Monolith Productions hit it out of the park in 2014 with Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. While it was basically a glorified Orc-killing simulator, the game was nonetheless a real blast to play for most gamers who gave it a shot, thanks in large part to the patented Nemesis System. I figured a sequel to Shadow of Mordor would probably be slightly bigger and better but wouldn’t add much of anything new to the proceedings. I mean, other than a more involved story, what else could the developers possibly add to make a sequel that could outshine its predecessor? Well, Monolith managed to make just such a sequel in Middle-earth: Shadow of War. Not only does this game vastly improve on the first game’s Nemesis System, but it also adds in more fun stuff like riding Drakes, setting up pit fights, and leading armies of Orcs against well-guarded fortresses. It’s been a while since I’ve been this addicted to a game, and despite some occasionally frustrating issues, I enjoyed damn near every minute of my time with this game (and as of this writing, I still continue to enjoy it).
After the events of Shadow of Mordor, main characters Talion and Celebrimbor make good on their plan to forge a new ring of power that could allow them to challenge the Dark Lord Sauron and free Middle-earth of his evil forever. After meeting with well-known Lord of the Rings character Shelob, who offers our heroes visions of Sauron’s attempts to destroy the few remaining free peoples still residing in Mordor, they soon find themselves doing what they do best: lopping off Orc heads and looking badass while doing it. Full disclosure, Lord of the Rings purists will no doubt find this game’s portrayals of certain characters, like the aforementioned Shelob and the Nazgul, to be quite blasphemous to the established Tolkien lore, although if one looks at this game as being more connected to the movies, then even the purists might not be so enraged at the changes to these characters’ backgrounds. As a more casual fan of The Lord of the Rings (at least with regards to the books), the changes to these characters were quite intriguing, and I liked some of the chances Monolith took to craft their own story that actually fits very well into Tolkien’s world. The story, while not one of this game’s strongest points, was certainly an improvement over the first game’s story, especially the latter half of the second act and beyond.
One complaint that many gamers had about Shadow of Mordor was that it was too easy. Most players will find the game challenging enough on their first playthroughs, though subsequent playthroughs could be a tad on the too easy side (the game is still fun though, I don’t care what anyone else says). Shadow of War, on the other hand, remedies this issue. Difficulty levels have been added in this time, and even the normal mode is a good challenge. It’s not “pull out your hair in frustration” difficult, but there have been times where certain Orc captains/warchiefs have managed to give me some legitimately tough fights, making it all the more satisfying when I kill an Orc captain that actually managed to kill me. Even some of the boss battles in the main story missions provided some challenge, and even those that weren’t especially difficult were still enjoyable and cinematically entertaining. As in the previous game, the Orc enemies in Shadow of War consist of the spear-throwing Hunters, crossbow-wielding Archers, double axe-wielding Savages (previously labeled as Berserkers), shield-wielding Defenders, and Warriors wielding one-handed weapons (swords, hammers, clubs, etc.). However, depending on what Tribes the Orcs are in (Machine, Terror, Feral, Mystic, Dark, Marauder, and Warmonger), not to mention which advanced classes they specialize in (Beastmaster, Destroyer, Trickster, Assassin, Berserker, Commander, Slayer, etc.), the Orc enemies in this game can possess a number of special abilities/weapons that can make them forces to be reckoned with. Some will be able to throw fire bombs, some can swing spiked chains at you, some will swing curved blades at you that can only be countered through quick-time events, and some will even take out two crossbows and shoot some rapid-fire arrow volleys at you like a medieval fantasy Rambo. Some exceptionally skilled Orcs are also capable of adapting to your tactics and will learn to counter you when you try to vault over them, dodge your throwing daggers, and even counter your execution attacks. Then you’ve got the new Olog-hai (War Troll) enemies who are typically a lot tougher than Orcs given their larger size and hard-hitting attacks (though their appearances are less varied than the Orcs). And we, of course, can’t forget about the return of Caragors, Graugs, and Ghuls, as well as the introduction of Drakes. That first time I got to ride a Drake and rain down fiery destruction upon my foes was truly awesome.
