The sophomore release in a new game IP is always a telling experience. For the developer it means that the original release had merit, enough to warrant a sequel getting the green light. This provides them with an opportunity to hone in on what made them successful and what else they could do to improve the experience. Most critically though it sets the expectation for the overall direction of the series, showing us gamers what the developers want the game to become should it garner further future releases. For Shadow of War that direction is clear: it’s aiming to be the next big open world RPG to rival those from other veteran developers like Bioware and Bethesda. In many respects they have met this goal, delivering a game that’s several times the size of its predecessor, but that size has come at a cost.
SPOILERS FOR SHADOW OF MORDOR FOLLOW
Shadow of War takes place directly after the events of Shadow of Mordor with Celebrimbor’s memory fully restored he agrees to join with Talion to fight Sauron. Together they journey to Mt. Doom and forge a new ring of power, one that is free from Sauron’s corrupting influence. However shortly after crafting it the spider Shelob takes Celebrimbor hostage and forces Talion to hand over the newly crafted ring. Not all is lost however as she uses the ring to provide visions of the future to Talion who uses them to keep the human denizens of Mordor safe. However the ring, whilst free from Sauron’s control, still draws his eye and it’s only a matter of time before the Nazgul will come to take it away.
Just like its predecessor Shadow of War is a visually stunning game, absolutely overflowing with detail in all aspects. The aesthetic remains true to the original, retaining a muted colour palette with few flashes of colour to break things up. Whilst the opening credits of the game would have you believe it’s developed on a whole engined, dubbed Firebird, it’s still the same LithTech engine under the hood, albeit likely without the cruft required to support previous generation consoles and some improvements that 3 years worth of development typically brings. The visual fidelity didn’t come at a heavy cost either with my near 3 year old rig still able to run it at high FPS at 1080p. I’ll admit that good graphics are a shortcut to my heart and it’s great to see the series continue with the high standard that was set in the original.
On the surface Shadow of War feels familiar with the main game mechanics staying the same. The combat retains the same beat ’em up core however it’s now augmented by a whole slathering of new mechanics which add a lot more diversity to how your typical encounter plays out. The nemesis system is back again and the procedural generation system backing it now includes a whole swath of additional traits, adding a lot of variety to the Orcs that you’ll be facing. The world you’ll be playing in has also grown considerably with 5 different areas to explore, 4 of which contain keeps for you to overthrow to gain control of the region. The loot system has been significantly revamped and, much to the chagrin of everyone, now includes a microtransaction system which allows you to swap real world dollars for in game loot. Finally an online element has been added into the game, allowing you to avenge other player’s deaths and assault their keeps (both in a “friendly” way and in a ranked system). If I had to guess I’d wager that there’s about 3 to 4 times the content in Shadow of War when compared to its predecessor. Depending on how you feel about these kinds of open world games that’s either a great thing or giant red flag.
The increase in overall scale applies to the combat as well with Shadow of War really feeling like an all out war whereas Shadow of Mordor felt a lot more like isolated skirmishes. The reaction based beat ’em up core is still there however you’ll quickly find yourself dealing with many more enemies than you ever did in the original. Unfortunately the difficulty curve is mostly numbers based, throwing ever more grunts and captains at you in order to increase the challenge. The revamped nemesis system does mean that there are some ability combinations that are more deadly than others (like a top level cursed, no chance, assassin class orc that managed to kill me no less than 5 times before I could get rid of him) but once you get to level 30 or so you will have seen every combination the game has to offer. There also seems to be less tools available for dealing with large groups although I’ll admit I can’t exactly remember what made my build in the original so overpowered. Towards the end I did find a gear set that added explosions to the glaive attack, something which was an incredible amount of fun, but there wasn’t much beyond that.
Progression comes regularly both in terms of gear and skills. Unlike most RPGs where your early choices will dictate how the rest of the game unfolds for you Shadow of War’s skill trees are non-exclusive and unbound to your level. Some of the skills require campaign missions to unlock and most of the skill upgrades are level bound but, for all the base skills, there’s nothing stopping you from getting them at whatever level you chose. Considering the numerous different paths you have to get skill points (levelling, certain missions, side quests and collectables) it’s rare that you’ll ever find yourself wanting for a skill or upgrade. Indeed after about halfway through my playthrough I struggled to figure out where to spend my skill points because I already had basically everything I wanted. Of course if you want to unlock every upgrade you’re going to need all those skill points but, honestly, I don’t think there’s much point to doing so. Once you have all the base skills you’re basically as combat ready as you’ll ever be with a few key upgrade points giving you that slight extra edge should you want it.
