When Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor broke into the gaming scene in 2014, it was arguably the first and only game set in the universe created by Tolkien that actually felt fun to play. That was largely due to its combat system, an amalgam of the fluid button mashing of the Batman Arkham series and the parkour and stealth-focused shenanigans of the Assassin’s Creed franchise.
Its sequel, Middle-earth: Shadow of War, doesn't disappoint in that regard either, building on the enticingly fun gameplay by adding more content and a much larger open world. Unfortunately, a lot of that fun is ultimately marred by some truly befuddling design choices that, by the game's end, are bound to leave a bad taste in your mouth.
Despite my rather low expectations going into the game, Shadow of War’s story left me pleasantly surprised, drawing heavily on Middle-earth lore. It either greatly expanded on some of the more obscure characters from the movies like Shelob, or introduced entirely new ones like Carnan.
The characters in the main story are certainly memorable and epic, they’re well-developed and feature high-quality voice acting. Meeting some of them, like Carnan, for the first time is indeed a significant milestone, but the truly memorable characters are the orcs. Many of them are the typical bloodthirsty savages you’ll soon learn to ignore. However, among the masses are also unique gems with peculiar quirks like a love of singing or an obsession with maggots. The character design of such orcs also stands out, with extravagant armour or funny weapons (the bards will often feature a guitar with a blade hanging out from it) that make them even more memorable.
Like with the first game, Shadow of War does play fast and loose with what is generally considered established canon in the Middle-earth mythos, but it does so in a way that is interesting and enticing. While this is no Telltale game and you won’t be particularly moved by the story, it does stay true to the LOTR formula of one man fighting the forces of evil against all odds. It’s yet another iteration of the classic heroic narrative, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Coming to the handsome and spectral duo of Talion and Celebrimbor, who serves as our protagonist, I found that their development in the story was handled rather well, with the end being slightly tweaked to bring the title's resolution more in line with the movies.
Without offering any real spoilers, I can say that while I did like the conclusion to Talion’s story - which contains a rather a fateful twist near the end - Celebrimbor’s fate was rather … anticlimactic and vague. A figure that’s only very briefly referenced in Tolkien lore as the creator of the three Elven rings of power, the story in the games attaches significantly more importance to Celebrimbor for obvious reasons. That’s precisely why the resolution of his story arc feels so meh, as the developers try and ensure he simply disappears from the story so anyone watching the movies after playing the game won't ask why he's never mentioned.
(PARTIAL SPOILER) Even worse, his true fate is actually left in the air, because the games don’t necessarily kill him and the movies never even mention him. In the cutscene marking the ‘true’ ending – more on that later –, there is a slight nod towards what could be Celebrimbor, but that’s about it. The need to tie off the game's ending in a neat bow that serves as a prequel to the movies is understandable, but I truly believe Celebrimbor deserved a far better send-off than the one he got. If the Mass Effect trilogy proved anything, it’s that regardless of how epic the journey may have been, a poor ending is all people will remember – and this statement holds true for far more than just Shadow of War’s story, as you’ll come to see.
The gameplay of Shadow of War is where the game truly shines. The combat system harkens back to the Batman Arkham series and, just as in those games, fighting hordes of enemies and countering their attacks mid-fight really makes you feel truly powerful. The combat is fast and fluid and most definitely the best part of the game.
So too is the movement. Shadow of War’s movement system can only be described as Assassin’s Creed meets The Flash, with a similar range of parkour and wall-climbing hijinks as featured in the Ubisoft title, but with the added bonus of Celebrimbor’s wraith powers making everything all the more superpowered – and fun. Given the much larger world size, that ease of movement and the speed at which you can do so makes the chore of getting to your next objective far less boring. Without it, traversing the new open world would be a torment, I imagine. As it stands, the movement system in the game is slick and better for it.
The combination of the Arkham-inspired combat and the copious lifting of some of the best ideas from the Assassin’s Creed franchise also means you don’t have only one way to engage with enemies. You can go head-on with large hordes of Uruks if you’d prefer, but the parkour skills do allow you to exploit the verticality of the world to employ a more stealth-oriented strategy.
Unlike Arkham, the hordes of Uruks can get especially large in bigger outposts. Even though you do have the option of countering enemies – one of the best sights in the game being when Celebrimbor leaves your body as a wraith to counter additional enemies – the inclusion of a more varied cast of Uruks with uncounterable attacks left me preferring stealth encounters over all-out fighting.
For those who do want to rush into the fray, Shadow of War does flaunt a healthy variety of ways for you to handle the large crowds that will soon descend upon you. A plethora of explosive barrels, fire pits that can be ignited, bait for different types of beasts and poisonous spiders, colonies of flies that distract your enemies, and the ability to call ghuls from the ground beneath all work as excellent forms of crowd control so you can focus on the objective at hand and not get distracted by every passing Uruk who wants a shot at the Gravewalker.
The combat in the game isn’t particularly difficult, though you will certainly find it quite a lot more challenging at the start of the game. This is due to not having many of the crowd control abilities unlocked, making it harder to navigate the hordes. It's especially troubling when you’re low on health as there’s no quick way for you to heal in the midst of a fight except to drain an Uruk. This draining has a drawback though, requiring you to hold E for a significant amount of time and the crowd surrounding you will almost certainly interrupt you.
