I have always been a massive Lord of the Rings franchise fan. The books, the movies, cannon, non-cannon, it didn't matter to me as I wanted to spend as much time immersed in the rich, expansive world as I could. So way back in 2013, when I found out that open-world action adventure game called Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor was coming out I was understandably hyped. When the game released – it surpassed my expectations by miles and delivered a mix of already established and fun systems from other games with a Lord of the Rings coat of paint paired with the new Nemesis system that provided much-needed enemy variety which in turn contributed to the longevity of the game.
The spectacular announcement of the sequel, Shadow of War promised bigger and better game than the original but was also plagued with a bit of controversy thanks to the inclusion of the dreaded microtransactions. They do bring down the experience, but not by a large margin. If Shadow of Mordor was the foundation, then Monolith built a mansion on top of it with Shadow of War.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is available for purchase on the KeenShop.
The story of Shadow of War picks up after the events of the first game and still follows the Gondorian ranger Talion who is paired up with the elven wraith Celebrimbor. At the end of the first game, he decided to stay in the world of the living and forge a new ring of power to take down Sauron once and for all.
Whereas the original game was at odds between what the story was telling you it was happening compared to what you actually did during gameplay, in the sense that where it was talking about armies – it was actually a dozen or so generic orcs following an orc captain, Shadow of War doesn't suffer from this issue. It puts its money where its mouth is in the fullest sense.
Storywise, the game is split into two parts, the main and side missions that have you running around Mordor, taking down various fortresses and characters while defending others all with the ultimate goal of defeating Sauron. It all starts with the forging of the new ring and encountering Shelob who directs you toward Minas Ithil to find the Palantir and it's a wild setpiece after setpiece ride to the very end.
The second part is the procedurally generated micro-stories you yourself generate through the Nemesis system. This, similar to Shadow of Mordor will have you coming back to Shadow of War long after you clear the main story as it has been expanded massively in comparison to the original.
World of the Lord of the Rings is massive. Books are best for the complete and detailed narrative and movies offer epic moments with huge sieges as the centerpieces. Shadow of War attempts to bridge the gap between the two by expanding upon the story while offering plenty of epic moments of its own. Sure it plays a bit loose with the lore but all to its benefit with the inclusion of characters like the already mentioned Shelob, Isildur, the Witch King and plenty more familiar and completely new.
It's too bad that some of them are underutilized and once you clear a mission or two involving them, they are discarded and never seen or heard again. Procedural characterization is expanded in every possible way and the web of the nemesis system is far-reaching, but characters set in stone leave a lot to be desired. It's not so much that they aren't written well, but they pale in comparison to lively and widely different and dynamic personalities offered by the nemesis system.
Shadow of War is very brave in the usage and portrayal of some elements of the Lord of the Rings lore, but I would sometimes like for it to be even bolder and branch off to an alternate timeline since tying the game with the events of the books and movies means you know how the story of Talion ends. The only thing it could do is what Lucas Arts did with Starkiller in Force Unleashed and give him a secret meaning that ultimately led to the good guy's victory.
Let me just state it outright – this game is filled to the brim with content. Not all of it is gold, but no game is absolutely fun in every aspect for an unlimited amount of time. I say this cause I hear many people complain that this game has actually too much to do, and too many systems in place to keep track of. This is by far the silliest thing I ever heard being commented for any game.
With that out of the way, let me just say that if you were a fan of the original, I don't have to tell you anything and you probably already bought the game or plan to. If you didn't play the original, your reaction to Shadow of War will be similar to how people reacted and felt when they first played Shadow of Mordor and find that the game offers surprising depth and an insane amount of fun.
Shadow of War's gameplay, like Shadow of Mordor's consists of tried and true elements from games like Assassins Creed, Batman, and a few others but it puts them all together in a satisfying blend with a Lord of the Rings twist. Talion feels great and controlling him feels tight and responsive. Traversal is much improved as he is faster, can double jump, dash, even while climbing and use more beast as means of traversal.
