Review – Middle-earth: Shadow of War
I absolutely loved Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. I’ve never been much of a Tolkien fan, but the gameplay and meshing of established systems had me hooked.
The Nemesis System was something about the game I also adored. Having different Orcs fight and remember me, even after death (mine or theirs) felt revolutionary.
Everything about Shadow of Mordor felt perfect at the time. The combination of Batman: Arkham combat, Assassn’s Creed exploration and an action-RPG skill tree was fresh and seemed to push the genre in an altogether new direction.
Even for me, someone who doesn’t really care about Lord of the Rings, the story had enough hooks and interesting beats to be interesting.
So when Shadow of War was announced, I was obviously over the moon. If Shadow of Mordor was so good, just imagine how amazing the sequel is going to be I thought.
Unfortunately, while Shadow of War is a decent enough game, it never manages to capture what made the original so special. Bigger isn’t always better and in Shadow of War’s case its doubly true.
The Devil on Your Shoulder
Following immediately after the events of Shadow of Mordor, Shadow of War sees Talion and Celebrimbor carrying out Talion’s plan. Crafting a new ring of power will enable Talion and Celebrimbor to defeat Sauron once and for all. Or so they think…
The forging of the ring leads to Celebrimbor’s wraith form being forcibly removed from Talion’s body and kidnapped by Shelob. In order to get the dead, judgemental Elf back, Talion must part with the ring. Shelob then advises Talion to travel to MInas Ithal and protect it from Sauron. The city houses the Palantir which Celebrimbor sees as valuable to their efforts to stop Sauron.
Without the ring, Talion and Celebrimbor are unable to dominate Orcs. This, unfortunately, leads to Shadow of War’s first misstep.
New players obviously need some hand-holding when playing a sequel. But the first four or five hours of Shadow of War are dead boring, painful even, if you’ve played the original. All of the elements of the previous title are slowly drip-fed to the player. All the while Talion and Celebrimbor are carrying out missions and talking about people and places I’ve no interest in.
Show Us Your Ring
One of my housemates is a die-hard Tolkien fan. Some of the plot points he thought were a good use of the Lore. Others he felt were blasphemy. We both agreed that Shadow of War feels a lot like fan-fiction, rather than something that should be part of the canon. Having Shelob as this benevolent force for good seems really wrong. As does her flouncing about as a sexy lady rather than a massive spider.
Events towards the end things spiral rapidly and although I thought some ideas were really good, much of the plot felt really “meh.” I don’t want to spoil anything, but the Nazgul stuff is the main culprit.
This is a huge shame. The story potential of Shadow of Mordor has been lost in the sequel. It’s messy, confusing and incredibly long-winded. Worst of all, the plot doesn’t really get going until after you’re done with Minas Ithal and you get your ring of power back.
Once you’re able to dominate Orcs and use the Nemesis System to its fullest, things get back on track. Having Brûz the Chopper guide you through the use of application of the system is a genius touch. If you’ve not seen Brûz the Chopper, then check out this video. Deadset legend.
Unfortunately, Brûz doesn’t touch on everything in the Nemesis System, especially the new fortress siege elements; more on this later. I didn’t even know how to infiltrate Warlord’s with spies until I was nearly finished.
The Delicious Creamy Centre
All in all, I played Shadow of War for over 140-hours. I unlocked the Platinum Trophy and I finished absolutely everything there is to do. Thankfully, the majority of that was spent having an awesome time. The middle section of Shadow of War is where all the best bits happen. It’s also where you’ll spend most of your time.
Missions typically require players to go to a point on the map, carry out a specific action then fight a shit-load of Orcs. It’s fortunate then that movement and fighting in Shadow of War are flawless. We all know that open-world games can tend to drag a bit. Getting around them can be a pain and even with fast travel, you still need to trek for ages to get where you’re going.
Not so in Shadow of War. There are four fast travel points in each location, of which there are five. Even when the fast travel point is miles away, getting around is such fun it doesn’t matter. Talion’s movement skills are exactly the same as Assassin’s Creed. What he also has though, is the undead Celebrimbor’s Elf skills.