Let us discuss the Nemesis System, shall we? Simply put, the new Nemesis System in Shadow of War is leaps and bounds above that in the previous game and far more dynamic. I can’t count the number of times when I was ambushed by Orc captains, even when I was in the middle of a Nemesis Mission to go after a specific Orc captain so I could kill and/or dominate him. Orc captains can ambush you at any time, whether you’ve already killed them a couple of times or if you’ve never encountered them before. And be careful when you kill certain Orcs, because if one of them has a blood brother, chances are the brother will almost immediately seek vengeance upon you, even if you already dominated him. That’s right, even Orc captains you already dominated are capable of betraying you at a moment’s notice. There were times when I truly did not feel safe playing this game, and I found myself routinely looking over my shoulder expecting an ambush or betrayal (or both) to occur at any moment. And I enjoyed every minute of this uncertainty. Perhaps they should add some sort of Nemesis System into horror games.
As previously mentioned, Orc enemies are noticeably more challenging this time around, and things can get really crazy when battling large groups of Orcs. Not only are the Orc captains tougher than ever, but even the regular grunts attack more frequently and are more aggressive. It’s also more difficult now to finish off Orcs with flurry attacks or ground executions or to drain/dominate them since at least one nearby Orc will make it his life’s mission to ANNOYINGLY smack you and interrupt your efforts. Thankfully, there are new abilities Talion can acquire that let him deal with such annoyances, such as having Celebrimbor’s wraith spirit counter attacking enemies while he’s performing a ground execution. Other new abilities include holding down the attack button to summon a glaive (specifically Gil-galad’s glaive) that lets you strike multiple surrounding enemies, hitting enemies with elemental shockwave or arrow attacks, and summoning Orcs, Caragors, Graugs, Drakes, Morgul spiders, and even Orc captains to assist you in battle. There are other abilities worth mentioning, but I’d rather not spoil them. One small-ish issue I have with ability upgrades is not being able to equip certain upgrades simultaneously. For example, draining/dominating enemies in Shadow of War now initially restores health instead of elf-shot (arrows) like in Shadow of Mordor. There is an upgrade that lets you restore elf-shot when draining enemies; however, this comes at the cost of dominating enemies and turning them to your side. You can’t do both. This is partly remedied by the fact that spare elf-shots are much more plentiful and litter most of the environments, though in certain battles this isn’t always a viable option. Also, you can go into the upgrades menu and switch between dominating and restoring elf-shot when draining enemies, or you can use other upgrades that help in restoring elf-shot, but they have their own annoying downsides as well.
As in the previous game, Talion uses a sword, dagger, and bow and arrow in Shadow of War, and he can also use Celebrimbor’s forge hammer as a ranged weapon in lieu of the bow and arrow. The difference this time around is that you’ll be getting newer and stronger versions of all these weapons as loot each time an Orc captain dies, many of which can be further upgraded by fulfilling certain criteria, like shooting enemies in the head while they’re on fire, killing enemies while riding a Caragor, etc. Talion can also acquire different cloaks and armor that affect his stealth and health levels, respectively. Many of these weapons and armor sets provide further buffs, such as applying fire, ice, poison, curse, etc., to attacks or gaining health, focus, or elf-shot after landing hits. The different types of armor and weapons look great; unfortunately, Talion always appears in cutscenes wearing his default armor (except in one strange case where he actually was wearing the armor I equipped him with in a cutscene). Gems can be affixed to the weapons and armor that provide further boosts to attack power, health and experience/money acquired.
