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Review: Middle-earth: Shadow of War

23 Oct 2017

[Note: As this game is a direct follow up to Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, there will be some spoilers for that game in this article.]

It’s a Big World Out There

When I say the phrase “Triple-A Game,” what pops in to your head? Is it certain franchise names, like Call of Duty perhaps? Or maybe the first thing that comes to mind is publishers, like EA and Ubisoft? Maybe it’s more general, like certain genres? I personally fall in to the latter camp. When I hear “Triple-A Game,” I’ll instantly think of first-person shooters and massive open-world games.

That second one in particular, open-world adventures, has become a standard go-to for major releases nowadays. Create a character, a large environment, scatter a metric ass-ton of collectibles around it, and let the player go crazy. Hell, maybe include a story too, if you have time. Boom, instant hit…or, at least, instant decently-selling game.

The problem I see, though, lies in the reason that I could describe these games in a sentence: they’ve become extremely formulaic. Some studios pump out these games yearly, which just doesn’t seem right for a title whose appeal lies in having a massive scope. Playing different games in this genre can often feel like just playing the same one over and over, with a different coat of paint.

Occasionally, though, one of these studios does try something new. A twist on the formula, a brand new mechanic, or something else that manages to breathe life into an often stale genre. Back in 2014, Monolith Productions managed to do just that with their release of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. The studio created a system they deemed “Nemesis,” which created an ever-evolving hierarchy of enemies and helped bring a bit of personalization to each player’s story. A game that many were ready to pass on, as I remember in the months leading up to it, ended up becoming one of the biggest and most highly-rated games of the year.

Now, three years later, Monolith is back with a follow-up. One that promises to expand the game’s world, storytelling, and most importantly, the Nemesis system. The question is, of course, how well did it meet those goals?

Developed by Monolith Productions and published by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, Middle-earth: Shadow of War was released on October 10th, 2017, for XBox One, PS4, and PC. The PS4 version was played for this review.

A New Ring to Rule Them All

Shadow of War picks up directly after the end of Shadow of Mordor, with ranger Talion and wraith Celebrimbor forging a new ring in the fires of Mt. Doom, in hopes to overthrow Sauron. Immediately after forging the ring, however, spider-like creature Shelob manages to take it for herself. Traveling to her lair to get it back, Shelob uses the ring to give Talion a vision – the last Gondorian fortress in Mordor is under siege by the armies of Sauron.

From there, the story plays out almost like a stream of barely connected events. We need to fight off the orcs at the fortress…no, wait, now we need to track down an assassin…oh, no, the fortress captain was kidnapped at some point off screen, have to save him now…wait, NOW YOU’RE IN A GLADIATOR BATTLE. While the core story in this first act was somewhat interesting, it’s presentation was lacking, as you’re literally trekking back to Shelob’s lair between every mission to get a new vision about the next “bad thing” about to happen so you can fend it off.

As it turns out, though, the entire first act is really just a setup for the real part of the story – creating an army of orcs to take on Sauron. While the story was weakly told in the first act, it still had its moments. However, it just kind of falls apart entirely in the second act. The main plot becomes “create an army” without much development, and multiple side-stories are thrown at you that don’t really feel essential to the central narrative.

Things do manage to come back together as you approach and enter the third act, but by then I just didn’t care much for story or its characters. Talion is a rather dull and generic “hero,” Celebrimbor entire personality is wrapped up in an “ends justify the means” outlook on his actions, and everyone else is just kind of passing through.

Fight Fire With Fire

Of course, Shadow of War falls in the ever popular open-world adventure genre, and contains many of the usual trappings. You’ll be exploring a number of different regions both in and out of Mordor, finding various collectibles scattered around the map, and completing a number of varying missions. At its most basic, the game can fall in to the aforementioned “played one, played them all” aspect.

Despite that, though, I still managed to have quite a bit of fun simply exploring and finding items. Talion is incredibly agile, able to scale buildings and leap between platforms with ease, making movement between various parts of the map both simple and fluid. With each of the regions being self-contained and not overly huge, simple exploration never felt like much of a hassle. Really, I rarely relied on fast travel points to move about the map, as doing the navigation myself was so enjoyable.

The real meat of the game comes during battle and activating the Nemesis system. Battles themselves are often acrobatic, with basic attack functions feeling like they were lifted from the Batman Arkham games. Early game fights can feel a bit button-mashy, as you have no skills unlocked, and thus not many options for fighting aside from jumping into a crowd and slapping the attack button.

Once you begin leveling up and picking out skills, though, fighting becomes much more interesting. Infiltrate an enemy area, stealth kill the archers on a rooftop, leap into the air and fire off a couple arrows while falling (as the world slows around you while aiming), land near a firepit and make it explode to light everyone on fire, then mount a nearby creature and use it to rip out the throats of the survivors. Sure, you can still jump in and fight with basic combat, but putting together extravagant ways to take down enemy hordes is half the fun.

