If Middle-earth: Shadow of War was a Lord of the Rings movie, it would be Return of the King. It’s on a larger scale than its predecessor with the dial turned up to eleven on all fronts, creating a breathless spectacle that’s almost overwhelming. As time wears on, though, it comes seriously close to outstaying its welcome.
The sequel to what I, and many others, believed to be the best game of 2014 and a surprise hit to boot, Shadow of War takes the Frankenstein’s Monster that was Shadow of Mordor and builds on it in almost every regard. There’s a dizzying amount of content here and certainly enough to tide over the most ardent of trophy collectors – I chalked up roughly 50 hours with the game over four days and was so wearied by it all that my overall trophy completion will likely stay at 77%. Shadow of War feels like the natural upping of the stakes for a big budget sequel, but its predecessor’s most prominent and beloved mechanic makes a welcome return to even greater effect.
The Nemesis system for Shadow of Mordor was its crown jewel, a design choice so inspired that it’s a wonder no other developer has had a stab at aping it since. The amalgamated gameplay inspired by the likes of Assassin’s Creed and the Arkham series was solid, even sometimes superb, but the Nemesis system is what made it tick, taking it from a seemingly doomed licensed property to a respected game in its own right. It only makes sense, then, that Monolith took that USP and innovated it even further, creating a violent, incredibly dense, and charismatic game of chess.
The reason for its upscaling ties in to the plot, which sees Talion and his ghost pal Celebrimbor enacting revenge on Sauron and his sea of orcs. Rather than going for a “guerrilla” approach as seen in Shadow of Mordor, the pair instead go all out and wage war on The Dark Lord with massive orc armies of their own, thanks to the new Ring of Power of Celebrimbor’s forging. Shadow of War doesn’t exactly play fast and loose with Lord of the Rings lore as much as it does stampede over it like the orcs invading Osgiliath in Return of the King, so die-hard Tolkien fans may be in for a rough ride.
While the original game may have made those fans raise an eyebrow, Shadow of War’s approach to storytelling will likely make them break out in hives. It’s, to be frank, not great. Admittedly, most of us are here to slice and dice some orcs rather than to dive into a deep well of characterisation and narrative intrigue, but there was a disconnect between myself and this world that I couldn’t get over; there was nothing really to drag me in or make me care about all the people Talion encountered, or even Talion himself. He’s a one-note hero, someone with little in the way of personality apart from that he has a spectral buddy and that he is quite mad all the time. The game teases an interesting curveball in terms of the morality of his actions (he is enslaving legions of orcs, after all) but decides to go down a contrived path that’s almost unbelievably silly instead, which is a shame.
“While the original game may have made those fans raise an eyebrow, Shadow of War’s approach to storytelling will likely make them break out in hives.”
Shadow of War wastes no time in bending Tolkien’s lore by introducing Shelob, who has, for the sake of progressing the story, taken the form of an attractive woman who grants Talion visions of what’s to come. She clearly has a vendetta against Sauron, which you can delve into further by collecting items dotted around Mordor, and is central to the game’s early stages. As good a job as Pollyanna McIntosh does in portraying the sauntering yet haunted shape-shifter, it’s a bizarre choice to play around so liberally with an established character rather than creating a new one instead. That being said, of the new characters Shadow of War introduces, whether that’s the daughter of the General of Minas Ithil or an elf sent by Galadriel, the game really struggles to make most of its cast worth a damn.
But, like I said, orc-slaying is the order of the day – if you come to Shadow of War for its story, you may as well go to the The Sun for your news. And the orc-slaying is as fun as it’s ever been, even if it sags under the weight of its many, many fighting mechanics and the sheer amount of carnage unfolding in the game’s latter stages.
As a hybrid of many “inspired” gameplay mechanics, it’s likely that you’ve played something similar to Shadow of War in the past. It’s largely a reconciliation of the platforming found in Assassin’s Creed and the combat found in the Arkham games and while it never feels as fluid as either, it finds itself in a comfortable middle-ground. The climbing is a little finicky, especially in tight quarters where Talion seems to do the opposite of what you’re asking, sometimes leaping horizontally when he should be going upwards. Similarly, as sprinting and climbing share the same prompt (holding X on PS4), there were plenty of times when I wanted to get around enemies and try a different approach but ended up halfway up a tower instead. Still, when you find yourself leaping fluidly through the air before double-jumping to land on a roof like a ghostly ballerina, it’s a lovely feeling.
Combat feels rather slow at first, almost boring, but it improves around ten hours or so in when you start lighting up the skill tree. There are countless ways to play Shadow of War and the vast skill tree provides you the perfect opportunity to experiment until you find your playstyle. Being imbued with Celebrimbor and his power means there’s all sorts of wild things Talion can pull off, including calling on graugs to cause havoc, basically teleporting to an enemy to dice them up, and even projecting himself onto the saddle of a drake to burn everyone to a crisp.
