Editorials

Review: Middle-earth: Shadow of War

Middle Earth: Shadow of War is a game that truly offers many different elements, which makes it hard to cover in just one review. So this time around we are giving you two different perspectives. 

Bobby

No one thought that Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor would spawn the success it did in 2014. I was skeptical at the time, most games set in Tolkien’s world up until that point were barely serviceable and Electronic Arts pushed a heap of them during the Lord of the Ring’s trilogy theatrical run. I couldn’t stand those titles, and what they were, barely more than a cash grab. With a new developer at the helm, the only way things can go is up.

Monolith Productions created something special with their first entry into the world of Middle-earth, a grisly look at the world of man and orcs, with the fantastic combat system of the Batman: Arkham series and bits and pieces of the Assassin’s Creed series, a winning game was born. The real star, of course, was the Nemesis system that was created, a system that created procedurally generated encounters with Orcs, enticing you to come at them, overcome them, and rule them all.

The sequel, Shadow of War continues where Shadow of Mordor left off, Celebrimbor, the elf who forged the One Ring, and Talion, a Gondorian Ranger, must forge a new ring to combat Sauron and his growing forces. Keeping little in suspense, the new ring is forged and immediately lost to Shelob, the one and the same encountered in the Hobbit series, except this one can assume the form of a beautiful woman dressed in black.

Firstly, whatever you may know about Tolkien and his world building and characters, please leave it at the wayside. Shadow of War takes existing canon and promptly dominates it, spinning new tales and its own canon. To enjoy what Monolith has created you need to accept this and enjoy the crazy like it’s never been done before. When you have a licensed game trying to engage gamers on its terms, you’ll get lore missteps like seeing characters be where they shouldn’t be, for example, and many criticisms about the first game were how Monolith toyed around with lore. The movies by Peter Jackson did the exact same thing, expecting a studio to ensure that no established lore is broken, will curb creativity, and that’s good for no one.

To those who don’t have a knowledge base of Tolkien’s lore can find artifacts scattered about the world, pieces that you find fill in gaps that otherwise would not make sense, our hero Talion speaks about each piece he finds with Celebrimbor, providing further insight. Missions involving memories featuring Shelob, delve into the history of the spider which involves Sauron, for example. There’s enough here to keep anyone playing informed, you just need to discover it for yourself.

There is a stronger supporting cast to interact with this go-around with the likes of Gollum, Shelob, The Witch King and the Nazgûl to name a few that make an appearance and proceed to assist or engage Talion.

The Nemesis system returns in spades, it’s a shame that years later few developers have taken advantage of the system, one teeming with possibilities and one I would love to see implemented in other franchises. I’m happy to see that three years later, not only has the Nemesis system been expanded, but it’s been stuffed with new ways to engage orcs. The revamped Nemesis system has become a key gameplay element, with the new Ring of Power, Talion is able to dominate orcs, Captains, and Warchiefs.

Combat is fast and fluid and frantic. Borrowing the rhythm of the Batman Arkham series, Talion engages in brutal and visceral encounters with various enemies, decimating the forces of Sauron in what I found to be some of the most imaginable takedowns I’ve seen. Seeing orcs split in half by the sheer force of Talion’s blade as he engages and overcomes the Warchief’s and Captains, feels poetic, partly due to being bound to Celebrimbor and his elven abilities – while you are supported by the elf, you are not invincible, and dying by any orc will change the scheme of things. An orc who defeats you will get promoted, his level will rise and the rewards tied to him will increase, he will also get stronger, and other captains will topple and be replaced.

As orcs raid camps and betray others, the freeform storytelling created by the Nemesis system provides new story beats, and each orc you come across has distinct enough personalities that it’s easy to tell them apart. Some orcs may be comedic, others downright nasty, learning more about your enemies through intel and interrogating weak orcs will give you weaknesses and other ways to remove an obstacle without even engaging them in combat.

A new feature of Shadow of War is loot, finding various pieces of loot – color coded by rarity, provide a new facet to the game, Talion can earn loot with numerous traits attached to them, and in such, you see the effects each piece can bring to the fold.

Skill trees supply ample opportunity to fine-tune how Talion will progress during your journey. Spread across five categories and nearly 100 abilities, your Talion can become what you want him to be  – various abilities open up branches that include Wraith abilities, Combat abilities, Ranged abilities, and more. Finding the right selection is satisfying.

I’ve spent dozens of hours traversing the lands and have yet to see a repeat of an orc personality, some are bards, some are warriors, all are distinct. The ingenious Nemesis system deserves to be in more games and tell more stories for other developers.

For the massive scope of Shadow of War, I am a bit let down by minor missteps, Talion, for example, would often climb things I had no intention of climbing, his elven speed would make him go places I had no intention of heading to. Talion handles like clunker and playing as someone with godly powers, this is a big issue when you’re trying to be just that.

Middle-earth: Shadow of War improves on its predecessor in every way providing a more ambitious and engaging game than Shadow of Mordor. The expanded Nemesis system with its variety as well new fortress sieges generate fantastic stories that provide memorable clashes across the world of Tolkien. Aside from the very questionable loot crates, which have made many gamers angry, the good thing is you do not need to spend a penny to enjoy Shadow of War, the shady tactics brought on by incorporating these loot boxes can be avoided entirely, and what you’re left with is a solid, competent game that dozens of hours in, is still addicting to play.

 

Camille

Middle Earth: Shadow of War is an ambitious game that builds on the complexity of its predecessor. After spending the first couple hours playing, it quickly becomes apparent that this game is great fan service for followers of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Even with that the game still manages to make an enjoyable experience for those that aren’t diehards of J.R.R Tolkein books or the movie adaptations, by keeping the gameplay fresh with help from the growing Nemesis system.

