It is hard to begin a review for a game as massive in scale as Middle-earth: Shadow of War. Although I am easily several dozen hours into the game, I feel like I have so many uruks left to meet and tons of zany situations to be in. As a major fan of its predecessor (Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor) I had very high expectations for Shadow of War. I am relieved to report that the game meets nearly all of those expectations, and anyone who enjoyed Shadow of Mordor will easily find themselves getting sucked back into Middle-earth for another round of uruk army brain-washing.
Let’s recap what made Shadow of Mordor as remarkable as it was: The Nemesis System. This is back in full force for Shadow of War. There are several regions in the game, each with their own hierarchy of Captains and Warlords, both of which serve the Overload who commands from atop a massive fortress. All of these enemies can be overtaken and forced to fight for you. The enemy captains and warlords are procedurally generated for each player, which makes each new game feel different. When they are created, captains are given a handful of strengths and weaknesses which are essential to consider when either recruiting them into your army or removing them from the enemy ranks entirely. Once under your command, captains can undertake missions to kill other captains or prove their worth. This grants them a higher level and, sometimes, character boons. For example, a captain that proves himself by slaying one of Mordor’s beasts might become a beastmaster (who does more damage to enemy beasts), or might even gain a caragor as a mount. When you assign one of your conquered subjects to a take, a new mission is created somewhere in the region. You can choose to take part in this mission to ensure the success (or otherwise) of your captain, or you can allow them to complete the mission without your intervention. These missions are based on a three turn system. Once a captain takes on a task (whether they are yours or not), it will take three turns to complete. For captains that have not been brought into your army, they will often challenge each other to mortal combat to prove who is the best warrior (because that’s how you receive promotions, try that one on your boss). Turns are taken when you are defeated, and the enemy who defeats you is promoted to the next highest post. You can also opt to advance to the next turn at any fast travel point in the region.
The major flaw with this system is that unless you are advancing turns yourself, they move at a very slow pace. During the times you are focusing on the hierarchy of captains in the region, turns will move while you are taking part in the missions generated for the captains. However if you spend time hunting for collectables, doing side missions for Shelob or Calebrimbor, or commit to just story missions, nothing provokes a turn to take place. So you’re either all-in or all-out. If turns advanced more regularly (say, after common goals are achieved or even after a certain amount of time), then the conflict in the region would develop to be much deeper and the world would be far more rich thanks to it. While this is a very small issue, the improvement would greatly benefit Shadow of War‘s largest strength: the Nemesis System.
The largest new addition to the game, which goes hand-in-hand with the Nemisis System, are the handful of fortresses that must be conquered throughout Mordor. You must overthrow the Overlord to take control of one of these fortresses. You can charge in and fight the fortress’ army head-on or you can methodically kill or dominate its captains. Doing this disables certain defenses within the fortress. To take over a fortress, you lead a charge of your own army, headed by a selection of your dominated captains. Each captain that you assign to your siege can unlock various boons for your assault, like different classes of troops or tamed/wild beasts who will be unleashed to wreak havoc. Once you’ve begun your conquest, you must claim all of the significant point of the fortress (like you would checkpoints in a Call of Duty game or Control in Destiny‘s Crucible). After claiming the areas, you can walk your way right up to the front door and demand an audience with the Overlord. Typically the Overload is very strong and has some challenging immunities. Not to mention the fact that they are surrounded by several types of enemies and any time their numbers get low, more reinforcements are called in. These battles with the Overlord and his posse are very challenging, and can quickly turn in their favor. If you are defeated during your siege attempt, the Overlord and his army will taunt you the next time your try. Loosing to the defending army and having them rub it in your face is incredibly infuriating (in a good way), and makes the eventual victory all the sweeter. Taking on a new fortress is a ton of fun, and pairs perfectly with the Nemesis System. I hope that it is something that everyone who picks up the game enjoys, because there will be a point where you are doing it a lot.
One of Shadow of War‘s largest issues worth talking about is that the story is about as engaging and inspired as the first game – which is to say it is not very good. Shadow of Mordor set up its story very well. In fact, it is one of my favorite opening scenes in video games. Talion is forced to witness the death of his wife and son, and through that pain he is bound to Calebrimbor, a wraith of a man who had died under similar circumstances. It immediately invested you in the story because of how heart-breaking and gruesome it is, and it made Talion’s goal of avenging their death the player’s goal as well. It also communicated how the player could be resurrected after death very effectively, which is crucial in a game that revolves around the player and enemy captains’ deaths. Shadow of War does not start out strongly at all. It gives you a very light glimpse of the death of Talion’s wife and son, but it does not recap enough of the event to do anything more than remind the player “Oh that’s right, that happened.” The story missions do not transition into each other in a clear and understandable fashion. There are very few instances where the end events of a mission point you to the next mission. There is some dialog if you highlight the mission and travel to it, and this helps, but not enough. This makes the point in the game where you have access to multiple main quest-lines rather confusing until you figure out that each significant character has their own quests. These jump from region to region without much sense as to why they are traveling there and how you know to meet them there. The most baffling of these being the last part of a quest where you are pursuing and eventually kill a necromancer uruk. After finishing him off, nothing points Talion to a ritual in Minus Ithul where this uruk is being resurected. The only reason I even took part in the following mission is because my quest-line showed 88% complete so I traveled to see what I missed. I honestly thought I had beat that quest-line! The biggest demerit I have for this game is the story. While I understand that these games are more about the stories the player crafts for themselves with the orcs they fight and recruit, the Lord of the Rings universe is so large and rich that any media set in it should not struggle to tell an exciting and understandable story.
