Say what you will about Tolkien’s sprawling Middle-Earth opus as, whether you’re captivated by it or not, there’s plenty of written history to explore and discover outside of the known Hobbit and Lord of the Rings stories. Tolkien’s legendarium mapped out plenty of Middle-Earth’s history and while it has plenty of gaps of its own (Tolkien died before any of the historical works were published) it gives a massive amount of material to those who wish to explore it. Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, released in 2014, used this wealth of history to its advantage. Exploring the time between the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, it tells the story of a ranger called Talion who bonds with the elf wraith Celebrimbor.
This was rather exciting as those who know their Middle-Earthen history would recall that Celebrimbor is known for the creation of the three greatest Elven Rings of Power. An interesting character to say the least as the elves knew Sauron was up to something and the rings he crafted were uncorrupted by Sauron. Sauron was rather miffed by all of this and laid waste to the region Celebrimbor called home, Eregion, and captured him. He met a rather grizzly end and Monolith took a little liberty with his backstory (claiming he made all the rings) and spread a little guilt on top as a motivation for his wanting to eliminate Sauron. While this would make a dedicated fan twinge at how massively this, and the events of Shadow of Mordor, changes canon, it made for a rather entertaining game.
So if the events of Shadow of Mordor mildly agitated you, Shadow of War will likely be rage inducing. I don’t want to spoil the story and the events that shape our protagonists but while I don’t mind a few liberties being taken I draw the line at making Shelob anything but a giant, fear-inducing spider. The opening of Shadow of War shows Talion and Celebrimbor forging the ring of light, a ring equal to that of Sauron’s and one that the pair will wield in their mission to overthrow him. However, at its completion, Shelob kidnaps Celebrimbor and holds him hostage in order to force Talion to hand over the ring. It’s here we see Shelob transform into a, digitally speaking, attractive lady who wouldn’t feel out of place in an English period drama. While I’m no die-hard fan the amount of suspended disbelief required here was even beyond me and I can happily sit through Michael Bay movies.
Play with the story and the history all you like, even call the story as something inspired by Tolkien’s works if you must but there are some characters you just shouldn’t mess with. Shadow of Mordor had a rather attractive Sauron but that was just fine as he was once called Annatar and was beheld (seen as) “beautiful” before he became Lord of the Rings. However, Shelob has, and always should be, a giant filicide loving spider that had set up home in the Mountains of Shadow (where Gollum tries to off Frodo in the Lord of the Rings) long before Sauron called Mordor home. These cornerstone characters to Middle-Earth’s lore should be protected from artistic license but alas Shelob is a sexy looking human-spider thing and moreover wants to help poor Talion rather than devour him like she probably would any other human who crosses her path.
That being said, the story itself is rather interesting. The conflict between Celebrimbors lust for vengeance is often tempered by Talions own inner-conflict between his duty to his people and the mission to destroy Sauron. There are several points in Shadow of War’s story where their conflicting desires cost them more than bargained for and in the end costs them both far more. There are several quest lines involved with the main story centring around an emissary of sorts from Galadriel, Eltariel. We also have Gondorian quests following General Castamir, his daughter Idril, and his lieutenant Baranor. Alongside these stories are ones that show some past events during Celebrimbor and his army’s first attempt at overthrowing Sauron. These ones are rather fun and often introduce or help you master recently unlocked skills. We also get involved with Carnán (a spirit of nature), Shelob herself and missions surrounding your increasing Orc army. Completing them all before taking on Eltariel’s quests is well worth doing so as you will level up rather handsomely. Each time you do you gain a skill point which you can use to acquire new abilities for Talion to make sneaking, killing and infiltrating heavy enemy areas much easier.
