One year ago, fans didn’t even know Middle-earth: Shadow of War existed, and now it is one of the biggest releases of the season. Continuing on from 2014’s Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, the series subscribes to many tried and tested staples of the action-adventure genre. The previous game executed these sufficiently, but it was its unique features—namely the procedurally generated Nemesis system—that stirred up enough of a following to warrant another go. Shadow of War marches forward with the series’ greatest strengths, but there have been some curious missteps along the way.
No time is wasted between the events of Shadow of Mordor and Shadow of War. The game starts with lead character Talion above the fires of Mount Doom, crafting a new ring of power that was teased at the conclusion of the previous game. His goal to kill Sauron has not wavered between games. He plans to once again hunt down the conqueror, with help from the new ring and his spectral companion Celebrimbor, who has similar motives as Talion for seeking Sauron’s demise. Those who have little experience with The Lord of the Rings franchise may find the start of the game hard to follow, but anyone that didn’t embark on the previous game may be outright lost. Prerequisite knowledge of the series will definitely do players well in the game’s early stages, but everyone should eventually catch up to pace as the tale becomes more about Talion’s adventure than the universe.
Honestly, experience with the lore of The Lord of the Rings may even prove a detriment to one’s enjoyment of the game’s narrative, depending on how much stake is put in continuity. The Middle-earth games take place between The Hobbit film series and The Lord of the Rings series, with the purpose of filling in the gaps between the two stories. This would imply that the games are canon, but while Shadow of Mordor’s story was inconsequential enough to skate by, Shadow of War makes some bold narrative choices that don’t seem to gel with the overall lore.
Shelob—the massive spider that was gutted by Samwise Gamgee—is a prime example of the apparent inconsistency. One would not reasonably expect a giant spider to play a crucial role in the game’s narrative, until we find out that she is actually portrayed as a beautiful women with magic powers who just happens to transform into a spider at will. A line of specific side quests attempts to detail the monster’s past, but the game’s intrinsic fact that she can transform into a woman does not seemingly match up with Tolkien’s representation of the character. Even if the developers simply took the lore in a new direction, the story could still be enjoyed in its own right, but the potential deviations somewhat weaken the impact of the game’s other references to the lore, like learning how the Gondorian city of Minas Ithil became the Orc stronghold of Minas Morgul.
The story may have broken off the leash since the first game, but the environments of Mordor have only improved. Most would agree that, while many positive things can be said about the first game, its world wasn’t particularly expansive, with only two modestly sized regions to explore. The individual regions of Shadow of War seem slightly smaller than those of its predecessor, but there are notably more of them, each with their own distinct design.
This map format complements the pace of Shadow of War vastly more than Shadow of Mordor’s alternative, but there are some middling drawbacks. Firstly, the visuals of the environments and characters alike leave much to be desired. Shadow of War won’t necessarily offend the senses, but it appears somewhat dated. Secondly, while exploring the game’s different regions never gets boring, the world doesn’t seem to service anything other than a video game. Put another way, the regions of Mordor come off as being tailor-made to be in a video game, instead of looking like places that would feasibly exist. The copy-pasted environment assets and curious abundance of sheer and easily climbable cliffsides cause a bit of a disconnect in the setting’s believability. In spite of these drawbacks, Shadow of War’s new direction of a broader and more varied region selection is a major step forward for the series, ultimately overshadowing these other issues.
The size of Mordor means it must have the forces to defend it, and only someone proficient in killing could stand a chance of surviving its innumerable hordes. Shadow of War’s core gameplay fits the conventional “action-adventure” mold, with counter-based melee combat, stealth capabilities, and platforming, all of which play a predominant role in the action. These gameplay pillars are simple on the surface, but complexity is added through Shadow of War’s concise and substantial upgrade tree.
As players rank Talion up, they will be treated to skill points. These can unlock a massive host of abilities with functions such as bringing the beasts of Mordor to heel, chaining execution take-downs together, setting enemies on fire with arrows, and much more. Augmentations to each base skill are also available for purchase, and apart from select abilities locked behind story or side-quest progression, base skills can be unlocked as soon as one purchases the skill before it. This allows for more flexibility in the progression, freeing up players to advance beyond their current enemies if they choose to put in the time. Each gameplay pillar serves a valuable purpose in tackling objectives, with the creative and crucial skill options adding both entertainment value and efficacy to the player’s preferred combat style.
