Developer: Monolith Production
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Release Date: 10/10/2017
Format(s): Xbox One (Reviewed), Playstation 4, PC
Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is one of those games that’s been talked about a LOT before its release, but for the wrong reasons. There’s been a massive controversy regarding its inclusion of loot boxes and the thought of having a ‘pay to win’ situation in a single player-focused title.
Well after playing it I can confirm two things. One: there ARE certainly plenty of loot boxes for you to purchase and they can make the game easier for you, but they aren’t compulsory and won’t be required to beat the game by any means. And two: Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is a very good game, and that’s all that it should really be having attention for.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of War follows on directly from the last game, with Talion and Celebrimbor still working together to overthrow Sauron as the ruler of Mordor. Talion has a new Ring of Power to help him do this, as well as the support of a variety of characters including everyone’s favourite spider Shelob (who can transform into a beautiful woman, if you didn’t know). That’s putting it all in a nutshell – let’s just say that you’ll be heading on an epic adventure that’s worthy of Middle-earth.
So it’s probably worth mentioning that anyone who has read the books or seen the movies needs to abandon their knowledge of Middle-earth’s lore, because Shadow of War’s non-canon story certainly spices things up with its alternate interpretation of the universe and its events. This isn’t something that’ll fit in perfectly with the over-arching story that fans know, but is rather its own release that adapts it in its own unique way. Your ability to accept this and look past the differences that the developers have made will dictate how much you’ll enjoy Shadow of War’s tale – especially if you’re a die-hard Tolkien fan.
Developer Monolith Productions’ creative interpretation of the world is incredibly well written though, which is something that you’ll particularly notice when encountering the countless Orcs across the land. There’s a lot of personality to them all that blends together humour with violent tendencies in a tremendous way; I found myself genuinely laughing out loud at times and despite their disgusting appearance, some of the Orcs turned out to be lovable little fellas. A personal favourite of mine was the Orc who fancied himself as a bit of a bard, but rather than singing of your heroics, he instead celebrates all of your failures – honestly, it’s so amusing in-game and shows that there’s a real light-hearted element to be found in-between all of the killing. The fact that you’ll actively bond with a lot of these Orcs (for better or worse) through the Nemesis system just makes them all the more interesting.
The Nemesis system has seen some improvements from the first game, with the Orcs you face off against full to the brim with personality and also holding longer grudges (or partnerships) with the player. There’s a large emphasis on recruiting them for your cause this time around too, with each Orc Captain you defeat either joining you, getting killed, or escaping to return another day. On the flipside, if they defeat you they’ll get promoted and become a more formidable foe the next time you face off against them.
What I loved the most about the system was just how unpredictable it was. You never know who you’re going to face off against, whilst the fact they often escape from a killing blow meant that you’d have to be wary that they won’t come back for revenge. I’ve come across plenty of vengeful Orcs during my time in Middle-earth who were missing limbs, were scarred to hell and back, or actually had weapons still lodged in their body following their encounters with me, yet they still wanted to have another go at taking me down. It adds so much character to the experience, whilst the unpredictability of each encounter and how they conclude ensures that the relationship you share with each Orc is unique to each player.
Embracing the Nemesis system and recruiting Orcs is vital to progression in the game though, especially since you’ll need a big army by your side if you’re going to conquer your enemies. You can send your trusty Orc Captains out on missions to assist you in a variety of ways, whilst they’ll also be by your side in the large-scale sieges that you’ll take part in as you look to vanquish enemy fortresses. These encounters are mighty impressive and are full of epic battles between your allies and your foes, but they can be pretty tense for personal reasons too; there’s nothing more satisfying than seeing one of your favourite Orc Captains laying waste to your enemies besides you, whilst alternatively seeing one die is heart-breaking. As mentioned, they’re all full of personality and essentially become part of your Shadow of War family.
Just be warned though: some will betray you and stab you in the back, so watch out for that too. They are Orcs after all, so they’re not always the most trustworthy of allies to have…
Whilst the Nemesis system is wrapped up with personality and variety though, the main missions of Shadow of War themselves aren’t too imaginative. They basically consist of dull objectives joined up with showdowns with enemies, with each epic encounter against a group of foes or a particularly vicious Orc sandwiched in-between what are often mundane tasks. Don’t get me wrong, they’re never awful because the game’s combat mechanics are so fun and they’re well-presented both visually and from a narrative standpoint, but when the Nemesis system and the personal vendettas that Orcs hold against you are so creative it’s a shame that the main missions themselves are lacking in comparison.
