It may have been out for almost a week, but most people are only just starting to scratch the surface when it comes to Middle-earth: Shadow of War. It’s an expansive, almost overwhelmingly big game with a refined and superpowered Nemesis system that procedurally generates some of the most likeable orcs ever seen.
But everyone isn’t in agreement over it. Plenty of complaints have been made about its weak story, but the most inescapable criticism of Monolith’s big-budget orc personality simulator are for its microtransactions. While they never posed much of a lure for me in the main game, as I mentioned in my review for the PS4 version of the game, it did make me rather uneasy in the game’s final act. It’s weird, then, that it’s also the least interesting part of the game.
(Final spoiler warning)
Shadow Wars is the fourth and final act of Middle-earth: Shadow of War, but it isn’t particularly essential playing. Following the events of the main campaign, Talion is, quite preposterously, wearing Isildur’s ring which gifts him the power to raise the dead. After a betrayal from Celebrimbor, it’s down to the gruff ranger to keep the tides of Mordor at bay until Frodo gets enough of a wiggle on to chuck his ring in some fire.
This essentially boils down to successive defenses of the fortresses you’ve won over the course of the main game. The process is split into stages that start off simple and easy enough; defending the first few fortresses is a walk in the park if you’ve invested enough time in levelling up Talion beforehand and hoovered up some of the orcs across the game’s many regions.
But then the grind kicks in, a grind which never really feels worth it. Before long, you’re regularly flitting back and forth between fortresses and tweaking your orc line-up for maximum effect while also trying not to get too bogged down by the game’s unintuitive menus. It feels like a job, as if someone’s sat you down in a cubicle with reams of random papers and asked you to organise everything for a boost in orc synergy, or something nonsensical like that.
It would help if there was anything to latch onto with Shadow Wars, but it just feels like it’s been bolted on at the last second, not too dissimilarly to Mankind Divided’s controversial Breach mode, which also came specifically engineered to push people towards microtransactions. Talion becomes even more one-note than before, simply grunting when Dominating and not saying anything at all. There’s no rousing speeches after each battle or even a monologue to reflect how he’s feeling. It’s just all so empty.
Which is why I had to walk away from it after the eighth stage. I was hellbent on getting the extra trophy, but after struggling with how hectic and difficult to follow the battles had become and just generally not enjoying the job of micro-managing orcs, the final straw came when I lost the fortress after I failed to press the right QTE prompt at the hands of a caragor. I’m glad I didn’t power through, because the “reward” of the bonus ending turned out to be simply not worth the effort, which I found out when I wandered over to YouTube in a huff.
A three-minute sequence of extreme (non-canon) lore-bending that sees Talion finally succumbing to the Nazgul and joining their ranks, the revelation that he was definitively killed at the end of Return of the King, and then him walking into the light. No reunion with his family or even last words, just a leisurely stroll with a sad song you’d hear in a coffee shop playing in the background. That’s all there is.
While it’s appreciated that Monolith added hours upon hours of extra content for dedicated players, its execution and the way it’s set up to make microtransactions seem gradually more attractive is not. When your only prize for perseverance is an ending that’s the Middle-earth equivalent of choosing different colours in space, something’s not quite right.
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