Now we come to the fortress sieges. Attacking fortresses with your Orc armies is an epic experience. You can breach walls by having your Olog-hai smash through them, ride a Graug and smash the walls yourself, or even have a spy plant explosives near a wall that can be detonated so your forces can get in more easily. Or maybe you prefer to ride a Drake and burn all the defenders to ash from the skies. The sieges can be a bit on the easy side if you make it a point to deal with most of the warchiefs that guard it since getting ridding of them has the added benefit of removing defenses such as spiked walls, siege beasts, fire spouts, and so on. Nevertheless, fortress sieges are fun, whether you’re attacking or defending. Once you’ve conquered a fortress in one of the five varied main maps and chosen your overlord and warchiefs, the Pit Fights are unlocked. Here you can have your Orc followers battle other Orc warriors or even other followers so you can level them up (or if things don’t go well for your Orc follower, you can just dominate the Orc that killed him). Personally, I never get tired of the Pit Fights. It’s very satisfying watching your Orc follower fight another Orc, get his ass kicked for a bit, then suddenly win the fight at the last second by launching an especially strong attack that cleaves his enemy’s head from his shoulders. It can be quite sad and frustrating though if a favored Orc follower suddenly gets killed by an enemy Orc that he should have been able to kill (Why, Mozu? Why did you let that pathetic little spear-throwing Orc kill you like that?).
I feel like I’m forgetting something. Oh yeah, the microtransactions. So yes, you can buy loot boxes and war chests using real cash from the game’s online market, and they provide you with usually high level Orc warriors, and if you choose to do so, they can be “broken down” to give you more weapons or armor. But silly me, after opening the war chests that came with my pre-order of the game, I honestly forgot that the microtransactions even existed. I was too caught up in completing missions, finding collectibles, conquering fortresses, and recruiting Orc warriors the fun way: by kicking their asses and making them serve as my soldiers through sheer force of will. As for the “Shadow Wars” that make up the game’s fourth act (which I admittedly have yet to beat), yes, it does artificially inflate the play time for this game if you wish to see the true ending, and it does so by making you defend your fortresses against enemy Orc armies. That’s fine by me since I rarely had the chance to defend my fortresses in the earlier portions of the game, and I’ve found that defending a fortress is actually more fun and intense than attacking one. If, however, you’re not that big a fan of the fortress sieges, then having the true ending locked behind the Shadow Wars gameplay could be seen as a cheap way to get players to spend more time than necessary on this game and as a way to possibly convince them to consider buying more high level Orc warriors to expedite the leveling process needed to increase the defense levels of your fortresses.
Good thing I’m a big fan of the Fight Pits; I’ll be spending the next few days buffing my Orcs up that way and setting them up to defend my fortresses. Still, WB Games (I’m assuming it’s them and not Monolith) appears to be forming a habit here that I hope they don’t stick to; they already tried the whole “locking the true ending behind hours of extra grinding” tactic with Batman: Arkham Knight, and now they do so again with Middle-earth: Shadow of War; and it certainly wasn’t needed in this game since even the number of main story missions is greatly increased compared to what was on offer in the previous game. I feel I’m obligated to mention that you can also kill enemy Orcs and conquer fortresses from other player’s games through special online missions, which I was frankly never really interested in. Although, I may at some point take revenge upon the individual who conquered one of my fortresses online (which at least did not affect the corresponding fortress in my saved game).
The only other relatively minor issue I had with this game had to do with the movement controls. Several times I wanted Talion to simply climb up into a tower, only for him to end up jumping above the opening I was trying to get to and continue climbing up to the roof. Other times I’d be prepared to attack an Orc captain with an execution move after building up enough juice in the “might” meter, only for Talion to waste the execution move on some pathetic little Orc grunt standing behind him. This was also an issue in the first game, but I found it to be more prevalent in this one. I experienced a couple of glitches as well, namely Talion getting stuck in the environment or even caught in some weird twitching animation loop when he had an Orc captain in a chokehold. Fortunately, the game runs smoothly the majority of the time. Despite the whole controversy behind the microtransactions and the locked ending, Middle-earth: Shadow of War is certainly an improvement over the game that came before it, and that’s really saying something. I’ve had so many memorable moments and battles in this game, and even gamers who weren’t particularly impressed with the first game should at least consider giving this one a whirl…for more than a couple of hours. This is one of those games that gets better the more time you spend with it.
Developer: Monolith Productions
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC, Android
Release Date: 10th October 2017