One such skill is dominate. Acquired through advancing the storyline you use it to take control of an Orc as just like in Shadow of Mordor you’ll need to raise an army of Orcs to help you overthrow Mordor. I was fascinated and impressed by the variation in the Orcs. They all have unique names and some are even tied to events within your playthrough. I was, unfortunately, killed by a grunt who then decided to call himself the Tark Slayer. Lo and behold the game bestowed upon him that moniker and he haunted me for a good time after our first encounter. I wondered what was going on and realised I had just been schooled by the Nemesis system. You see Uruks who manage to kill you are promoted within Orc society and exploits for and against you have an appreciable effect on how difficult the fortresses of Mordor are to capture. Each time you lose, the one to kill you gets promoted and increases by a level. Lose too many times and they become far more powerful than you and can make taking fortresses near impossible without some heavy levelling of Talion. It’s wise, then, to know your enemy and by interrogating lowly worms you can investigate and discover your target’s weaknesses. Using them to your advantage can help you take down uruks several levels ahead of you if you play things right, especially if they have a mortal weakness to something which is essentially a one-shot kill. Some can cheat death and come back to enact revenge, I had one particular Uruk appear three times each time looking the worse for wear. I doubt there’d have been much left of him if he came back for a fourth round.
There are also other concepts like blood-brothers which can result in you being tracked down by an Uruk’s blood-brother if you kill him to go alongside random ambushes. The Nemesis system is the feather in this series’ cap and breathes vast life into the world Monolith have created. As you sneak around, picking off your targets and finding ways of clearing the way to taking over the local fortress you hear chatter amongst the grunts as they go about their day. Talk of hating spiders or that the local grog isn’t as good as it was elsewhere or that, when Sauron has won the day, they’ll be able to enjoy the view. It’s these little touches that make a visually appealing world all the more believable. Whilst there I noticed some asset issues during my playthrough Shadow of War isn’t exactly ugly. Hopefully, post XBox One X launch those who pick up the console will see the visual quality improve even more with 4K assets.
The one thing that made every encounter all the more enjoyable was the voice acting. Every time I encountered an enemy captain or ambush by a hopeful trying to make a name for themselves there was a cutscene. In it, my enemy explained to me, in rather graphic detail, how I was about to meet my end or how at one they were with the worms that had infested their body. Some are highly amusing others are rather disturbing but all are very well voiced and animated. I don’t recall having one being repeated so far and again some will reference in-game encounters and historical meetings should you have them. It’s a living breathing world out there in Shadow of War and your actions can have very real consequences for Talion both online and off. Whilst there isn’t multiplayer as such, should you or a fellow player fall at the hands of a Uruk you or your fellow players will have the opportunity to avenge the death and score some loot for the trouble. You can also attempt to take over a fellow players fortress if you so wish, again bagging some high-end loot if you’re able to topple the fortress withing a set time.
Speaking of loot, Shadow of War does, unfortunately, include loot boxes. The basic kind can be purchased with Mirian, the in-game currency you collect from fallen foes, quests or breaking down gear. Others cost gold which can be purchased with real money. The ones that cost gold do grant you better gear, more powerful Orcs and other consumables. However, at no point did buying the odd Silver chest with Mirian grant me the easy street to success. Equally, if you play for long enough you’ll come across legendary and epic Orcs that you can recruit into your army along with higher tier gear for Talion to wear. You can, without question, complete the entirety of Shadow of War without even needing to purchase a chest. Moreover buying them, in my opinion, will not significantly shorten the length of time required to complete the game. Will it make fortress battles shorter, maybe, however, if you don’t take out the Warchiefs and other captains, all the legendary Orcs in the world won’t win you the battle. I still don’t like their inclusion but at least it doesn’t decrease the difficulty of the game.
When all is said and done Shadow of War is a fantastic game telling an intriguing if canon defying story. The Nemesis system is a fantastic game mechanic which makes this digital version of Middle-Earth one of your crafting. Everything you do, every battle against an Orc has a consequence that echoes throughout your own path through Shadow of War. Not since the Mass Effect trilogy have I come across a game that made me think about just what effect my choices were having on the world at large and whether or not it was going to make my next steps harder. This is a rare achievement and Monolith should be applauded for it. I did encounter a bug or two with assets disappearing and I lost a captain or two because they got stuck and bled out on an invisible wall but these were few and far between. And while loot boxes and associated microtransactions exist they thankfully have little impact on the game’s difficulty and online components. If you played and enjoyed Shadow of Mordor then you’ll be glad to know the follow-up is a worthy sequel and even if you’re new to the franchise it’s a wonderful action adventure game.