Sprinting sets Talion off at lightning speed. Double jumps, long leaps up vertical faces, quick bursts of speed and mantling over small obstacles all come together to make Shadow of War, the best open-world game ever in terms of exploration and movement.
Combat is ripped straight from Batman: Arkham again. There are a few neat little touches here and there and you can unlock some great skills, but there’s nothing new. It works and it works well. No need to change it up.
Practice My Stabbin’
What has been changed, or should I say expanded, is the Nemesis System. It’s not necessarily for the better though. The original Nemesis System created these special moments that seemed like they were for you and you alone. Unique to the playthrough you were on. I didn’t feel this in Shadow of War. It’s not clear whether the frequency was turned up too high or if Monolith simply doubled down on a good thing. I found myself battling Captain Orcs more often than not.
They’d interrupt missions or sieges. Oftentimes Captains would gang up on me or return from the dead again and again and again. All of this happened in Shadow of Mordor, but something about the whole system seemed off in Shadow of War. It felt annoying instead of unique. Without the Nemesis System in place, there’s not that much gameplay content, so it’s a necessary annoyance.
That’s not to say it was always annoying. Sometimes the Nemesis System felt just right. It enhanced the experience and made Mordor feel like a living, breathing world. In these moments I saw all the potential of Shadow of War and the game that it was trying to be. If it could have been that game for the duration, it would have been stellar.
The big new addition to the Nemesis System is the Fortress Sieges. At first, I was a big fan. In order to succeed in the Siege, you’ll need to build an army of Orcs and use them to take advantage of the enemy Captain/Warchief’s weaknesses. To succeed, you’ll need to defeat the enemy Warchiefs and capture a number of points within the fortress. Once you do, you’ll face the Warlord. If you defeat him, then you’ll take control of the fortress.
Capture the Flogg
It’s a lot of fun to plan your attack or defence. You’re able to purchase upgrades for each Warchief which help you to attack or defend too. You can give them a group of grunts, or a pack of Caragors, equip the fortress with spiked walls and fire or poison mines and even recruit a drake to attack from overhead.
All of this is great the first few times. Once Shadow of War decides to make you play Fortress Sieges repeatedly for several hours, the shine comes off. And it comes off fast. The fact that the fourth and final chapter of the game is made up of nothing but Fortress Sieges really soured the overall experience. They’re just not very fun. A cardinal sin for a video game.
If you do enjoy them you have the option of attacking a random online Fortress to see how well another player has built their defences. It’s a pretty hollow addition, but it’s benign. It’s actually more enjoyable to battle against another player’s Fortress than it is to finish chapter fourth.
I honestly can’t express enough just how much I disliked Shadow of War’s final chapter.
It’s Not ALL Bad
There’s a lot to like about Shadow of War and there’s also a lot that’s easy to dislike. I wouldn’t say hate though. That’s too strong a word. Disappointment is the strongest emotion I felt. Disappointment that Shadow of War is only a shadow of what the original game was.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy to have played 140+ hours of Shadow of War. The majority of my playthrough was spent having a rip-roaring time, but the bookends of the good times were utterly terrible. It’s a real shame because I loved Shadow of Mordor so much and had such high expectations. Shadow of War isn’t a bad game by any stretch of the imagination. It’s great in parts, ok in others and woeful in some here and there.
If you’ve played the original then you’ll probably play Shadow of War regardless of what I say and so you should. Fans of action-adventure could certainly do better, though they could also do a lot worse. At least Shadow of War attempts something different and interesting. Even if it’s not always a success.
Middle-earth: Shadow of War was reviewed on PS4 with a promotional copy provided to PowerUp! by WB Games.
Game title: Middle-earth: Shadow of War
Brûz the Chopper, Aussie Legend - 10/10
Controversial use of Tolkien Lore - 6/10
Chapter IV - 3.5/10