Indeed, Act IV: The Shadow Wars, is the longest stretching part of the game. Which is ironic because unlike any other Act within Shadow of War, we have no characters to speak to or cutscenes to watch. No dialogue, except that which comes from taunting orcs, and really, aside from being tacked onto the end of the game’s story, no narrative context. We have Shelob on the load screen insisting this grind that the player shoulders is to protect Middle Earth from the orc hordes for as long as possible. It is a huge part of the game that is admittedly fun, as it plays on its biggest strength – fortress attack and defence. But it is such hard work, we have to wonder if this was the main priority during development and the lesser story got tacked on to quell any outrage. As we all know, that didn’t really work.
To complete The Shadow Wars, the player must defend each of their five fortresses. There are ten stages to The Shadow Wars which mean ten sieges. Sometimes two of your fortresses will be attacked at once on the main map. Near the end, you’ll have to skirt around all of Mordor and rescue each of your fortresses from attack over and over again. In fact, the game’s strongest features are cleverly tied into all this as we try to level up our armies and fortresses by leveraging the Nemesis system to our advantage. Which is all well and good until it’s hammered home so much that it begins to become a chore. Monolith and Warner Bros are counting on that and, of course, hope that you spend money on orc types that could flick Sauron and watch him tumbling away over the horizon like some cartoon villain.
It is those orcs that you’ll need in order to fend off the increasingly high level armies on their way to skin you alive. Making those orcs a reality without spending money is possible. Like I said, I’m stubborn. So, before I explain the one true thing that makes me believe there are more insidious algorithms at play when it comes to making you spend real world money, I will take you through my process in doing that.
Firstly, an orc may be weak and low level. But he still has some nifty moves and a poison weapon. Both features in this low level orc can be bought with in-game currency after a grind, through the loot box system which is randomly generated. So if you’re after a specific thing to train your orc with, you may not even get it. Again, a long arduous grind. So we want this orc to be more badass. Send him to the Fight Pits. Wait for a challenger that’s a higher level and weak to poison and – tadaa – he’s four levels higher. He’s about level 27 now… the attacking orcs will be level 55. He’s still going to get destroyed. These Fight Pits sequences take around two minutes each and there’s always a risk that your hard work will be undone when this poison weapon wielder meets his match and gets his head pulled off like a Lego man.
After tussling with The Fight Pits system (which you have to watch and, for the record, are boring as hell) for literally two hours, I’ll decide I want to train my orcs in all sorts of things to make them even stronger. This could be a move set, poison, fire or cursed weapon, a gang of bodyguards or mount training. Yes, all of these come from lootboxes. The best way to tap into the lootbox system is to get Spoils of War from online events like attacking other players’ fortresses or killing an orc that got the best of another player. The effort is large, the reward – pitiful. So again, lots and lots of grinding.
We’re on the pretty obvious, here. Sure – give the player very little back, make it obvious they can get loads more with a little money. I’d like to think I’ve given you an idea of how much work it takes just to get just one fortress ready for level fifty five poisonous machine terror tanks (that’s literally how orcs are classed). So, here it comes. The insidious part of Shadow of War’s game design that I believe means the game is conspiring against me to make me spend money…
There’s a blank spot in my army, waiting to be filled by a new orc. So off I go for a hunt. It’s going to be a tough fight so I take my highest level orc along as my bodyguard. As per my usual tactics, I terrorise my target for as long as I can without getting spotted. I blow up barrels of grog, shoot Morgai Fly nests and attract nasty wildlife to chip away at the target’s health. Then he spots me. I get the usual dialogue, wait for it to finish, thumbs poised over the appropriate buttons to dive into the fight. But I don’t get control at that point, as per the norm. The camera swings around to my bodyguard (who is a high level unstoppable badass at level fifty one) and I see the text “Betrayal”. He holds his axes in the air, bellowing “I’ve had enough of taking orders from you. The only thing that’s going to make up for all this wasted time is the look on your face when I kill you”. Oh for goodness sake, not now!
This was bad enough. A fight with a high risk target gets interrupted by my bodyguard who is now an even higher risk target. Yet, still I did not regain control. The camera swings away yet again to reveal another of my high level orc Warchiefs holding a knife to my most promising low level orc. He taunts me a little, betrays me and cuts the promising orc’s throat just to get back at me. The camera swings away over and over until I have to tussle with six high level orcs. Some of these guys are enraged, lobbing an endless supply of axes at me. Some of them have poisoned weapons that I worked hard to get them. Some of them call in groups of grunt orcs too. I rush over to my downed, still loyal orc and revive him… he dies pretty quick.
Through some kind of miracle, I manage to hold a pretty well coordinated fight against this lot. The original target has gotten away and I manage to weaken one to the point where I can dominate him. I try to get him back on my side but notice that he now has the “Iron Will” trait. Which basically means he can never be converted back to my side. This great hulking Olog that I worked hard on now had to die at my hand. Off goes his head. Quickly, I scan all of the other mutineers only to see that each and every one of them has “Iron Will”. This terrible situation, born out of my own grind of about five hours, was completely un-salvageable. One by one, I chopped my hard work up into little bits and pieces. Skills, mount training, countless pit fights – down the drain.
So after another five arduous hours of grinding, I filled those spots back in with new orcs… They still need levelling up, though. The question remains – what on earth prompted six orcs in a row to betray me simultaneously?! I’m always careful in battles not to hit them with my sword and I always revive them when they need my help. It appeared I had done absolutely nothing wrong to irk these moody orcs. At this point, with no explanation available to me, I paused the game, slouched on my sofa and released a loud, long sigh of frustration. This is the more insidious side of loot box economy. For a while, I thought Shadow of War had done a great job of including players who don’t have money to burn on immaterial, virtual orcs. But about twenty five hours into my time with Shadow of War, the loot box monster had finally reared its ugly head.
The discussion that surrounds loot box economy is all about the moral question of making players spend more after initial purchase. What isn’t being discussed as much is just how subtly the game’s mechanics can be egregiously affected. It can happen any time and boy, can it piss you off. I looked at the real world money lootboxes and what they could offer. They would solve all my problems but… like I said, I’m stubborn. Warner Bros will not be getting a single dime from me. And so, the grind continues.