Three years ago, Monolith shook up the gaming industry with a completely original (and surprisingly never duplicated since) idea in Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. The revolutionary mechanic that made the 2014 Lord of the Rings game so memorable was called the Nemesis System. Fast forward to the present day and the developer has returned with Middle-earth: Shadow of War, ready to take their creation to the next level. The direct sequel to Shadow of Mordor takes the pre-existing formula and bulks it up by adding in a great deal of new ingredients, making for a much larger serving. However, the end result falls shy of greatness and loses the battle against its own ambitions in some regards.
Middle-earth: Shadow of War picks up right after its predecessor with the undying Talion and wraith-like elf, Celembrimbor, forging a new Ring of Power in the ongoing struggle against Sauron’s growing control. Before skirting off to Minas Ithil (prior to it becoming Minas Morgul), our protagonists are quickly introduced to Shelob, a giant spider with whom Tolkien enthusiasts are familiar. In a stark deviation from its source material, this eight-legged monstrosity can transform into a beautiful woman in Monolith’s tale. Shadow of Mordor played with the deep lore loosely, but it seemed easier to shrug off then. Shadow of War is looking to directly fit itself in a prominent point by bridging the gap between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, tinkering with it all more intricately. This may not have been a point of concern had the team given the story more substance. Some attempt has been made, as there are plenty of nods and fan-favorite additions, such as the Nazgûl. As it stands though, the story is the last thing you will remember at the end of it all. The narrative framework serves as a setup to push the game’s primary mechanic, the Nemesis System, which it does fairly successfully at the expense of not providing anything impactful in terms of the tale being told.
The Nemesis System is the heart and soul of Middle-earth: Shadow of War and it definitely shows. In any other game, the massive legions of baddies waiting to be cut down would be nothing more than nameless cannon fodder. Their sole purpose would be to give your blade a fine, blood-soaked sheen. Fortunately, that is far from the case here. The varied orc armies that Talion encounters along his high-stakes journey are the real stars of the show. The developer has crafted a slew of personalities and adaptive character arcs for the brutish opposition that awaits our hero. Run-ins with any one of these fiendish foes has the potential to be memorable. The team behind the game was clearly laser-focused on fleshing out the personas of the vast array of orcs littering the battlefield. Even the seemingly unimportant enemies can become named adversaries should they best you in battle. During an early moment, I was cut down by an orc that didn’t look dissimilar from the masses surrounding Talion. Following his victory, he gave a speech and revealed his name to be Kroth. My defeat meant his promotion into the rank of Captain, where he would don colorful new vestments and be known as Kroth the Tark Slayer.
This is where the real story of Shadow of War is told, through emergent gameplay. The opposing forces are comprised of general grunts, Captains, Warchiefs, and Overlords. The higher their rank, the tougher they are and the better the loot they will drop for the new gear system present in the sequel. Leaving out the bottom tier, unless they find themselves promoted, the other three are teeming with explosive character. The barbaric bunch falls into one of seven tribes — Dark, Terror, Marauder, Mystic, Feral, Warmonger, and Machine — each sporting a distinct style with their own set of varied material adornments, tactics, and weapons. Taking on these commanding officials in your quest to thin enemy ranks while bolstering your own is a treat in itself. Each rival has a remark to spout off before the fight gets underway (in most cases), diving into the meat of their personality. Talion might find himself up against a hulking drunk who drools incessantly while he spits threats or a slab of walking flesh that can’t manage anything but a loud, continuous screech in the moments preceding battle. Countless instances were filled with comedy as these formidable warriors broke up the action with a hilarious quip.
The diversity of the enemies aren’t found solely on surface level characteristics. In addition to having their own manner of speaking and armor, every one of these orcs has a list of strengths and weaknesses. Utilizing Celembrimbor’s ability to make enemies submit allows the player to extract useful intel from marked orcs wandering around the diverse environments of Mordor. After unveiling one of the orc’s officials in a given Overlord’s hierarchy tree, Talion will have access to useful information that could turn the tide in battle. Maybe the Captain being pursued currently is afraid of Caragors or immune to ranged attacks. There is a wide array of trait combinations, making each encounter feel unique as you finely tune your approach for the best chance of success. Still, knowing these factors doesn’t mean that combat will be a breeze. These combatants can adapt in the middle of your engagement. If you have been relying too heavily on vaulting over your rival during the face-off, they may learn your technique and become immune to that move. It will definitely keep players on their toes as they have to adjust strategies on the fly to these ever-developing elements. This is even more true as you move up the chain to the Overlord, whose showdown takes place in a confined (and personified) throne room.