Shadow of War picks up right where the previous game left off. In Shadow of Mordor we saw Talion convince the spirit of Celebrimbor to continue their bond in order to forge a new Ring of Power that is freed of Sauron’s corruption, which can be used as a weapon against Sauron’s massive Orc army. Their eagerness to defeat Sauron’s army continues in Shadow of War as we see Talion and the Elf Prince’s spirit join forces with allies in an effort to save Middle Earth from Sauron’s grasp.

Although I have enjoyed the Lord of the Rings movies I’m not by any means an expert on the lore, so my experience with the game may be a bit different to people that are heavily knowledgeable about the source material. I played a bit of the game with my friend who is a huge Lord of the Rings fan and he noticed that Shadow of War deviated, a bit, from the lore. So if you’re a huge fan like my friend you may be disappointed in the story. For me the plot was just good, it was a mix of a few unexpected plot twists but unfortunately most of how the story developed was predictable.

I also found it hard to connect with the some of the characters like Idril, daughter of the General protecting Minas Ithil. She has an inner struggle with wanting to be on the frontline fighting alongside the soldiers and listening to her father who purposely assigns her tasks that relieves her from fight. (SPOILER) Without giving too much away, Idril suffers a loss and instead of feeling sympathetic for her I felt nothing. This is attributed to the stiffness of the main characters and their robotic exchanges, which flatten any quirks or traits that would usually draw us closer to memorable characters. When I finished playing through the story, I wished that it took more risks but I wasn’t completely disappointed, thanks to the gameplay that’s a result of the Nemesis System.

It’s no secret that the Nemesis System Monolith created is a glory on its own, as many praised it when it was put to the test with Shadow of War in 2014. It created a new way of strategizing, by forcing players to use the weaknesses of Uruks soldiers to their advantage. This time around we see this same system that we all grew to love expand. In Shadow of War we welcome the return of knowing Captains’ and Warchiefs’ stats. When encountering Captains not only will we scroll through their stats but you’ll listen to them and their minions discuss their fears. They’ll call each other out as ‘babies’ and dare each other to stand under spider nest to prove they’re not scared, or carry out some other test to disprove their fears. You’ll even hear Captains order their men to get rid of nest or fires. All the bickering that the Orcs have is hilarious and when I played I often found myself standing and listening to their banter, and the best part is that it didn’t seem repetitive. Throughout my entire experience with the game I rarely, very rarely, came across a Captain that reminded me of another one. With the Nemesis system every Orc is an individual thanks to their quick witted exchanges and how they act. In Shadow of War even when you fail to take down a fortress and lose to a Captain or Warchief, they’ll remember you next time you encounter them and even show the effects of your previous battle with them. You’ll see that they’ll have a hook for a hand if you cut it off last time you fought them, be more difficult opponents and some of them will even create a vendetta against you. It adds a great element to the game as it creates a sense of continuity through your experience of playing; in addition to more challenging battles.

The Nemesis System in the game also adds a new ability for Talion that uses the Ring to gain command of Orcs. With this power we can see enemies betray each other mid-fight adding another dynamic to the already smooth combat. Shadow of War’s combat is very straight forward dealing with timing when you attack and block enemies; and the more fluid you are with jumping from Orc to Orc to attack, instead of interrupting the flow of the fight by missing a target, the better you’ll do. You can also use Talion’s ability to command Orcs to recruit your own army.

Recruiting your own army is crucial as you take on Fortress Siege missions. Unlike Shadow of Mordor, which had Talion take out Sauron’s army through a chain of command, Shadow of War has different areas in Mordor occupied by fortresses; each fortress has a Captain and a few Warchiefs that work under them. At the beginning attacking fortresses are pretty simple but as you progress they get more difficult and require you to build your own army to help. Although your initial thought would be to recruit all Orcs that come your way, you really want to consider their skill set. Remember Orcs have a lot of personalities, with that is their strengths and their weaknesses. The ones that are afraid of fire may not be the best option when invading a fortress that is surrounded by scorching lava. The Nemesis System really forces you to think before you act on all fronts. Of course building your skill tree will also help with successfully taking over a fortress, while adding another level of game play for completionist.

Shadow of War also does a great job at adding replay value to the game when you complete the story. Shadow Wars gives fans to continue the adventure by defending the fortresses you have conquered from very difficult enemies. Of course you’ll have to think on the defensive and switch the leaders of your army up in order to make their strengths work for you. Also you’ll have to find stronger Orcs to fight the more difficult Uruk army. You can do this through microtransactions by purchasing them or seeking them out in Morder, which does take LOTS of patience but is worth it.

Shadow of War is a world with endless gameplay that provides players hours of quality content that is sure to intrigue many fans. Although I found that the main characters fell flat it was the true beauty of the heavily expanded Nemesis System that created the depth I wanted from the game. From the individuality and quirks of the Orcs to the smooth combat system and buildable experience, Shadow of War’s mechanics should be experienced by all gamers.

Middle-earth: Shadow of War

8.9

GRAPHICS

9.3/10

SOUND

8.2/10

GAMEPLAY

8.9/10

REPLAYABILITY

9.0/10

Pros

  • The Nemesis system returns bigger and better
  • Combat is as satisfying as ever
  • Building an army and assaulting fortresses is exhilarating

Cons

  • The story leaves more to be desired
  • Microtransactions via Lootboxed
  • Clunkiness controlling Talion
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Bobby has been gaming since he was old enough to walk. Since then, the interest has only grown stronger, and here we are today. Follow Bobby on Twitter, and just go with it. @bpashalidis

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