Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is an action-adventure RPG set in J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantasy universe, where power is obtained by enslaving orcs. The game takes place during the sixty year span between The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring, and follows the un-dead ranger Talion as he tries to turn the tide of war.
Return of the King?
Having not played Shadow of Mordor I appreciated the fact that the game opens with an explanation of current events, detailing that master elven smith Celebrimbor is bound to Talion after he and his family are murdered.
Both Talion and Celebrimbor seek vengeance for what Sauron took from them; Talion his family and Celebrimbor the One Ring, and so the stage is set for Shadow of War.
The balance of good and evil that this creates within Talion is interesting, as the two constantly clash on how to deal with various situations. During the first act Talion offers aid to the weak Gondorians, showing his nobility, whereas Celebrimbor sees himself as superior to all life, including orcs and men. Shadow of War moves on to deal with themes of slavery, especially in the second act of the game as Celebrimbor uses the new ring to amass his own army of Uruks to defeat Sauron. Celebrimbor is also described as an “evil entity” and is compared to the tyrannical Dark Lord by Shelob the spider.
This being said Celebrimbor is a necessary evil as he enables the ranger to not only cheat death, but also use wraith abilities in order to perform superhuman feats. These abilities include being able to ride beasts such as caragors, and being able to slow down time whilst using the bow. He also adds to Talion’s character, as by himself Talion is quite boring and bland. This results in sections of the game where you can feel like a badass ranger, only to then be reminded that you are basically just a two-bit Aragon.
One Ring to rule them all?
Hardcore Tolkien fans look away. Monolith have crafted their own unique Middle-Earth story, complete with movie/book references, but it isn’t exactly canon. Talion and Celebrimbor make a new Ring of Power to challenge the Dark Lord, but have dealings with Shelob early on. This makes up the entirety of act one, acting as an almost pointless distraction until the real experience kicks off in the second act.
Speaking of Shelob, she can now transform from a giant spider into a goddess, yeah it’s not canon. On the flip side the character design in the game is great, with orcs especially detailed, though they now have Aussie/Cockney accents and talk too much. This is needed however, in order to bring the games’ biggest strength to life, and this is the Nemesis system.
The personality that this adds increases the tension and epic feel of one on one fights, though it rarely is one on one. Enemies can ambush you, catch you by surprise if you don’t collect intel on them by interrogating ‘worms’, and can even not die when defeated. One orc in particular, Hoglik, was renamed “The Survivor” after beating him in combat the first time. He then just kept coming back, three times in fact, and would always show up out of nowhere, but still offering little challenge (sorry Hoglik).
Gameplay and Nemesis system
The game doesn’t hold the player’s hand in the opening stages, thrusting you straight into the action with next to no tutorial. I had to play on the lower difficulties (the game can be hard okay), although for experienced players I would recommend a higher setting to really benefit from the Nemises system.
Climbing feels like that in Assassin’s Creed, and combat is influenced by Batman: Arkham Asylum so it’s super smooth, but you’ll be mashing square (on PS4) and pressing triangle to counter a lot. The game provides a good challenge all round on normal, and even easy difficulty, and you will eventually die, allowing the Nemesis system to kick in. Upon death to a grunt, the game rubs salt in your wounds by having the player-slaying orc promoted to the rank of captain, obtaining new gear of its own, and mocking the player at every turn.
Death is a feature rather than a punishment in Shadow of War. It shines a light on the Nemesis system and rewards the player for taking revenge on the murdering, now captain, orc, with rare loot. If you don’t want to die however, run away, there’s no shame in it. You’re out-numbered and in some cases out-matched, so running away, draining the life out of some rats and grunts, and living to fight another day will save you the embarrassment of falling in battle (but where’s the fun in that?).
The game succeeds in capturing an authentic Mordor feel, and the photo mode, which seems to now be the norm in 3rd-person action games, takes advantage of this, allowing the player to pose in a variety of landscapes to capture the perfect shot. However, while Shadow of War can look great it is not on par graphically with the likes of Horizon: Zero Dawn, which came out earlier this year. My first kill in the game caused the enemy to glitch out, with his discarded weapon making irritating clanging sounds for a good few seconds (this wasn’t the only time this happened either). The music is great also, offering the same deep and sinister vibe as the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and helps to build the games’ atmosphere.
In-game cutscenes seem to strangely break this immersion, however, as Talion will not be wearing the armour that the player has equipped. This can be frustrating as new armour and weaponry can be extremely fun to obtain and upgrade, with side quests offering legendary gear for collecting poems and memories, though it is never shown off in these cinematic clips.
Multiplayer and microtransactions
Shadow of War has a multiplayer system similar to that of Metal Gear Solid V, in that players can storm other players’ strongholds with their army of orcs. While this is a spectacle to behold, the mode feels unbalanced as players who spend real money have an advantage over those who don’t. This is because those players will have a greater chance to obtain more legendary captains, who are, as you may have guessed, more powerful.
The microtransactions in the game seem to have been added to make players pay to shorten their overall experience as well. This is due to the fact that there is a steep grind towards the end of the game, possibly added to make players want to pay for a better army. The grind comes in the form of defending fortresses under siege, and is necessary if players want to obtain the ‘true’ ending.
Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is still my favourite game in the universe of Middle-Earth, however, the last game I played in the ‘series’, War in the North, also had its moments. Shadow of War feels like it’s nestled between the two, offering a good all-round experience with solid combat, and an interesting, but slightly forgettable story.
The game is a true spin-off and handles this quite well, even if the main characters are somewhat unlikeable and the story can be inconsistent at times. I can’t safely say that the game is better than its predecessor as it doesn’t seem to add many new elements to the mix, sticking instead to the things that work, and just being a continuation of the story. The overall gameplay and Nemesis system elevate Shadow of War, but the characters and looming microtransactions hold it back, preventing it from being a truly gripping Middle-Earth adventure.