I love wrestling. The main reason I love wrestling is the heady mix of melodramatic double crossing and violence blended into a (usually) well-choreographed visual spectacle. The Lord of the Rings licensed Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor – most definitely not wrestling related otherwise – applied this formula in its genuinely fresh nemesis system, making it one of the most entertaining games of 2014 despite being a rather ordinary third-person action adventure. With Shadow of War, its sequel, the melodrama, the betrayals, and the violence are all amped up to a whole new level. Has the rest of the game followed suit? Does that even matter?
Shadow of War sees the continuing Middle-Earth set adventure of undead Ranger, Talion, and his spectral co-habitor, Celebrimbor, still on a joint quest for vengeance against the Dark Lord Sauron. Having forged their own ring of power, setting up for a casual walk into Mordor, things seem like they’re on the path to redemption and revenge.
Of course, it’s not that simple, and in classic sequel style, Shadow of War teases you with a taste of the power before snatching it away so you can truly earn it. As before, Tolkien’s universe is represented in a part homage/ part fan-fiction manner. Character origin tales are remixed and retooled. Shelob is a notorious revision, and for a large swathe of my playthrough, It felt there was to be literally zero reason to be given for the giant spider’s Beckinsale visage. When an answer comes, it’s actually not entirely ridiculous, but the effort that goes into finding out is.
Shadow of War suffers from a few instances of this thinking, adding something with no discernible value to the player or the story. The inclusion of loot boxes is one such contentious point, yet you’re showered with so much free cash and opportunity during your time in Middle Earth, that it feels almost redundant for all but the most time sensitive and impatient. There’s no defending the need for microtransactions in a single player game, but it is at least, among the tamest examples in the industry. Basically, a lot of unnecessary fuss has been cause over a needless addition.
Right, back to the game itself. It’s been three years since Shadow of Mordor released, and two important things have happened since then. The first is a positive for Shadow of War, in that the nemesis system has not been mass-replicated, as you would expect of the industry whenever a new good idea happens. To date, only XCOM 2’s expansion War of the Chosen has come close to emulating the essence of it, so the danger of Shadow of War’s key gimmick being worn out by the time it landed is practically nonexistent.
The second thing does pose a greater danger if Shadow of War were to stick rigidly to the ‘more of the same’ blueprint. 2014 was a relatively bleak year in terms of consistent quality for the PS4 library, yet the time since has seen a parade of superb games twirling their batons, tooting their trumpets, and banging their drums along PS4 Boulevard, drowning out the fast-fading fanfare of Monolith’s surprise hit. Some have reshaped what is expected of an open world adventure as well, leaving everything that isn’t the Nemesis system to feel even more dated than it did. The pressure was off for Shadow of Mordor because nobody expected much of it. Shadow of War needs to be more than just a bloated facsimile of the previous game. For the most part, Shadow of Mar is not a carbon copy, and bloat? Well, I can’t say there’s none of that.
The meat of Shadow of War still revolves around taking down orc captains, warchiefs, and overlords in an effort to loosen Sauron’s iron grip on Mordor, but that now spans multiple areas, which immediately gives Shadow of War a healthier color palette than Shadow of Mordor. From the saturating greens of the forests of Nurnen to the snow-swept mountains of Seregost, this slice of Middle-Earth is a significant visual upgrade, not just in the locales, but in the character design as well, especially that of the orcs, ologs, et al. Talion still looks like an Unreal engine character whose face is made up entirely of jawbones sadly, but his armor is at least prettier!
The orcs though! While the variety isn’t infinite (names and dialogue do eventually repeat), the breadth of it creates a far more eclectic bunch than last time around. There’s a variety of tribes now, each with their own quirks, styles, and fighting preference. The fortresses in Shadow of War even change to reflect which tribe the overlord is from. On a character to character level, there’s a lot more added to the vicious, silly, charming, and deranged archetypes, with further quirks added via your encounters with them. There’s singing captains, maggot-infested captains, fire-obsessed captains, and some that suggest they’ll do more than just kill you with a lurid gyration of their hips.
They make it a far more personal affair now, remarking on all sorts of things from your last encounter to what you bring into battle (a great moment saw a captain scoff at the idea of me riding a Graug into battle with him, only for him to try and flee, terrified, when said Graug ate one of his lackeys). When they return a while after you defeat them, they wear the scars of battle in far more grisly and dramatic fashion. Finish an orc off by stabbing it in the head? He’s likely to come back with metal plates keeping his visible brain from spilling out. One orc, having suffered a deadly poison attack, came back horribly disfigured, but embraced his fears and look.