All of it is also more enjoyable thanks to the world map being broken into 5 highly distinct regions compared to two in the original game. It's not just about the number, cause the new regions are now more densely packed, vertical and much more detailed than the often barren ones in Shadow of Mordor. There are plenty of camps, forts and even entire cities to visit, explore and conquer. Minas Ithil brings the bulk of the story significance, Seragost takes you to snowy mountains, Cirith Ungol is all about industry, Gorgoroth is typical hellish Mordor and Nurn is the lush returning region from Shadow of Mordor.
The skill tree is much improved and expanded to allow for more customization as you can spend your skill points in 5 different skill categories – combat, predator, ranged, wraith, mounted and a sixth one where you unlock skills based on your progression through the main story. Each category has 5 or 6 skills and each of those has 2 to 3 subskills out of which you can choose one, but are able to switch them on the fly depending on your needs.
Besides each of them being useful in their own right, powers feel great to use without feeling overpowered cause once you upgrade everything and individual enemies become a breeze, they can still overwhelm you with great numbers. Add on top of that the introduction of the robust upgradeable gear progression and you get a well rounded customizable combat system that builds on everything that was already great about the Arkham type combat.
As mentioned, there are a lot of skills and systems in place and their pop-up explanations do break the flow of gameplay a bit. They certainly could have been a bit more unintrusive but are only present for the first couple of hours until you get into the groove of things.
The major gameplay feature showcased in every official gameplay video are certainly the fortress sieges. They try and emulate the huge battle scenes showcased in the movies and the succeed for the most part. You assemble your warchiefs, choose the type of army you want assisting you in the siege and then you take the fort piece by piece by holding a certain area within it for a certain amount of time.
Once you do that, you can proceed to fight the fort overlord which is essentially Nemesis system procedurally generated boss battle. These can be fairly difficult, but once you manage it, you get to choose one of your own orcs to be the new overlord. Endgame is all about safeguarding these forts from Sauron's counterattack as well as from other players, similar to how MGS: Phantom Pain handled mother base invasions. It's in this endgame is that some of the padding for length is evident along with the allure of speeding things up with microtransactions.
Let me just state it outright, you don't need microtransactions to enjoy the game and while you are progressing through the story, unlocking new abilities, you can completely ignore them. However, since Orcs now are now separated by tribe affiliation (which dictates their behavior and equipment), have more types of strengths and weaknesses – any multiplayer interaction can become a strategic game of rock, paper, scissors where any advantage, however small – counts.
This could translate to situations where players with more money to spend will have better orcs and equipment which will translate to being successful more often and thus will have more fun, while players with less or no money will have to grind through content and be bored or frustrated by losing to money spenders. Their inclusion is extremely unnecessary and I hope that the backlash will make the developers think twice about including these in every game out there.
VISUALS AND AUDIO
Visually, the game looks better than the original, but that's not saying much. While Shadow of Mordor did look great in 2014, we have since seen the release of games like Horizon Zero Dawn and a few other that set the bar really high. With that being said, the small incremental improvement of Shadow of War over the original is nothing to write home about. Everything is larger in scale and scope and there are obviously areas that received more care than others. This is especially visible in some of the texture work and inconsistent is the best word to describe it. It will still require a pretty powerful rig to run, mostly due to how dense the environments are and how hectic and full the screen can be during fort sieges.
On the sound front, you have the appropriate Lord of the Rings soundtrack that does a serviceable job, but the star of the show is probably the voice work. Although it could be described as inconsistent in intelligence and quality, I found it actually fits the wild and unpredictable nature of the main deliverers of the most lines – the Orcs and Uruks and it's clear that Monolith had plenty of fun with some of their personalities. The sheer number of lines is also impressive and even after hours of playing I still consistently hear new taunts and pieces of dialogue.
Shadow of War is an excellent open world action game and don't let anyone tell you any differently. Almost everything that was already in Shadow of Mordor is massively improved and then there are the new features added on top. The game is insanely varied, filled to the brim with content and very fun. The world created by Monolith feels great to experience and they essentially created the best of Lord of the Rings compilation with this game. Some characters and the story could have received a bit more love and the addition of microtransactions is completely unnecessary but it doesn't lessen how great this game is nonetheless.
+ Extremely fun gameplay
– Visual inconsistency
+ Plenty of content
+ The Nemesis system
– Underused story elements and characters
+ Creative use of the Lord of the Rings licence
– Some padding for length