In those times, and when fighting more powerful Orc captains later, you’ll often need to momentarily retreat from fights – at least until you unlock abilities like Consume and Shadow Dominate which allow you to heal with the press of a button. The AI is excessively forgiving in these cases – almost annoyingly so – and the orcs will abandon their pursuit as soon as you leave their eyesight, which is not at all hard.
With time, you will begin to unlock even more powerful abilities that allow you to seamlessly kill large amounts of enemies, often accompanied by satisfyingly gruesome execution animations that truly make you feel like a lean, mean killing machine. Many of the 60+ skills in the expanded skill tree also feature a variety of upgrades aimed at adding new effects to the skills, which you can customise and change on the fly, as needed. For example, with enough ‘might’, you can shoot an explosive arrow that can either do fire, poison or frost damage. You can choose between these depending on the weaknesses of the enemy you’re fighting.
As the game progresses, it will also become increasingly easier to navigate. While that feeling of power does negate a lot of the boredom and lack of achievement that comes from an easy combat system, one part of the game with which I took issue with were the boss fights. Granted, I never expected Dark Souls-like difficulty, but the way Shadow of War’s combat is designed, you are simply unbeatable 1v1 and the only element of difficulty is effective crowd control.
It was therefore rather puzzling to see that almost none of the boss battles in the game feature any minions. It was just utterly unsatisfying to find that fighting the big bad Sauron, Dark Lord and whatnot, was easier than fighting Pugrish the Rat. In what is supposed to be the penultimate battle of the game, Sauron has literally one attack that is particularly tough to dodge, with most of his other attacks being laughably easy to counter. To add insult to injury, time will literally slow down and a large prompt telling you to press ‘space’ will appear. The same was true of the fights with the Nazgul and the Balrog, all of which just feel like missed opportunities. What’s the use of drawing on some of the best and most terrifying characters in the lore, like the Balrog, and then make fighting them as easy as mashing the right button or doing the same combo over and over? At least providing the major bosses in the game some modicum of intelligence seems warranted, and the poor implementation of the boss fights left much to be desired.
That’s just the beginning of puzzling design decisions. Another part of the game which makes me feel like WB Games never bothered to hire a QA department is the poor implementation of instructions. Sure, the game offers a bunch of useful hints on how to run, fight, jump up walls and so on, but one of the key features of the Nemesis System - the ability to dominate orcs and turn them to your side - doesn’t unlock until 4-5 hours into the main story. Yet, the Nemesis System is unlocked right out the gate for players. I can only feel sorry for those who had never played the first game like me and just started killing orc captains left and right only to realise they wasted hours of their time because new orcs will constantly come up to take the place of their fallen brethren.
This is not at all explained in the game and, incidentally, the first act in particular is locked in a region where, for story reasons, the orc captains are utterly irrelevant and killing, dominating or just leaving them has no larger impact whatsoever. Once again, if a new player just started interacting with them at random, I imagine they were pretty mad once they got to the later parts of the story and realised how much of their time was wasted because of Warner Bros.’ awful explanation of game mechanics. The same flaws were found in the implementation of the loot crates, which I will discuss later in the review.
As with the first game, my impression of the Nemesis System is that it’s a glorified gimmick. Yes, no other game has yet implemented such a feature, so it is certainly unique in that regard. And, yes, as I mentioned, some of the orcs had truly memorable personalities, but most don’t.
After hearing the first 10 orcs ranting on about how they were the most powerful Uruk in the world, and they would kill the Gravewalker, and so on and so forth, the gimmick quickly gets boring and soon I was wishing they’d give me a skip option to jump through the rather inane introductions every orc captain makes.
Yes, there are some truly interesting personalities hidden in the mix, but they are few and far between. These can’t hide the fact that the Nemesis System ultimately lacks any real depth or agency. Yes, these mini-bosses aren’t labelled ‘Troll’ or ‘Elder Dragon’ as in other games, however, giving an Uruk a first name and a silly title doesn't make them any more memorable.
Each orc captain also has specific traits, strengths and weaknesses that you should take into account before fighting them. That is a valuable part of the system and does help in keeping fights with different captains relatively fresh and varied. It is, unfortunately, the only useful part of the Nemesis system and the extent of the depth it provides. While adverts like this one may have led you to believe otherwise, a video game version of Choose Your Own Adventure novels Shadow of War is not.
Shadow Wars and loot boxes
That brings us to the ending of the game, and the microtransactions. Monolith Productions' implementation of them wasn't particularly unsavory, just a bit perplexing.
To provide some context to the controversy, Shadow of War is basically divided into four acts. The completion of the first three acts more or less completes the overall story of the game. After this, Act Four, which is titled Shadow Wars, requires you to defend the fortresses you’ve captured in all four major regions in the game, over and over and over and over again, in a perpetual cycle of war that is more boring and repetitive than anything I have ever experienced in a video game.