As if these components didn’t provide enough of a challenge, orcs swarm on-screen in record numbers to join the fight. Between the nearby groups loitering about and any reinforcements summoned, the player’s view can quickly become overwhelmed by a heap of green-tinted troops, button prompts, and projectile warning symbols. It’s quite a bit to take in as you are first settling into or getting reacquainted with the Akrham-style combat. Constantly tracking a heavy damage-dealing Captain’s movements, surrounding javelin throwers, and the various enemy types that can only be attacked in a specific way becomes quite the undertaking before you find a solid rhythm. And even in those moments that you think you have the flow of the fight in your favor, you might find yourself on the unfortunate end of an ambush by a Captain who you once thought to be eliminated, doubling the deadliness. Depending on your preferences, what I have just detailed will either excite or discourage you. The mayhem may be heavy, but it is immensely satisfying logging another win.
Lucky for Talion, this isn’t a war he has to wage alone this time around. Much like his competition, he can amass his own army and appoint dominated orcs to prestigious positions, even a bodyguard that can be called in to help turn the tides in a losing battle. Little by little, Talion will build up his response to Sauron’s forces. Now all of those bubbling personalities start to fill your ranks. In my playthrough, I found myself appointing my favorite personas to powerful spots, although it likely makes more sense to choose those that have solid strengths and overall traits. The feeling of building your own army is definitely enjoyable, if a bit of a grind. Carefully selecting who is going to storm the gates of a stronghold in an attempt to take down an Overlord is an experience that is molded by player input. Losses give the player a chance to reflect on what went wrong, allocate skill points to themselves and their crew via deep yet bloated menus, and make another attempt against some buffed enemies.
Once the end of Act 3 comes around, the game flips the script, forcing the player to defend instead of attack. Shadow Wars, as this endgame is called, sees Talion defending his claimed strongholds while still padding out his personal army. Here, Shadow of War becomes an absolute grind in the glaring absence of most meaningful content to help push progression. The base defense focus that follows can be broken up by hunting orcs that have killed other players or by storming the strongholds of others online, as Metal Gear Solid V did with FOBs. Unfortunately, Shadow Wars doesn’t exactly feel optional either, due to the fact that the true ending is locked behind its completion. And now we have reached the part of the review you saw coming a mile away: microtransactions.
Finishing this final act requires some hefty muscle and you will be surprised at how quickly your in-game currency whittles down to nothing as you buy silver chests to add a few (hopefully) powerful orcs to your numbers. Once that money is gone, the game’s real-life money gold option sits there, staring at you. It offers a shortcut in gaining numbers without trudging through the tedious grind. The game never explicitly forces the player to go this route, but it doesn’t exactly hide it either. For those who think it should simply be ignored, let me just say that standing by silently allows developers and publishers to normalize this behavior as time goes on. These systems truly have no place in single player titles, especially randomized loot boxes. Only by speaking up can we, the players, halt or slow this growing trend. Okay, time to step off of my soapbox.
In the end, Middle-earth: Shadow of War is primarily carried by the broadened scope of the Nemesis System. The orcs are put center stage and they are an absolute joy to watch develop. But therein lies the problem. The game’s biggest strength is, in some ways, its weakness. The wonderfully memorable foes and allies born from these mechanics show how one-dimensional every other character is in the game. Talion, Celembrimbor, and the remaining cast pale in comparison to the forged rivals and buddies made along the way. Nearly everything takes a backseat to the Nemesis System. It’s odd to have one aspect of a game shine so brightly that so many other components are cast in shadow. Still, the remaining parts create a competent RPG action title that spans a sizable map within Mordor. They just aren’t as notable or refined as the Nemesis System.
Middle-earth: Shadow of War plays to the strength of its predecessor by doubling down on the Nemesis System. In a lot of ways, this works in the game’s favor. Creating rivalries and forced companionship out of the wildly eccentric hordes under Sauron is an absolute joy. Whether Talion is attacking strongholds or defending his own, these personalities punctuate the action. The height of this achievement quickly reveals the areas of Shadow of War that have fallen short, such as the narrative that dips into a monotonous grind and the overly cluttered systems present in the menus. Still, Shadow of War‘s attention builds itself around the Nemesis backbone and it succeeds more than it fails by doing so for the majority of this adventure.
7.5 Tark Slayers Out of 10
Release Date: October 10th, 2017
Available Platforms: PC (Reviewed), PS4, Xbox One
Publisher: Warner Bros
Disclosure: Middle-earth: Shadow of War Was Provided By The Publisher For Coverage Purposes