I went into Middle-Earth: Shadow of War with very high expectations. I mean, how could I not? 2014’s Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor was my personal game of the year with it’s stunning innovation in gameplay with the Nemesis System. It was up to the team at Monolith to deliver a game that not only improved upon the Nemesis System, but to bring the story of Talion and Celebrimbor closer to their end as they neared the start of the Lord of the Rings in a compelling and thoughtful way. What I found with Shadow of War was that they delivered heavily on the former, and not the latter.
See, while I absolutely loved Shadow of Mordor for it’s gameplay, it’s story was never really its strong suit. Yes, I always found it compelling that many of the Tolkien keystones were there; Sauron corrupting local leaders, Gollum leading you down a dark and predictably bad path. But Shadow of Mordor never really took a deep plunge with how liberally they used the Tolkien Lore. With Shadow of War, however, that all changed. Luckily, Shadow of War is still one of the coolest and fun gameplay experiences I’ve had in awhile.
Like I mentioned earlier, Shadow of War needed to achieve one thing: expand the Nemesis System. For the most part, Monolith has succeeded in expanding the Nemesis System. Many of the same elements are there: Orcs will remember you if you injure/kill them, and become unique mini stories as you play throughout the game. You’re able to still dominate Orcs and send them climbing up the social ladder in the orc society so that they can become Warchief. What’s the best about Shadow of War is how streamlined the whole process has become. It’s become a lot easier to target the specific Orc you want to track down and make part of you army. I actually spent a lot of time near the end of the game tracking down an orc named Zugor of the Flies, a grotesque orc who’s body was infested with flies.
Orcs also have a ton of new traits added into the game, and are broken down into 7 different Orc tribes featuring 10 different advanced classes. Each tribe has its own unique aesthetic, while each advanced class it’s own unique weapons/combat styles. Different combinations of these tribes/classes provide some really cool looking orcs and gives a lot of variation between the different encounters you have with the orcs. My only real issue with the whole tribe/class system was that in the open-world it rarely felt as though each tribe was different from one another. For example, while in the open world it didn’t seem to make a difference if I was facing an orc from the Mystic tribe over the Dark tribe, as all of the tribes seemed very similar to each other. This tends to lead into my second issue with the various traits these orcs receive.
Many orcs receive different traits, such as Iron Will where they aren’t able to be dominated immediately, and must first be shamed in the orc society until they are willing to submit to you. One of these traits is named Blood Brother, a trait that is both entertaining and frustrating at the same time. When different orcs complete missions with each other, they have a chance of receiving the Blood Brother trait. In regular gameplay, I was never really sure what the usefulness of this trait was, as some of the traits aren’t very well explained. I only found that if you kill one of these Blood Brothers, the other will hunt you down in the open world and attempt to kill you. What I was hoping for was a better explanation for some of these traits.
Much of your time spent throughout the game, however, will be spent fortifying and building up your forces against Sauron and other online players as they attack your fortresses. Players are able to appoint up to 6-7 orcs (depending on the fortress) to fortify a fortress against attackers. I spent probably more time hunting more powerful legendary orcs to make as my Overlord and Warchiefs than I did in the actual story, which was very welcomed. You’re also able to upgrade your fortress with various siege defenses like Siege Beasts, stronger fortress walls and armed guards.
Players also have the opportunity to attack fortresses online and throughout the story, which is definitely more fun than defending your own fortress. The same gameplay mechanics apply to attacking as defending, and seeing how your army stacks up against other online players armies is a really satisfying experience. My only criticism for the mode is how monotonous it is. There’s very little variation on capturing fortresses, as they’re all capture the point. What makes Shadow of War so great is you’re able take on fortresses at your own discretion. Want to take out all the Warchiefs first and then attack? Go right ahead. Want to infiltrate the Overlord with your own Warchiefs so that your siege goes without a hitch? That works too. But with the online fortress matches, it’s always the same method: all the enemy Warchiefs are alive, so you have to kill them all. Over and over and over.
Aside from fortresses, Monolith has came through and introduced a new sort of light-RPG system into Shadow of War. Throughout the game, players will receive different new armor and weapon sets for Talion to equip to boost his different stats. Many of the armor sets are very cool looking, such as the Rohirrim armor sets that look like they are straight from Rohan (the film version at least). Each armor/weapon piece can be imbued by different gems that players can collect and upgrade to make each piece of armor more powerful. I really enjoyed this sort of light-RPG system they implemented, as it not only kept Talion looking more badass throughout the game but provided some solid feeling of progression. Of course, the skill tree returns to Shadow of War and seems as though it’s expanded over the first game. Each skill has a sort of upgrade option that allows the player to have an extra trait to each skill. Some are entirely necessary, like upgrading the domination skill to be faster, while others are up to an individuals play style. I really enjoyed the new skill tree, as I was able to lightly craft the way I wanted to play.
Last, but not least, is the micro transaction section of the game. I’m going to briefly talk about it, because it never really played a factor in my playtime. Nor do I expect it to play a factor in anyone’s. I’d highly recommend you ignore buying loot chests, as I found many times the gear/orcs you received from these chests could easily be found in the open world or just by playing the game.
So the story of Shadow of War is very lackluster, and I have a feeling it’s going to be very divisive with fans of Tolkien’s lore. Monolith has taken a lot of liberties with twisting some of the lore to fit their own story, and part of me would have been okay with that had the story been worthwhile. However, I feel that it’s very hard to change/alter some of the lore to really the fantasy series that started it all. Many of the characters are not as you expect, such as Shelob the Spider, who plays a pretty critical role in the first act of the game. Her character was so jarring to me, that I felt relieved to find she played a less critical role at the conclusion of the first act. But really, it’s not just her character that didn’t sit right with me, but another, way more prominent character in the Lord of the Rings lore that felt included just for the shock factor. Without spoiling it for those who seek to play the game themselves, Monolith seems to attempt a way of explaining how this character is involved in Talion’s story, but really it just seems to fall flat.
Other than some notable characters being altered to fit the game’s narratives in jarring fashion, I did feel as though Talion/Celebrimbor’s story throughout the game was often a dull affair. It tends to be the same as the first game: build an army to take down Sauron and his forces, and bring order to Mordor. All of the characters you meet throughout never really seem to matter in the end, especially Idril and Baranor of Gondor, who seem to disappear completely with very little meaning to the overall story at the completion of their quests. Again, I’m attempting to circumvent any sort of spoilers throughout the game, but many of the plot decisions never really made a lot of sense to me. Especially the ending to the game, which I hope they explain if there is DLC or another sequel.
Visually, I wasn’t that impressed by Shadow of War. Many of the environments are hit or miss, and are at least varied from location to location. What really shocked me was how low-res all of the humans looked in both cutscenes and the open world. Fortunately the majority of the orcs are absolutely awesome and stunning. I’m actually very impressed by the lip-sync all of the orcs had with their voiced dialogue, even with possibly hundreds of hours of random VO recorded. But it was just apparent throughout that the game looked very similar to Shadow of Mordor, which released 3 years ago. Shadow of Mordor’s visuals were acceptable since it was developed for PS3/360 as well as PS4/Xbox One, but I was expecting a visual uplift for Shadow of War.
Also, it was often frustrating to find that Talion’s equipped armor from regular play did not carry over into the cutscenes.