“But, like I said, orc-slaying is the order of the day – if you come to Shadow of War for its story, you may as well go to the The Sun for your news.”
Each skill has two or three offshoots which can “mutate” to make them more powerful or suitable for different situations, though only one can be selected at a time. For instance, I was able to upgrade my Dominate skill to fully recover health after each successful domination and when paired with Shadow Dominate, which allowed me to teleport and then dominate most enemies, I became a force. It was almost to the detriment of some of the intricacies of the Nemesis system as I never died enough to build a rivalry with an orc to match those that I did in Shadow of Mordor, but I always felt challenged all the same.
As an open-world action game released in 2017, you can bet good money that Shadow of War comes filled to the brim with things to collect across its many regions, so much so that it’s even confusing me now trying to figure out how to explain it all in a way that’s coherent. The game throws you in headfirst and chucks so many different things at you at once that it’s easy to get lost in it all. Luckily, the guides found in the menus aren’t lacking, so be sure to refer to them at all times – I had to frequently.
As well as skills, Talion can bolster his proficiency at all of the killing with different gear that is categorised into four tiers: Common, Rare, Epic, and Legendary. Common is the vanilla option, coming with base stats that can only be upgraded with gems. The rest are more enticing, but it’s the Legendary gear that’s the ultimate goal here as they can be souped up by completing combat challenges, such as shooting an orc in the head when he’s poisoned or stealth killing a set number of enemies. It’s a mini-game in of itself trying to fight against Shadow of War’s complicated menus to dip in and out to scrap unwanted weapons and swap gems around and becomes entirely wearisome the longer the game drags on, but the allure of getting the better things to kill the things better is hard to shake off. A conventional progression system would not have gone amiss instead, though.
After a first act which mainly serves as a re-introduction to this version of Middle-earth (the series mercifully isn’t canon), the second act is when the real fun begins. Armed with the new Ring of Power, Talion and Celebrimbor start their conquests of the fortresses dominating the landscapes across Mordor through a mixture of infiltration and spilt blood, which is mainly powered by the orcs under your control.
Much like the first game, Shadow of War features an orc hierarchy with the Worms at the bottom and newly-introduced Overlords at the top. The former can divulge information on higher-ranking orcs such as their weaknesses and their relation to other orcs. With some intel, you can either exploit the Captains’ weaknesses -whether that be a fear of flies or susceptibility to getting an arrow in the head- to kill them more easily or Dominate them to bring them under heel. With a “stockpile” of what are essentially orc slaves, Shadow of War turns into a tactical playground as deep as it is impressive – even though I had sunk dozens upon dozens of hours into the game, it never ceased to throw something new my way in terms of orc personalities and quirks.
“The game throws you in headfirst and chucks so many different things at you at once that it’s easy to get lost in it all…”
Captains that are under your command can range from a run-of-the-mill orc with a bad attitude to prancing bards, from incoherent babblers to witty tricksters, and from orcs that almost definitely want to have sex with your corpse to those with spider fetishes. There’s a wonderful array of procedurally-generated orcs to see and kill here, but it’s almost just as fun to watch them do their thing, to put them in different situations and see how they react. The amount of detail put into them is simply astonishing: there are so many different voice lines that trigger for special scenarios and there are bound to be hundreds, perhaps even thousands, more than I came across. You can even weave your own stories within Shadow of War similar to an RTS such as XCOM, which almost makes up for the fanfic driving its campaign. I’ll use the handsome chap below to illustrate.
In one of the stupidest moves ever seen (“I should absolutely tell this guy with the deadly ghost pal and the orc army about his dead family”), Maku of the Black Gate earned himself a spot at the top of my shitlist. His death wasn’t to be a swift one, though. Oh no, nowhere close – in fact, I think I might have been a little too lenient with him.
After quickly dispatching of him in battle, I shamed him through Domination and lowered his level down by five while also accidentally making him deranged, which resulted in all of his dialogue being weird noises; a nice bonus. Straight away, I hunted him down to whichever brown area of Mordor he escaped to and, again, made him feel like a bit of a silly boy, this time choosing to bring him under heel and throw him into my ranks. Once I had unlocked the use of Fight Pits after conquering my first fortress, I waded through the ranks with my strongest orc before coming up against the hardest opponent in the champions section. Maku did not do well against a superpowered olog with fire weapons, I’ll tell you that much.
Conquering your first fortress feels like a major achievement in Shadow of War, like you’re a demented Napoleon with a chip on his shoulder. My tactic of choice was to Dominate the bodyguards of a warchief, who I could then assign to pretend like it was business as usual before the time was right – when the siege was underway, they would all turn on him once I came close, which would make my job a lot easier to either kill or Dominate the Warchief, allowing me to hoover up the victory points without much fuss.