Loot comes thick and fast but it’s tied to a RNG system that ensures getting the perfect piece for your build and/or playstyle will take some grinding to get. Pretty much every captain you defeat will drop a piece of gear and, should they have the Epic or Legendary title, a piece of gear will drop with that level. There’s some 54 pieces of legendary gear to collect and, unfortunately, they all drop at a random level that’s close to your current one. That means finding that sweet legendary early on is no where near as good finding it 10 hours later and there’s also no way to upgrade them, meaning they’re destined for the trash bin. This is, of course, part and parcel of why the microtransaction system exists, giving you a shortcut from the gear grind should you want to shell out a few bucks. There are in-game ways to earn some currency of course, the weekly challenge giving you enough to score a few chests, but the one you earn the most of can really only get you a few pieces of epic gear. The gem crafting system I pined for in Shadow of Mordor actually made it into Shadow of War and, honestly, if they had extended that to the entire loot system in some way I think it would’ve been fantastic. Instead the only way to make use of loot you don’t use anymore is to recycle it for silver which isn’t as useful as it first seems.
The grand scale of Shadow of War comes from taking the original’s ideas and copying them out about 4 times over. You now have about 5 areas to explore, 4 of which include fortresses for you to capture. So now you’ll spend a good chunk of time hunting down captains, turning them against their warchiefs and taking down fortress defences all so you can then overtake it and claim the region for yourself. The orc captains also seems to be far more aggressive in terms of when they’ll show up with the number of ambushes, blood brother revenges and other random encounters being far more frequent than I ever remember them being in the original. Indeed it got so ludicrous at one point that I had a betrayal, ambush and blood brother revenge all in one fight, pitting me against no less than 4 captains and their associated armies. I’m all for mechanics that enable emergent game play but honestly this was probably a little too much at times.
The fortress and nemesis system now extends online with you being able to take revenge on captains for killing other players and being able to attack other players fortresses with your own army. Both of these reward you with various chests and a spoils of war currency which, you guessed it, can be spent on more loot boxes. Whilst its kind of cool to see another player taking revenge for you there’s really no interaction beyond a notification. The fortress assaults are similar, only showing who was victorious. Personally it would have been nice to see something like a small movie of the player taking out the captain or the assault on your fortress as otherwise it’s just another piece of noise in the already overflowing world that is Shadow of Mordor. Of course if ranking high on a leader board is your thing then there might be a bit more in it for you with the ranked play but honestly I can’t see the attraction.
With a game of this size it’s inevitable that there’s going to be some bugs that slip through the cracks and boy, there are some doozies in Shadow of War. The physics system can get confused at times, contorting your character into all sorts of weird shapes or doing other amazing things like launching you in random directions when it can’t figure out what it should do with you. The free run system is also a little janky, at times being too aggressive in locking onto climbing points whilst at others being completely oblivious, sending you flying down to your doom. I also had numerous times when orcs voice lines would just refuse to play, the camera locked on their faces as their expression changed randomly whilst it waited on the sound file to time out. There is a watchdog timer for that thing though so whilst it appears that the game is stuck there it will eventually recover. This happened a lot during one of the scenes where you face a horde of undead orcs who, presumably, had their voices replaced with zombie like noises. These are all things that can be addressed in patches going forward so those of you who are waiting I’m sure your experience will be more polished than mine.
The story of Shadow of War is a step up from its predecessor, partially because it has a lot more room to explore the various elements it introduces. Of course thanks to the open world nature of the game the various story lines are almost wholly separate from each other which means there’s not a lot of depth to be garnered from completing them all. I was annoyed that different versions of the game seemed to include more story than the others but it seems that those campaigns are just ancillary ones, not forming part of the main story line. The retcons to the Lord of the Rings story are an odd duck to say the least, transforming some characters into different entities completely whilst also changing the main story arc in ways that only support the game’s version of the story. I’m not a die hard Lord of the Rings fan by any stretch of the imagination but the developers had to know that making such changes wouldn’t exactly be welcomed by long time fans of the IP. Still it was interesting enough, even if I didn’t have much emotional investment in any of the characters.
One main gripe I do have to level at the overall construction of Shadow of War is the final act called Shadow Wars. After spending 21 hours in the game, 7 more than I did in the original, I thought I had come to the game’s ultimate conclusion. Not so I was told, instead I would now have to do 10 siege missions to get through to the end. Considering the grind required for 1 was on the order of an hour or so I wasn’t entirely keen to spend another 10 hours going through non-story based content to see the ending. Indeed all the reviews I’ve read since then have said that the Shadow Wars grind was simply not worth it and instead I tracked down the 3 minute ending on YouTube. Let’s just say that I’m glad I didn’t waste my time on it.
Middle Earth: Shadow of War is a monster of a game, growing the scope of the original to something that’s numerous times its size. The core of what made the original good remains in Shadow of War, providing a solid base upon with Monolith has added in a truckload of more content. However much of that content is simply copy and pasted versions of the same thing, something which open world fans are likely to enjoy but those who fell in love with the original are likely to find tedious. For this reviewer I certainly enjoyed the majority of my time with Shadow of War however I can’t say that there weren’t times I wanted to shortcut the grind. That is, of course, why the microtransaction system exists but I’ll be damned if I spend money on digital items in a single player game. Overall, whilst I think Shadow of War is a successful sequel in its own right, it is weaker in comparison to the original, if only because it seeks to exploit the success of the past rather than build on it.
Middle Earth: Shadow of War is available on PC, Xbox One PlayStation 4 right now for $59.99 (base edition). Game was played on the PC with 21 hours of total playtime and 52% of the achievements unlocked.