The eagerly anticipated Middle Earth – Shadow of War has been released, and we played the Xbox One version of the game.
As a big fan of the Lord of the Rings movie franchise, I get excited every time a new game is released that’s based on Tolkien’s rich fantasy world. They’re not all great and I never really got into War in the North, but I thoroughly enjoyed Shadow of Mordor when it came out. It felt a tad repetitive in the second half of the game, but that was mostly due to the game’s massive size and a campaign that was far longer than I had anticipated. Shadow of War’s campaign is even longer, but at least I was prepared for that this time around.
What I wasn’t prepared for is how the game’s developers have made an already lengthy adventure needlessly longer by implementing a system built around microtransactions. One of the most important keys to winning the game and defeating Sauron’s forces is your ability to amass a large and powerful army, as was the case in the first game. You grow your army by converting Sauron’s forces to loyal followers of your cause, but gaining access to the strongest of orcs is much easier when you decide to spend a little money on loot chests.
You’re not required to do so, but areas you conquer can fall soon after if you don’t have a strong group of Orcs defending them. As a result, if you dislike spending money on loot boxes like I do, you’ll be spending hours and hours defending your forts and areas, and trying to unlock stronger captains for your army. During that time, it feels like the game keeps asking you “are you SURE you don’t want to spend a little money on stronger loot?”…. Yes I’m sure, and I’m also sure I like you a little less for asking.
That in no way makes Shadow of War a disaster or anything like that, even though it puts a damper on the fun. Talion and Celebrimbor are still great fun to play with, and come with expanded move sets which (when unlocked) provide a great diversity in how you can approach the different mission types that you’ll come across. These mission types are evenly divided across varied areas in and around Mordor, with story sections revolving around an epic tale that features a brand new ring of power, the witch king of Angmar and Sauron himself. Fans of the movies will appreciate settings like Minas Morgul, and the appearance of familiar characters like Gollum.
Advancing in the game is done by conquering key areas and the forts within them, and this is where the series’ Nemesis system comes in. The Nemesis system is essentially an organizational chart of all the key orcs in the area as well as their rank. You’ll want to take out the top orcs, but doing so right away will result in almost certain death – they’re often surrounded by other strong orcs and they will quickly retaliate and overwhelm you if you decide to attack.
Your best option is to take out or convert a few lower level orcs first and work your way up from there – weakening a top orc’s defenses and/or making your own attack force stronger by taking a few orcs into battle with you as bodyguards. You can even have your orcs target specific enemies in order to help clear your path – giving you plenty of strategic options. It’s a dynamic system as well, since orcs can be promoted and demoted based on their performance. An orc that takes you down grows in standing and skill level, so when you see him again (after you respawn) he will be even tougher to beat.
This is all very similar to the Nemesis system in the original game, but Shadow of War features excellent enhancements when it comes to how orcs develop themselves. This doesn’t just apply to their stats, but also to their personalities. An orc who fights by your side will grow stronger as long as he is successful – eventually striking fear into the hearts of orcs that see him by your side. This will also make him more confident and arrogant though, which in turn can affect his loyalty towards you. Once he feels he’s too good for you, he might even try to betray you and take you out. This kind of progression isn’t scripted either, but determined by an orc’s base personality and the actions that unfold during the game. In another scenario, an orc might become increasingly humble towards you – or he might go insane as conflicting emotions tear him apart.
Combat, combined with the Nemesis system that ties into it, is the highlight of the game. The options to engage enemies through stealth, melee, individual or group attacks are incredibly diverse – and only increase when you start unlocking additional skills. This is perfectly balanced with the length of the game as well – but this is assuming you don’t hit a wall when you have to keep grinding for better orcs. You can also still battle on top of mighty beasts like the caragors from the first game, which adds even more diversity. Non-combat portions can still feel a little awkward, as moving around and climbing isn’t as fluid as what we’ve seen in, say, recent Assassin’s Creed titles.
The audiovisual delivery of the game is really well done, especially when you stick close to the main story missions. Tons of voice acting and orchestral music add to the atmosphere as well, which makes this game feel very close to the movie trilogy despite the absence of the nearly all of its characters.
It’s not a radically different game compared to Shadow of Mordor, but it features a much refined Nemesis system that makes the innovative original version feel dated. It’s too bad that this innovation is offset by the needless grind that occurs for those who don’t go along with the invitation to buy extra loot chests – which is something that seriously hurts the game balance for those unwilling to do so. I’m one of them, and I’m hoping for a patch that fixes this. Until then, this is still a good game – but it could have been a great one.