The game’s combat mechanics feel as fast and fluid as the last game, with the Arkham-like combos and countering once again present. Talios is incredibly easy to control in the heat of battle and can flick between foes with ease, which is handy seeing as you’ll be up against a plethora of Orcs at once on occasions. It’s often just a case of picking your moments though, with the player able to dodge, counter, and strike out at enemies as they please; you’ve just got to make sure you time everything perfectly. Some enemies will require more creative tactics to take down, though the game typically makes it clear what you need to do anyway so you’ll never feel overwhelmed. As you progress through the game you’ll improve your combat skills and unlock new abilities too, so you’ll never feel underpowered in comparison to your enemies – just be warned that sometimes you’ll have to unlock a few of the more rubbish abilities to get access to the big hitters.
Outside of the action-packed showdowns there’s also a tactical element to combat too, with Talion able to take the stealth approach to wipe out foes silently or scout out the area ahead of each battle. Each location you visit is quite large in size and often full to the brim with enemies, so searching through every nook and cranny or scaling rooftops to get a view of enemy locations can be the difference between life and death on the battlefield. There’s also other things to take into consideration too, like what gear or weapons you equip yourself with, or whether or not you want to ride into battle on a drake – that’s right, you can mount creatures once again and unleash absolute hell upon your enemies. It’s so, so, so very satisfying, and one of my favourite ways to make mincemeat out of the Orcs that stand in Talion’s way.
The world around you is absolutely huge this time around, with plenty of different environments to venture across. Each location in the game is attractive too, though Shadow of War isn’t a visual masterpiece; it doesn’t compare to other open-world games such as Horizon: Zero Dawn, though that doesn’t mean it’s ugly either.
What surprised me about the world was just how varied its environments were. I was surprised to see greenery in Mordor during the last game, but Shadow of War saw me venturing through other attractive locales such as the stunning forests of Nurnen which were full of life when compared to what you’d expect from Mordor. Of course, you also end up in the hellish Gorgoroth, which seems a lot more befitting of Mordor’s dark and ghastly reputation. There’s just a lot of different and surprising sights to see this time around and they made the world a lot more exciting to explore.
Once you’ve completed the main story missions you can return to Middle-earth to clean up anything you’ve left unfinished with plenty of side quests to complete and collectibles to find, or alternatively you can keep growing your Orc army to take on some of the new, tougher sieges. It adds a lot more replayability for those who aren’t quite ready to give up on their army yet, whilst there are some neat rewards in place for those who’re willing to stick it out. The fact that the main game is so meaty meant that I haven’t spent too much time playing post-completion, but it’ll certainly be appealing for those who want plenty of bang for their buck.
There’s also an online element to the game with the player able to take on other player’s Orc Captains or even lay siege against the fortresses they’ve built. It’s a satisfying little endeavour to get stuck into whilst the fact you’re taking on real player’s work means that there’s a more personal element to each showdown. From a gameplay perspective though they play just like any of the single player experiences, but it doesn’t stop them being a neat addition.
So the big controversy that arose long before Shadow of War even released was the implementation of paid loot boxes, but in the final game it turns out they’re not that bad at all. There were no occasions throughout my run through the campaign where I felt like I had to dish out real life cash in order to progress. Those who want to make the game easier could purchase them as a shortcut if they wanted to, but that’s all they are: a shortcut. They’re not compulsory and you won’t find that you can’t complete the game without them, so there’s no need to see them as something that’ll ruin your time playing it.
I had a lot of fun battling through Middle-earth again with Talion and Celebrimbor, with the improvements made to the Nemesis system and the larger scale of the world easily making Middle-Earth: Shadow of War feel superior when compared to its predecessor. I’m sure the creative freedom when it comes to the lore won’t be for everyone, but when it comes to action-packed epic battles in what are often comical showdowns with Orcs, the game is simply second to none.
A few dull missions do let it down and it doesn’t have the prettiest open-world you’ll ever see, but none of these flaws stop Middle-Earth: Shadow of War being easy to recommend to any action-loving Tolkien fan.