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.