Middle-Earth: Shadow of War — in an industry that surprisingly hasn’t gone hog wild in copying the Nemesis system like many assumed would happen after Shadow of Mordor’s critical and commercial success. Featuring an upgraded version of that same system, Shadow of War still manages to carve out a unique niche for itself in the crowded open-world genre, but does an overall focus on trying to top the first game in every conceivable way end up working against it?
Picking up almost immediately after the events of the first game, Shadow of War again casts players as the undead Gondorian ranger Talion, who alongside his spirit-bonded ally Celebrimbor (the “Bright Lord”) manages to forge a new Ring of Power with which to fight the dark lord Sauron. This is an interesting premise to kick the game off with but within the first 20 minutes, Talion willingly hands the new ring over to the spider Shelob (who, for reasons that are never really explained, can now take the form of a sexy goth lady) and you’re back to massacring orcs by the hundreds as you fight save the city of Minas Ithil from Sauron’s forces. Overall, the plot is much clunkier than Shadow of Mordor’s ever was, as you can feel Monolith really stretching to find a driving narrative force to justify another round of building an orc army with which to fight Sauron with, but there are still some cool moments spread throughout. As a longtime Lord of the Rings fan, I appreciated Shadow of War’s commitment to exploring more obscure parts of the series’ lore and getting to see how Minas Ithil becomes Minas Morgul, the haunted city of the Ringwraiths that Frodo and Sam encounter in Return of the King, was a real treat. Unfortunately, the plot really goes off the rails after the first act and never really finds its footing again, with an ending that feels like a half-baked attempt to tie into the beginning of The Lord of the Rings proper.
Really though, the main storyline wasn’t Shadow of Mordor’s strongest asset either, as that game’s best storytelling moments were found in your interactions with its colorful cast of orc enemies. In that respect, Shadow of War takes the right approach in recognizing that the orcs are the true stars of this series and Monolith should be commended for the strength of the game’s orc dialogue, much of which is absolute bonkers (in the best way possible). One orc captain simultaneously disgusted and delighted me with his long-winded explanation of how his body became infested with maggots and how he can feel them feeding on him at all times. Stuff like that sticks with you and it’s fun to engage in combat with the game’s many, many orc captains just to hear what they’ve got to say. The problem is that orcs as a whole are much more disposable then they were in Shadow of Mordor, as building your army and taking over enemy fortresses forms a huge chunk of what you’ll be doing in the game. As such, getting attached to a particular orc is a recipe for heartache, as they will die on you continually and often.
In this way, building my army often felt like a two steps forward, one step back experience, as I would get to a point where I wanted to be, only to lose a particularly valuable orc in a fighting pit battle or rivalry mission with enemy orcs. This wouldn’t be a big deal if the simple act of actually recruiting orc captains wasn’t so needlessly tedious. I lost track of the number of times I would set up an ambush on an orc I wanted, only for a few other orc captains to show up in the midst of battle, making an already difficult battle even more so. I understand that having other captains show up to make life harder for you is an inherent part of the Nemesis system design but when it happens almost every time, it makes what should be a fun gameplay experience needlessly frustrating. The combat system itself is partly to blame for this. In smaller encounters, Shadow of War’s familiar, Arkham Asylum-inspired mix of attacks, dodges, and counters feels well-tuned, responsive and most importantly, fun, but when surrounded by large crowds of enemies — which happens A LOT — it becomes apparent that the combat system is not well-suited to crowd control.
Thankfully, it’s pretty easy to escape battles, as Talion’s agility has been kicked up a notch this time out, but it takes a long time of unlocking abilities in the skill tree before you’ll even remotely start to feel well-equipped to survive the massive enemy encounters the game throws at you on a near-constant basis. Fortunately, Shadow of War’s new loot system makes all of this a bit more manageable, as you can earn new weapons and armor from defeating orc captains or unlocking them in loot crates. I was actually surprised by just how deep the loot system goes, as Monolith seems to have taken a page out of Diablo 3’s book in offering rare loot sets that give you some pretty handy perks (I’m a personal fan of any weapons that cause fire or poison damage). Plus, any game that lets you alter the appearance of your character with increasingly badass-looking armor is doing something right in my book.
Of course, you can always avoid physically recruiting orc captains to your side and purchase them through the game’s loot crate system. The introduction of loot boxes in Shadow of War is easily the game’s most controversial design decision and while it’s true that the game doesn’t really throw them in your face, their implementation is insidious nonetheless. Shadow of War features an in-game currency that is only really worth spending on loot crates since it doesn’t take very long to accrue a ton of it. However, you can only buy the lowest tier loot crates with in-game currency and the best ones can only be purchased with a special currency that you have to pay real-world dollars for. Now, it’s easy enough to make it to the end of the game without making any additional purchases, but reaching this point in the game reveals just how devious Shadow of War’s loot crate system truly is.
Without going into spoilers, beating Shadow of War reveals a secret final act — dubbed “Shadow Wars” — that tasks you with defending all the territory you took over previously from invading forces and it’s only after successfully clearing this act will you receive the game’s “true” ending. There are only two ways to win: sink in a ton of hours and grind it out or buy Shadow of War’s premium loot crates in order to get legendary and epic orc captains who are actually capable of survival. In essence, Shadow Wars is a litmus test for how much you enjoy Shadow of War’s gameplay systems. If you’re willing to grind it out and invest dozens of hours, you’ll probably appreciate this new level of challenge that the game throws at you. For everyone else, I’d advise just seeking out a YouTube video if you want to see the ending, as Shadow Wars will actively make you hate this game.
It’s difficult to not label Middle-Earth: Shadow of War as a disappointment, but that’s more a testament to both the quality of the original game and the stiff competition offered by other open-world games in the three years since Shadow of Mordor’s release. The truth is that, despite its flaws, Shadow of War is still a good, occasionally great game. The action is fun and varied, the environments are more diverse and colorful, the loot system is well-integrated, and the orcs are still the stars; heck, even the collectibles are actually worth collecting! Still, no game is released in a vacuum and Shadow of War has the misfortune of being released in 2017, a year that very could go down as one of the greatest in gaming history. Compared to games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Horizon Zero Dawn, and even Assassin’s Creed: Origins, Middle-Earth: Shadow of War comes up short, but if you’re a Tolkien fan and are looking for more of what the first game offered, there’s a lot here to like, warts and all.
Just whatever you do, don’t spend money on those loot boxes. They aren’t worth it.