That’s coming from a completionist who had 100 percented all collectibles and side quests long before I even started paying full attention to the main story. Alas, these siege missions left an utterly insipid taste in my mouth and besmirched what should have been awesome memories of an incredible game. Each siege is basically like the last and, honestly, if you’ve played one, you’ve played them all. However, motivated by my desire to see the ‘true’ ending of the game and achieve 100% completion, I soldiered on, torturing myself with a total of 30 of these sieges, which took over 20 hours to complete.
All this led me to was a two-minute-long cutscene that basically confirmed what we already knew was going to happen at the end of Act Three and spent the rest of the time summarising the LOTR movies for us. It was an utter and despicable waste of my time. If any of you are going to play Shadow of War, I suggest ending Act Three, playing one or two of the siege missions just to have the experience of playing a mode that you only get to experience once in the main story, and then searching for ‘Shadow of War true ending’ on YouTube. Then, spend the 20 hours you’ve saved with your loved ones and never look at the game again.
With that said, how loot boxes fit into this picture is that each of these siege missions requires you to select captains as warchiefs for the defense of your fortresses. The attacking forces do tend to be much harder than captains you may have fought previously. In the later stages of Shadow Wars, they'll even start to approach the level cap for captains, which is 65 (as opposed to 60 for Talion).
I, for one, had captured all the fortresses in the game long before I started to reach the end of the game, which meant that while I was being attacked by Level 45+ orcs, my own captains and warchiefs were barely pushing north of Level 30. This is where the loot boxes come in, which you can either buy with the in-game currency for captains of up to 'Epic' rarity or use real money to buy gold loot boxes which reward 'Legendary' captains. 'Epic' and 'Legendary' captains have one and two special attributes, respectively, which gives them a slight edge in battle.
The level of the captains you receive from a loot box will be tied to your own level at the time of opening. This means that in the above situation, I could have just bought higher level captains to replace my rather underpowered ones. Another way of getting better captains would be to once again hop into the 'Army' screen and use the Nemesis system to dominate newer captains who are most likely going to be of a much higher level at this point.
However, while many others have derided Monolith for being greedy jerks who force you to buy loot crates to expedite the process of getting to the true ending, I found absolutely no problems with their inclusion in the game. This is because, for one, they are not aggressively advertised, except for a pane at the bottom of the pause menu that you can easily ignore.
Secondly, because there's a much, much easier way to get higher level captains than to buy them or do Nemesis missions to find new ones: dominate the attacking captains themselves. Indeed, while the first siege missions in each region may be a bit harder to deal with if you conquered the forts a while ago, simply replacing your aging army with the hordes of new captains that the game throws at you with each siege is a perfect solution that requires no extra work. You'll have to kill or dominate them in order to complete the mission anyway.
The game itself mentions this very fact at the start of Shadow Wars so I really don't see why so much noise has been made about the need to get captains from loot boxes when the game is already presenting a free option that requires no extra effort. The only difference would perhaps be that captains you buy would be Legendary, but that's really not a very significant difference.
My gripe with loot boxes, then, wasn't with their indispensability in order to win the game but, once again, the astoundingly poor instructions associated with a feature that could ultimately cost players a ton of money. As I explained, the captains you get from loot boxes bought with real money are Legendary, but they do still have the same level as your character when you first opened them. In order to test the system out, I bought my one and only golden loot box at near the start of the game, when I was only Level 15.
This meant that come Shadow Wars, when loot boxes are actually useful, he was woefully useless and unless I wasted a ton of time doing missions to level him up, he would remain so. So, I decided to just kill him and move on with the strategy I've outlined above. The fact that Monolith Productions doesn't make clear to players that captains are most important only in the last leg of the game could result in people who actually want to buy captains doing so in the earlier acts of the game, and then ending up with a captain they paid for not doing his job because he is out-leveled. This rather glaring lack of instructions when it comes to a feature that requires you to part with your hard-earned money is deplorable and just plain idiotic.
It also leaves me utterly bewildered on how to review the inclusion of loot boxes. On the one hand, their implementation in the bigger picture of the game is utterly benign and not at all greedy but, on the other, I see such a stupid omission and can only wonder how Monolith's QA department missed it. The strategy of using the attacking captains to supplement your own army should have been made more obvious.
Shadow of War is a game that boasts truly impressive visuals in an astounding world and provides you with hours and hours of badass action. It is a pity, then, then glaringly obvious omissions, a Nemesis system that lacks any real depth, insufficient instructions and an utter disregard for the value of your time leave me unsatisfied and enraged at a game that I could have so easily come to love.
If you're interested in buying Shadow of War, you can grab a copy of the game starting at $59.99 on Steam, Xbox One and PlayStation 4. If you're in the South Asian Pricing Region, you can grab it on Steam for a much cheaper price of around $25.
The review of Middle-earth: Shadow of War was conducted via a review copy provided to us by WB Games on a custom PC with the following specifications:
- Display: 34" 21:9 IPS UQHD (3440x1440) non-touch
- OS: Windows 10, 64-bit
- RAM: 16GB
- Processor: Intel Core i5-6600HQ
- GPU: NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980Ti with 6GB GDDR5 VRAM
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