When Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor released, we all had a hint of scepticism towards it. Initially, it looked like a traditional open-world title that adhered to all of the modern tropes and principles that was saturating the gaming industry at the time and moreover seemed like it borrowed a lot of mechanics from already established franchises. However, once we got our hands on it, it established itself as one of the biggest surprises of 2014. While the open-world fears were somewhat justified, the game made up for it by introducing its unique selling point that would more or less carry the game on its back; the Nemesis system. Players were thrust into a dynamically changing world based on their actions with enemies that have their own unique personalities and potential vendettas against Talion and his elvish wraith friend, Calibrimbor. It was a hit.
With Middle-earth: Shadow of War, the elements that made Shadow of Mordor so unique are essentially put into full-on overdrive. A rapid expansion of the ideas that shaped its predecessor with its own unique twists and flavours that can make it tantalising to any fan of open-world games. The game does resemble its predecessor very closely to the point where they are almost indistinguishable from each other outside of locations and new characters, which is a dangerous line to tread. It is paramount that Shadow of War needs to do enough to set itself apart in order to not make it feel like a Tolkien déjà vu. Does it accomplish this? The answer is a somewhat reluctant yes.
Walking straight into Mordor
Shadow of War starts off directly after the events of Shadow of Mordor. Talion and the wraith Celebrimbor go to work crafting their own Ring of Power that can be used to overthrow the Dark Lord Sauron. The story takes some surprising turns and Talion and Celebrimbor decide that they need to amass an army of their own in order to overthrow Sauron. That is the overarching goal of the game with side-stories being thrown in with unique entities and characters that you meet that can potentially give you more power. In order to create this army, our dynamic duo needs to take over forts throughout Mordor and enslave the armies within them. The overarching narrative that you get to experience is somewhat engaging, with some pretty large curveballs being thrown at you. but it suffers from way too many tropes.
The dialogue between characters and the events that transpire are all very pedestrian and predictable. It is far from the worst story you can experience, but it did not have the writing and emotional power to really draw you into this struggle in Mordor. The onus was put on the mechanics and the Nemesis system to deliver a more dynamic experience that was outside of the predetermined cutscenes. Some of the characters did have their draw because of their unique personalities and motivations, but they rarely got the opportunity to breathe and really become an integral part of the whole adventure. Talion also suffers from his previous fatal flaw of being a bland protagonist. He has some steadfast convictions and sometimes surprises you, but he is simply not endearing. Even with these criticisms, the story was more than serviceable, but merely being serviceable is not enough to be memorable.
Suffer me now!
Shadow of War rigidly follows the same gameplay principles as its predecessor. The combat is fast and requires some quick thinking and countering with various tools at your disposal in order to wipe out the Orc army. You have your traditional sword-based combat that is complemented by fancy acrobatic moves, your wraith powers giving you access to ranged attacks that can make you teleport and use the environment to your advantage and you also have some special moves that you can use once you fill up your adrenaline meter. The biggest thing to praise about Shadow of War’s gameplay is the amount of variety it offers. You won’t be using the same tactics over and over again either as the Orc captains have resistances against your fancy moves and there are new enemy types that need a special method of dispatching.
The gameplay remains consistently fresh throughout the entire experience, regardless of its adherence to the original’s formula. There is enough variation to keep you on your toes while maintaining a fine balance between flow and excitement. The skill tree makes a return with even more ways to level Talion up and each skill offers unique upgrades which cater to your particular playstyle. It is entirely possible to craft your experience to your exact specifications by giving you these options and this adds to the general dynamism that the game offers. There are even some exciting strategies thrown in such as the ability to ride a freaking drake or abilities that make you feel like a true powerhouse that Sauron’s army will surely fear.
The Nemesis system we all know and love is back with its return celebrated with confetti and a showering of gold.
Additionally, there is now a loot system and before you roll your eyes, it does actually have a unique bearing on the experience. You gather valuable loot by killing Orc captains and warchiefs and each armour piece and weapon offers something unique. The common types are generally just statistical improvements, while the rarer types allow you to complete challenges that give the piece of loot a unique ability such as setting enemies on fire or gaining a percentage-based buff to specific skills. While it’s perfectly fine to just wear armour and use weapons that have the highest stats, it’s often fine to forgo a couple of points in order to have a set that fits perfectly with your playstyle. While loot systems are often a trope in many games nowadays, Shadow of War manages to make it an integral part of a personalised experience.
You will serve the bright lord!
The open-world is where the lion’s share of Shadow of War‘s greatness lies. The narrative and the varied combat is but an accompaniment to the truly dynamic world that you will get to experience. As mentioned earlier, Shadow of War is essentially a jacked up version of its predecessor and that is reflected by the sheer size of the game. There are multiple areas to explore and conquer within Mordor, each with their own unique aesthetic and warlords who need to be put into their place. The overarching goal is to take over all of the forts within these areas and replace them with your own army. This is where the new and improved Nemesis system kicks in and it’s surely not afraid to spread its wings.
The Nemesis system we all know and love is back with its return celebrated with confetti and a showering of gold. As you are thrust into Mordor, nothing is certain and everything is dynamic. Each high ranking Orc has their own unique personality, traits, cheeky mannerisms and they can create a long-lasting vendetta against you if they manage to take you down. That’s all fine, we have seen this before in the previous game, but now you also have your own army to worry about. You can brand Orcs to bend them to your will and make their way up the hierarchy with a little help from you or completely by themselves. By causing chaos in the ranks, you can also lower a fort’s defensive power by taking out warchiefs that give the fort additional defences such as siege beasts or additional reinforcements.
