Middle-earth: Shadow of War Review

If you missed out on Shadow of Mordor, Shadow of War opens with a quick cutscene recap of the quintessential moment in the first game that will bring you up to speed on what you need to know to understand the premise of and story in Shadow of War. A human ranger, Talion, witnesses the slaughter of his family by Nazgul as he himself is dealt a mortal blow, but before he passes over to the other side he is saved by the wraith of an elf, Celebrimbor, who was also responsible for forging Sauron's rings. Half in the world of the living, half in the wraith realm, Talion finds himself imbued with new powers that turn him into the scourge of the legions of orcs serving Sauron.

Celebrimbor is driven by an all-consuming desire to seek vengeance on Sauron, and has crafted a new ring of power to defeat the Dark Lord which he has given to Talion. Unfortunately, Talion must give the ring to Shelob in exchange for her sparing Celebrimbor. You'll spend the first half of the game trying to regain the ring from Shelob and the second half wielding its power, but more on that later.

If you're a fan of Tolkien's work, the story won't be familiar to you because it was created for the game. It's set before The Lord of the Rings trilogy opens, but it does feature a few guest appearances from familiar faces like Gollum. And Shelob may sound like a familiar face but the spider wears a new face, appearing in human form in the game far more than as an arachnid. The story takes a little license with the history of Middle Earth, but for the most part it remains faithful to the spirit of the books. The dialog is pure bombastic video game, though, so don't expect the elegant prose of Tolkien.

The gameplay itself is heavy on swordplay with elements of stealth. The combat system is timing-based, in which a rhythm of button-presses will serve you far better than button-mashing. The combat is similar in many ways to the Batman Arkham series of games in that you're often fighting multiple enemies at once and will need to look for prompts that inform you that an enemy is about to strike from behind or deal a massive blow. When those types of events occur, a press of the appropriate button at the right moment will cause you to turn to parry the blow or dodge out of the way. As you level up you'll be able to add new attack moves and abilities to your move set, almost to the point, but not quite, at which you'll feel that things just aren't fair for the orcs.

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There's an element of stealth in the game as well, and although you're free not to go the stealth route you'll be foolish for not doing so. Sneaking around an orc encampment taking them out one by one is an effective strategy. For larger encampments it's good to thin out the "eyes" of the camp by taking out archers in towers to keep the battle manageable, even when trying to take out the entire orc garrison by stealth might prove to be too much to ask. The stealth is enjoyable in the game, dropping on an orc from above and sending his compatriots running in fear or chaining the kill to take out a couple of orcs in succession before they're even aware of what's happening both bring a nice degree of satisfaction. There are even covert ways to rid Middle Earth of its orc infestation, such as by poisoning a barrel of grog and then watching from afar as a group of orcs enjoys its final drinks.

Your connection to the wraith world gives you access to a variety of spectral attacks, both overt and stealthy, as well. Archery is a wraith-driven power, and when drawing your bow you'll have the ability to slow time down to precisely place your arrows, whether it be to nail a headshot or to hit an oil barrel to spray flaming death on all orc unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity. My personal favorite wraith power is Elven Rage, which when charged sends you into an elven-wraith fury firing deadly arrows at each and every enemy around you. It's a great way to turn the tables on the orcs if they are about to overwhelm you with numbers.

Not all of these attacks and powers will be available from the start of the game. As you level up you'll earn skill points that can be applied to one of six different tracks to earn new skills. In addition, skill points can also be applied to modify the effect of existing skills. For example, you can make the poison applied to orc grog cause the orcs to explode when they die of the poison. Further character customization can be accomplished by slotting gems into weapons and armor. Different gems have different effects, and these effects are also different depending on the item that you slot the gem into.

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Returning from Shadow of Mordor is the Nemesis system. You'll have to face orc captains, heroes, and champions in addition to the multitude of orc grunts you'll cut your way through in the course of the game. These orcs are more than just tougher than average - each one has his own unique set of strengths and weaknesses as well as a unique personality - there's even an orc prone to reciting prose every time when you face off against him. Learning each orc captain's weakness will give you a decided advantage in battle, and you can learn these by interrogating certain orcs. If you don't manage to do so before facing the captain in battle, you can discover what works and what doesn't the hard way. Losing a battle to one of these orcs will make it stronger, making it all the more difficult to beat the next time you meet. And if you are dealt a fatal blow by an orc minion, that orc will earn a promotion to captain and you'll have a new nemesis to face. The Nemesis system really adds a layer of depth to the game, you'll remember each encounter with a captain, and subsequent encounter with one who has defeated you. Taking out a nemesis captain is more deeply satisfying than killing a hundred nameless enemies.

When you are finally able to recover Celebrimbor's ring you'll gain the ability to affect the mind of orcs and turn them into allies. It's satisfying to turn a brute into your minion and watch him turn on his former allies, but this power can also be used on captains and so lets you build your own little orc army. This army can lay siege to orc fortresses, allowing you to capture them and then man them with your own orcs. And once you own a fortress, it can in turn be retaken by the original orc owners. This all adds a new facet to the game that wasn't present in Shadow of Mordor - you won't just be a lone wolf fighting against Sauron's army, but will become more of a general who can meet his army on the field of battle.

Micro transactions have been added to Shadow of War, allowing you to spend real-world cash for in-game currency to purchase packs of random gear or orc ally captains. It's possible to buy these packs with in-game currency as well, but the top tier packs are only available with purchased currency. These micro transactions won't have any effect of gamers that don't want to pay for any extras in a game. They are designed to be purchased by impatient gamers who want immediate access to higher level gear, but are completely unnecessary for everyone else. I played through the game without ever purchasing anything and don't feel that I made things more difficult for myself for choosing to do so.

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A game with as much combat as Shadow of War runs the risk of becoming repetitive and boring, but Shadow of War never manages to devolve into an endless slog of orc fights. There are plenty of other activities and side quests available to provide a good degree of variety to the game, but the Nemesis system and the duels with orc captains really make the game feel more like a war than an endless battle. And even the battles themselves never grow boring - the quality of the game's combat system, the variety of powers available, and the feeling of near-invincibility you gain when surviving a battle against a dozen orc enemies make the game as interesting in its twentieth hour as it was in its first.

Final Rating: 90% - Shadow of War will have you leading your own orc armies against Mordor.


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