Stealth and platforming certainly have their place in Shadow of War’s gameplay, but the unavoidability of the melee combat makes it the gameplay’s most central facet, which in turn makes it deserving of the most scrutiny. The melee combat utilizes smooth, free-flowing animations of offensive and defensive maneuvers that encourage chaining together the biggest combos possible. Like the gameplay at large, melee actions start out simple, but the dynamic evolves as more skills are introduced. Enemy variety organically forces the mix-up of one’s combat strategy, as certain attacks and evasions work on some enemies but not others, and stronger enemies can even adapt to moves over time. Players must fully come to terms with everything at their disposal if they want to come out on top.
Balancing this dynamic is when the combat is at its best, but these moments aren’t as frequent as they should be. A host of irritants plague the game’s combat, pulling it down from its very evident potential. Different prompts will appear above enemies’ heads, based on the type of defense action one must respond with, but the indication is of no service if the player can’t see it. Often, the placement of the character onscreen will have attackers and their prompts obscured by the environment, other enemies, or—most frequently—the border of the screen itself, making it impossible to know the attack is coming until it is already carving you up. Challenging gamer’s reaction time is all well and good, but in a game that values maintaining a combo, a lack of fair communication can produce boiling resentment for a system that would otherwise have a lot going for it.
Even when a prompt is effectively conveyed, the game still has ways of placing the player in a cheaply disadvantageous position. Unlike other comparable experiences (Batman: Arkham City, for example), in which enemy attack patterns are synchronized in a way that is both challenging and fair, Shadow of War’s hostiles all appear to operate independently from each other. This could come off as a design decision meant to test the player’s skills, but the actual consequence is groups of enemies timing their attacks to often be impossible to defend against. One attack will come in requiring a counter, and in the millisecond your thumb is pressing the counter button, two more attacks come in demanding a dodge and a stun. Humans simply do not have that many fingers. Again, this wouldn’t be as big of an issue if the game’s precious combo counter didn’t make you feel like a failure for losing your combo to an attack of which you had no feasible recourse, and wasn’t tied into some of the game’s most powerful moves.
While adjustments to the camera and enemy AI would adequately address these issues, they could also be remedied by a simple decrease in enemy numbers. The groups of hostiles that surround the player can often grow to sizes that are downright exhausting, and the smoothness of the game’s combat is lost when it is asking the player to impossibly defend against four different attack varieties simultaneously. Perhaps slightly fewer enemies with an increase to the combat’s overall lethality would have done it good. As it is now, the design issues are that much more evident when being used to fight the population of a small city. Fewer enemies would also help the game’s volatile auto-locking. It’s hard to say if this is a technical issue, or just something brought about by the excessive number of targets, but there is little in the game that is more infuriating than failing an objective due to the character moving in on a target who was very deliberately not the one being pointed at.
With all of its setbacks in the micro-level gameplay, the beginning of the game doesn’t do the best job selling the experience, but Shadow of War doesn’t play its best hand until several hours in. The highly-touted Nemesis system is back and better than ever, and in spite of the game’s other rough patches, this macro-level strategy component will have players hooked for a frankly irresponsible amount of time. Each region of the game boasts its own Nemesis hierarchy, filled with Captains that control networks of underlings, with new Captains added randomly or after a promotion from killing the player. The hierarchies are constantly shifting as Captains best each other and level up, with the system’s true allure being how the player can influence its evolution. Nemesis missions will spawn randomly around regions, involving a Captain clashing with another or taking on a solo challenge to prove himself. The player can choose to intercede in the mission or not, depending on how they wish the hierarchy to shift. Vendetta missions will also spring up occasionally, tasking the player to take out a Captain that recently bested another online player. Doing so nets both players rewards, but failure means that the Captain is locked off to the second player with a new notch in his belt.
While it is true that the structure of the Nemesis system is essentially identical to the previous game, its innovation is found more in its application. Every Captain has strengths and weaknesses that can be learned by collecting intel in the world, and this information can be essential when it comes to manipulating the hierarchy. This manipulation reaches its peak when the ability to Dominate Captains is unlocked. Dominating a Captain enlists them in the player’s army, from which they can use them for a variety of tasks. Controlled Captains can act as bodyguards to help the player in battle, attack hostile Captains to free up space in the hierarchy, or infiltrate the upper tiers of the hierarchy to prepare for a conquest of the region. Success in other aspects of the game is satisfying, but it pales in comparison to taking out a rival and subjugating him to your will.