Middle-earth: Shadow of War starts with Talion and Calebrimbor resolved to craft a new ring (being that Calebrimbor is the master smith who crafted the Rings of Power) as a means to fight Sauron himself. Very quickly, the duo loose the New Ring to Shelob, who you might remember Sam and Frodo running into in The Two Towers. This would establish Shelob as the most immediate threat, yet Talion keeps coming back to her to receive visions of the future. Why he trusts her so quickly after she forced him to give up the ring is never adequately explained. For me, I never felt her benefit of future-sight justified the fact that we kept literally walking into the spider’s nest. The vast majority of the story’s quality stays at this caliber, up until the soft-ending of the game which has a phenomenal twist, the gravity of which is something I still reflect back on.
The reason I call it a soft ending is because that is the point where most of the story wraps up and you enter a phase called “The Shadow Wars.” This point in the game is made up of ten missions of increasing difficultly where enemies try to conquer the fortresses that you have appointed your orc captains command over. Loosing your fortress during these missions will cause your warloads to be kicked out and replaced by members of the opposing army. These new Overlords reside in your fallen fortress while you scrap to rebuild your army for an assault. It is also very likely that your Overload will be captured, meaning you either have to take part in a mission to save him or he will be executed. This is something that I really loved. Having my army scramble and my Overlord held hostage forced me to interact with my team to save those in danger and build up the strength of my key players. By the end of the process I had become very familiar with my A-team’s strengths and weaknesses. Since I spend so much time rebuilding them, I was much more involved with their stories and reclaiming fortresses to avoid the possibility of my captains’ death. The most glaring fact about “The Shadow Wars” is that they take a really long time to complete.
This is what has been raising people’s concerns with Middle-earth: Shadow of War‘s microtransactions. Through purchasing captains, training orders for your troops, and gear for Talion, you can progress through “The Shadow Wars” much quicker. To a lot of people, it seems almost intentional that you must either invest a crazy amount of time into this part of the game or pay to advance it at a faster rate. With so many other great games coming out, I have even considered buying some followers to push through this phase, but was never able able to bring myself to do it. The benefit of completing “The Shadow Wars” is that you unlock an extra bit of the story, so if you want the full experience you are going to have to complete this portion of the game.
Here are my thoughts on this: only once does the game direct the player to the marketplace where they can spend their money. It does this to show the player that they have extra options for commanding their orcs, such as assigning training orders and captains. The fact that they game has microtransactions is never displayed to you in an aggressive way. You can also purchase lower tier lootboxes from the market with in-game currency, so if the player feels really stuck, then this is a decent option to push forward. Don’t get me wrong, the best part of this game is stalking an enemy captain and the thrill of finally breaking him and forcing him into your service, so I wholeheartedly recommend not buying lootboxes. Why spend money on the game to avoid playing the game? The final section of the story was not significant enough for me to advise that you have to see it to get the full experience from the game. Anyone who plays up to “The Shadow Wars” and stops will have a full enough sense of what the game has to offer that they can stop if they feel that it is more of a grind then they would like. Players who are dedicated to seeing the final chapter of the game will be rewarded for the amount of time they put in. Whether or not a player can pay to progress faster in a single-player game should be left up to the discretion of the player who has money they’d like to spend (or not), not the community as a whole. Since there is no player-vs-player interactions other than the online fortress sieges where the player tries to take down other player’s fortresses (without interacting with that player directly), there is little benefit of purchasing better orcs outside of the single-player game. If you are trying to take down another player’s fortress who has bought high-level orcs and appointed them as warchiefs, their difficultly is akin to the later portions of “The Shadow Wars” so it doesn’t feel unfair. Ultimately, I believe those who have denounced the microtransactions in Shadow of War have either decided they were bad before playing the game or are just opposed to microtransactions altogether. Honestly, they are barely noticeable.
The last thing worth touching on is that the music feels like it was taken right out of a Lord of the Rings movie. It has signature piano pieces, similar to the first game, that accompany the more somber moments of the game. Otherwise, occasions of higher spirit are matched by intricate and beautiful violin tracks. Strangely, some of the best music in the game is found while exploring the map of Mordor. While the game may lack exceptional musical pieces, what is present in the game matches the tone of the story and fits within the style of previous Lord of the Rings media.
Although the lack of a deep and elaborate story might raise flags with many gamers (myself included), Middle-earth: Shadow of War pays such considerable detail to engrossing the player within the world that it is easy to forgive its faults. It gives players total agency to become wrapped up in the conflicts between the uruks and conquer their enemies in a way that makes the story of each individual player’s triumphs and defeats become the main story. Shadow of War met my every expectation as a sequel to one of my favorite games. Fans of the series, who know to expect the gameplay to be deeper than the story are bound to adore Shadow of War, and spend a lot of time with it!