For everything else that does and doesn’t work in Shadow of War, there’s no doubting that the Nemesis system and the personal stories its implementation brings to the orcs of Mordor is the star of the show. As before, it’s a system that can add so much to any game. The game is an anecdote machine, full of betrayal, revenge, drama, and bloodlust. For example, I was deep into a tough boss fight, underpowered ever so slightly, and the enemy was barely being kept at bay, chipping away at each other’s health. I was overwhelmed, and had no chance of preventing the killing blow to Talion. Just then, one of my followers popped up from nowhere, shoved his crossbow under the boss’ chin and ended him with one crossbow bolt to the skull. He turns around, and dripping with barely disguised sarcasm, he says ‘Don’t ya worry, I got him for ya,’ and walks off. Fantastic. When I lost that captain in a battle later, I felt rotten for not returning the favor.
As for newer additions, we have the Fortress Sieges. After the opening hours where the game reintroduces you to the basics, including the domination of captains, you’re tasked with taking down your first fortress. There’s an impressive level of tactical sabotage to it too, as thanks to that ever-significant Nemesis system there’s several ways to approach sieges, even before you’ve actually started one. You can dominate captains and send them off to spy on their warchief, meaning that when you do eventually take that warchief on, he will be quite literally stabbed in the back by his underling. Taking out warchiefs strips a fortress of certain defenses, as does liberating outposts.
Once you feel ready to go in, you can strategize, put your best soldiers in key positions to lead the assault, and give them extra help (for a cost), such as fortified walls, special troops, and devastating siege beasts. You must then capture points within the fortress before moving on to the keep, where you must face the overlord and defeat him to take the fortress. It’s hectic, but manageable, until much later in the game when the tables are turned and you must defend the fortresses from invasion. Combined with the Nemesis system, sieges are a hoot, with the only drawback being one of control.
Talion is a superhero in Shadow of War, making great leaps, doing acrobatic flips, and doing a superman punch that Roman Reigns would die for. He’s a fluid fighter, only getting more fun to handle as abilities unlock (from elemental attacks, to summoning a Drake, and beyond). There are, however, instances where the controls are fiddly, almost cumbersome, and definitely frustrating. I found the worst of it comes down to climbing. Contextual movement doesn’t always click, meaning you either end up rolling at the foot of a rocky outcrop instead of clambering it, or you mess about trying to get down from somewhere you didn’t want to climb.
These contextual troubles occasionally bleed into combat as well, with some lumbering animation sequences creating maddening moments that can be the difference between success and failure. On the upside, it’s not a hugely common occurrence, but it is all the more glaring considering how well movement and combat can flow. There’s a lot of Middle-Earth to get around, and plenty of story to go with it, so anything that makes that less fun is unfortunate.
Shadow of War also has an online component of sorts. You can enter the fortresses of other players and attempt to conquer them however you see fit (you can’t take any dominated captains with you though). Otherwise, the online vendettas allow you to gain goodies for avenging other players by taking out the offending captain. If nothing else, it’s a nice way to peer into other’s versions of Mordor, and meet their brutal, eccentric followers.
Shadow of War is bigger in almost every way. It’s welcome in the case of the environment, the Nemesis system, and in the gameplay changes, but the story is where it feels like Monolith could have chopped a chunk off or reworked it. The game’s fourth act comes out of nowhere. In the third act, it certainly feels like things are wrapping up, and yet in perhaps the most Tolkien thing about the game, the end is not the end, and a fourth, mostly unextraordinary, act surfaces and any failure in it lengthens the endgame further still.
This is the only point where I suddenly saw where the loot boxes might come into play. There’s thrilling stuff in act four, sure, but if it reminds me of anything, it’s that second half of Metal Gear Solid V. If it has to be here, I would have felt far more comfortable with it being integrated into an earlier part of the game, and I include the finale of the third act in this too because while the the story beats there are entertaining, they needed to be either the end of the game or the midway point.
It’s fair to say Monolith hasn’t quite learned from all its mistakes, but it has created a worthy, enjoyable sequel that improves on its predecessor’s best trick. It still has a drab protagonist with a great batch of super powers, but it does have a fine supporting cast of characters that can be funny, (intentionally) aggravating, and downright dastardly. The Tolkien soap opera that is Shadow of War’s narrative is highly entertaining, as long as you can come into it as ‘alternate fiction’ rather than a canon addition to the lore of Middle-Earth. I just recommend that you don’t rush to finish it, as it suits the pace much better to be played in chunks.