Conquests take place across multiple stages with more stages typically cropping up with tougher fortresses. As the attacking force, you can select up to six captains to lead the charge, which is where Shadow of War’s superb orc systems again shine. The higher the level of your orc, the more powerful they will be, but a level 50 behemoth is about as competent as a wet napkin if they’re scared of fire. Finding the right balance between them all is not a straightforward task, which can lead to plenty of frustrating fiddling with the game’s unintuitive menus. That being said, once your plan eventually comes together and Talion and his ugly friends cut swathes through the fortress’s defenses, it’s invigorating.
The attackers can be bolstered with all sorts of advantages, such as siege beasts (hulking but incredibly dumb leviathans that rain fire and brimstone down), specific tribes of orcs (ranging from shielded groups to push back the opposition to raving lunatics), and so much more. The meat of the gameplay comes down to capturing victory points across the fortress and dispatching of the Warchiefs until you arrive at the Overlord: the head honcho at the summit of the fortress. These encounters are, by far, the toughest in the entire game and can become teeth-grindingly difficult when up against Legendary orcs, who tend to have counters for every single one of your best strategies, meaning that patience is a virtue. Once they’ve been felled, however, the fortress is yours.
“…once your plan eventually comes together and Talion and his ugly friends cut swathes through the fortress’s defenses, it’s invigorating.”
There’s also the flipside of this fun pillaging: defending what you’ve earnt. Defending your fortress from Sauron’s hordes may not be quite as fun, but it’s far more intense – lose the battle and you lose the fortress, meaning that you effectively have to start the process over. The grind of Shadow of War as a whole does eventually wear the sheen off of conquest battles when you’re dozens of hours in, but it’s a real joy while it lasts.
It’s almost impossible to talk about Shadow of War without also mentioning its approach to microtransactions – all discussion of the game is drowning in its critics. While the introduction of loot boxes certainly doesn’t help the experience, it doesn’t irrevocably damage it, either. For the course of the main campaign, the loot boxes are more or less a non-issue: there are so many orcs around that you won’t even feel tempted to look at the market and make your job that little bit easier.
It’s during the game’s fourth act where the microtransactions do pose an issue, however.
(Warning: possible spoilers ahead.)
Shadow Wars is a simple premise: defend all of the fortresses under your control from increasingly more formidable attackers. It’s effectively bonus content and it seems as if Monolith have approached it that way too – gone are the rousing speeches from Talion after each battle and there’s only one cutscene as a reward for potentially a dozen hours of grinding. You can easily gloss over Shadow Wars and walk away from it without losing much of the overall experience, just like I did after its eighth stage when I was killed by a caragor because I pressed the wrong QTE prompt.
The task at hand in Shadow Wars is a difficult one that’s not helped by how efficient you were in the base game – it doesn’t generate powerful orcs quite as freely if you’ve already hoovered up almost every spare space on the “battle board”. This means that, little by little, it nudges you more and more towards the market so that you can roll new orcs from crates (don’t ask) by using the game’s common Mirian currency. However, Mirian will only get you so far – all of the Legendary gear and orcs are sequestered behind the more illustrious crates, which can only be unlocked by gold or daily challenges. How do you get gold? By either patiently waiting for your daily challenges that give out meager amounts (50, sometimes 100 pieces) or with your credit card.
It’s true that you can Dominate attacking orcs to add to your ranks during fortress defenses, but battling with Shadow of War’s sometimes nightmarish controls and camera while also battling hard as nails orcs eventually became a grind too far for me. Talion has a terrible habit of targeting the wrong orc with his Dominate ability, so in the heat of the battle when you’re dying to dominate a warchief that you’ve been chipping away at for what feels like a millennia only to end up dominating some random instead, it’s infuriating. Grinding through Shadow Wars brings up more of the uglier points of Shadow of War without really adding anything of worth, except for the added playtime for supremely dedicated players.
“My advice? Don’t bother with Shadow Wars at all. It really isn’t worth your time.”
I admit, as someone who once spent half of my dole money on a mobile spin-off of FIFA, the temptation was there to buy extra gold, but I never buckled. It’s easy to see why others would, though – Shadow Wars seems cynically designed to wear players down to the point where spending a little extra to get over a bastard stage doesn’t seem too bad. Levelling up is a trial the more you progress, but you’ll need to to gain access to the more powerful orcs – you can only recruit those that are at an equivalent or lower level to you. So, you’ll need an XP boost to help you level up, which, of course, will be found in the market. There’s this uneasiness that comes with playing Shadow of War’s endgame, that it keeps pushing and pushing the player towards shortcuts by making them so regularly visit what is effectively the microtransaction hub for something as simple as adding an orc to their army. My advice? Don’t bother with Shadow Wars at all. It really isn’t worth your time.
Ultimately, Shadow of War is a good game that isn’t as endearing as its predecessor or as revolutionary in its ideas. While it adds layers of new mechanics on top of the emergent gameplay found in the first, its creaky fundamentals, questionable endgame, and lackluster story hold it back from being quite as essential as what came before it.