This aforementioned upper tier involves an Overlord that controls the region, supported by a handful of Warchiefs. These Warchiefs can be taken out to weaken the Overlord’s grip, and the best way to do that is to infiltrate a spy into their ranks that will betray them when you launch your assault. These spies are infiltrated by proving their worth in a region’s fighting pits, which your Dominated Captain has to survive to reach the Warchief’s side. Players are not allowed to intervene during these bouts between Captains, which is actually to the experience’s benefit. There is something very voyeuristically entertaining about watching a Captain you helped up the ranks prove his worth, shouting at him when he makes a mistake and cheering if he is victorious.
There is endless satisfaction to be had in engineering one’s ideal hierarchy, which—unlike the last game—is no longer just for its own sake. Once a region’s hierarchy is built as the player sees fit, they can enact a Fortress Siege in a ploy to conquer the region. Taking out an Overlord’s Warchiefs will disable various defensive measures that the Fortress would otherwise support, such as powerful siege beasts that can fire catapults from their back, or reinforced walls that will hold back even the strongest attackers. Likewise, the player can equip Dominated Captains to their assault force to boost their armies level and add comparable bonuses of their own, such as war trolls that excel at knocking down border walls.
Once the Fortress is breached, several control points must be captured before the player can move to the central tower to face the Overlord in a challenging boss fight. Fortress themes are based on whichever one of the game’s seven Orc tribes that stronghold’s Overlord belongs to. This influence can also be found in subtle feature changes across that region, and Orcs from different tribes often wield weaponry and skills unique to that tribe, but the excessive number of enemies and environmental repetition results in much of the distinction between Tribes getting lost in the shuffle.
After a Fortress is captured, the player must install his own Overlord. It is an important role as Sauron’s forces will periodically attack the Fortress in an effort to reclaim it, switching the player’s role from attacker to defender. There are similar challenges to be faced online, with the option to attack other players’ Fortresses for the sake of sweet rewards. There are a wide variety of mission types to be enjoyed in Shadow of War, but the most satisfaction is undoubtedly found in Fortress Sieges. While simplistic in general design, they feel like the goal that is always being worked toward, providing countless hours of strategizing in the name of getting one’s attack just right.
Throughout the game’s various trials, there is more to be earned than the respect of the Orcs beneath you. Shadow of War has adopted a conventional loot system that allows players to increase their character’s stats by collecting gear of various rarities. Higher tier gear can offer various advantages, with the highest tier of Legendary gear providing additional bonuses when equipped in particular sets. Gems can also be crafted and equipped to gear to further enhance one’s combat efficacy. The gear system is fairly straightforward, but it provides something quantifiably valuable in the game to seek out, apart from generic leveling increments.
Aside from completing missions and challenges, gear can be earned through chests that are purchased with in-game currency or real money, or through certain online challenges. There was fan concern following earlier coverage of the game that these loot boxes would unbalance the game’s RPG system, making it more pay-to-win. In this case, I managed to beat every challenge without the need of a single chest purchase, so it would seem the community can rest easy.
The drive to fight through the hordes of Middle-earth: Shadow of War can falter, but it never totally fades. To fully appreciate the enjoyment the game’s Nemesis system can offer, a few headaches must be endured along the way, but they are ultimately worth pushing through. The game’s total amount of content is staggering—I was nearly 12 hours in before I even saw the first Fortress—so those that can overlook the speed bumps will find more than enough bang for their buck. The war will test you, but victory is sweet.
Shadow of War is stellar in the moments the player focuses on the game’s grander scope, but some of the mechanics that tie the rest together should have received a bit more attention. It may start off a bit slow, but the end payoff is more than worth it.
Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
M - Mature
|Middle-earth: Shadow of War is available on Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of one to five stars.|
Nick didn’t start gaming until mid-2006. Once his parents finally allowed a console into the house, it was all uphill from there. Starting out with a PS2, he grew an affinity for Sony consoles and moved on to the PS3, and now the PS4. He keeps his gaming palette wide, but, gun to his head, he’d have to say shooters are his genre of choice.