Fort assaults are definitely something that need to be witnessed. If you do the necessary prep work before the assault, you’ll mostly be okay. You’ll be tasked with taking over key positions within the fort and then finally facing off against the warlord of the region in a final battle. You can take out the warchiefs that give buffs to the fort and you can use your own followers to launch your own custom-made assault on the fort by giving them special units to command or putting them in charge of breaking walls and so on. Just for interest sake, I tried launching an assault on a fort that was many levels my senior and with zero prep work and I got swiftly put in my place. When I did the opposite, it was mostly smooth sailing, even if the warlord fights are remarkably tricky. The assaults give you this sense of awe and a feeling that you’re really commanding an army that you yourself have built up from essentially nothing. That satisfaction never diminishes as you are tasked with taking over more and more ambitious forts later down the line and the Nemesis system ties it all together beautifully.
The Nemesis system will shine for you because of reasons that are completely different from mine. The experience is entirely your own and you will get your own unique vendettas, sudden betrayals from your own units, funny encounters, hierarchy shifts and so much more. It’s as dynamic as it gets with no two playthroughs being the same. You’ll start to care about the units under your command and you will slowly build up this massive Orc army that is entirely of your own creation. It’s wonderful to experience in motion and if you were particularly fond of the system in the previous game, there is a lot more of it to be found in Shadow of War.
Exploring the land of the Uruks
Shadow of War features a massive explorable open-world and along with that comes all the things that you can possibly expect. There are optional challenges to test your mettle in combat, side-activities that you can partake in, legendary sets that you can acquire, collectables that give more context to the world at large and a few annoying open-world things such as towers that you need to scope out a region. There are missions that are large in scope that are not part of the main experience that offer very tangible benefits if you complete them. These side-missions are sometimes on par with the main narrative and are interesting to see to their conclusion as they each have their own unique storylines. It adds to the variety of the experience as well as a distraction from the continuous shifts that are cultivated by the Nemesis system.
You can surely spend hours upon hours cleaning up the map or finding treasure, but it is not at all necessary if you are not of the completionist persuasion. There is a level of tedium involved with all of the busywork that is given to you, but most of it is not integral to the main experience. However, that does not excuse some lazy additions to the open-world as they could have been streamlined or have more excitement associated with them. People who find a sort of zen by completing small objectives and cleaning up a map will find much to enjoy, however. The intelligently implemented combat and mechanics does a good job of adding some variation to everything, but there is a limit to what it can accomplish.
One ring to guide them
Shadow of War is a very mechanically rich game to the point where I have willfully omitted a lot of what it is comprised of for fear of turning this review into a novella. The mechanics are so bountiful that the game takes quite a while to really get going as it tutorialises everything that you need to know in order to become King of the Orcs. The first few hours are slow and can get a little frustrating because they keep teasing you with greatness but first want you to learn how to dodge. You will eventually come to grips with it all and enter the aforementioned flow state and momentum that is so satisfying, but to get to that point is somewhat of a slog.
Shadow of War isn’t an amazing triumph that will send shivers down the spine of the gaming industry, but what it does, it does extremely well.
The visuals are almost identical to the first game with some notable new designs being thrown in and cutscenes look smooth as well. It’s a modest improvement which doesn’t necessarily elevate it to beautiful status, but it does an admirable job of getting close to it. Sound design is on point with the dialogue, specifically of the Orcs, being incredibly well performed where you can feel the passion in their voice. Celebrimbor has the tendency to sound completely terrifying while Talion is more middle-of-the-road as stalwart heroes go. I experienced no notable bugs or frame drops within my playthrough, but the loading times on Xbox One when entering a new region are quite egregious, sometimes requiring you to wait for minutes at a time.
To address the loot boxes, yes, they are pretty infuriating. The game also relies on in-game currency to upgrade weapons and armour or purchase upgrades for your forces, but you will achieve a surplus just with normal play, so it isn’t a game breaker. The loot boxes give you legendary Orcs as well as orders that can change the attributes of Orcs, but outside of the few I got when I first logged on, I never really bothered with them, despite having that surplus of in-game currency. You can get along just fine without ever opening a loot box, but their presence is still unwelcome and shoehorned into an experience that honestly never needed them.
One ring to find them
There are a lot of small and large things to criticise Shadow of War over, but there is one key gaming fundamental that it nailed which made me give it the score you read below; it’s just really fun. The mechanics and the Nemesis system work so beautifully to give you this experience where you’re excited to drop into this big wild world of Uruks and evil sorcerers. There is some definite room for improvement which held the game back from being truly exceptional, but the experience that you’re getting is one that you won’t be disappointed with. The value for money is insane with the immense amount of content it has as well as the ability to just play it endlessly via the online functionality that allows you to attack the forts of other players.
Shadow of War isn’t an amazing triumph that will send shivers down the spine of the gaming industry, but what it does, it does extremely well. If you enjoyed its predecessor, there should be no doubt in your mind whether to get this game or not. For everyone else, it’s just a very solid gaming experience that you will enjoy playing and isn’t that what most games strive for anyway?