Building your aresenal quickly becomes important when it comes time to face off against the orc captains in the Nemesis system. Far from the usual cannon fodder, these enemies will all have their own strengths and weaknesses, and can often learn how to react to your attacks. While some of the random lower-level captains may not be much of an issue, higher-level orcs will often require you to enter battle prepared. Various random enemies are marked as “Worms,” when can be interrogated for information on the weaknesses of each captain.

It’s these battles where personal stories were made for players of the previous game, and after my time with Shadow of War, I ended up with a personal nemesis of my own. A random archer took me down after I had been weakened in battle, and was promoted to a captain through the Nemesis system. I managed to track him down and get a revenge kill, thinking that was that…until I was in the midst of following another caption. Just as I was about to strike, this archer orc reappears, having cheated death, and leaps at me for revenge. After killing him again, he became the orc that just wouldn’t die, returning to haunt me yet again hours later. At this point, I’m not sure if he’s still waiting in the shadows for me to load up the game again, just biding his time for a new chance to strike…

Much of the game builds up to fortress assaults, a new mechanic in Shadow of War. High-ranking Overlord orcs rule each region of the game from their fortresses, and you need to lead your own orc armies against them to take them down. While these portions of the game provide some amazing setpieces (and a good challenge if you go in with an underleveled army), in practice, they don’t amount to much more than a glorified game of King of the Hill. You hold and capture parts of the fortress until the way to the Overlord opens.

The assaults can quickly become chaotically out-of-control as well. The number of basic orcs on screen can rival a musou game, and multiple Nemesis captain and warlord orcs can make their appearances. Adding to that trouble is the fact that Nemesis orcs enjoy giving monologues that force you out of the game into a dialogue scene, breaking any flow that you may have. When four show up back to back, each wanting to ham it up about how they’re going to wear your spine as a necktie, it can become just a bit infuriating.

As a whole, the game did begin to feel repetitive when I was around the midpoint of Act 2. I just kind of fell in to a dazed grind of hunting and recruiting captains, numb to the environment around me. Switching my playtime to shorter bursts as opposed to sitting down for hours at a time helped to aleviate this feeling a bit.

My What a Horrifying Face You Have

Shadow of War does have great visual presentation, in a “dark and destroyed landscape” kind of way. The various orc encampments all have their own subtle differences in design to them, and I was often surprised by the ease with which I could tell where I was on the map just by looking around where I was standing. I’m sure dividing the environment into multiple smaller zones assisted in this – the world doesn’t feel padded out with filler.

As a whole, though, the scenery of Mordor can become a bit repetitive. There’s only so far you can take demolished buildings and hellish landscapes. Luckily, a couple of enviornments outside of Mordor help to break up saminess in aesthetic.

Particularly standout is the variety in design of the Nemesis system enemies. I didn’t know there were so many ways to design an orc. Fodder enemies who manage to get promoted are somewhat less unique, but the characters specifically created for the system are often striking…and instantly recognizable when one of them decides to stalk you around the world for hours.

Speaking of unique Nemesis orcs, a wide variety of actors were brought in to voice your potential rivals. While the vast majority of the orc performances range from decent to perfect, others…just don’t. I’m a fan of Kumail Nanjiani (stand-up comedian, well-known for playing Dinesh from the TV show Silicon Valley to those unaware), but his voice just absolutely does not work for an orc wanting to use your spleen as a stress ball.

The rest of the voice performances, and the soundtrack as a whole, are mostly passable. Troy Baker does a great job as Talion, and Alastair Duncan as Calimbribor in particular stands out. The rest of the cast, unfortunately, doesn’t stick around long enough to make much of an impression.

The Fairly-Luminescent Lord

Overall, Middle-earth: Shadow of War is an enjoyable game with a great twist on the open-world genre in its Nemesis system. Unfortunately, despite that, the game doesn’t do much to escape it’s “typical Triple-A open-world” trappings. The story is lackluster with dull presentation, despite having some great moments. Gameplay can become repetitive around the halfway point…but I still found myself coming back repeatedly to recruit just one more orc to my army.

Of course, we do need to give a passing mention to the loot crate controversy. I can say, throughout my entire playthrough, I never once thought of going in to the market to purchase one of these artificial boosts, and never really felt like I was being encouraged to. While I absolutely do not condone these cash-grabby micro-transactions in a full $60 game, they can be safely ignored should you choose to pick this game up.

Shadow of War managed to grab hold of me much harder than any other open-world game ever has. Despite its inherant faults, I still had a great time playing through, and can’t say I regret the hours I put in to it. For fans of the original, the expansion of the Nemesis system alone is worth giving the game a shot. For newcomers to the series, or even the genre as a whole, this game is a worthy entry point.

~ Final Score: 7/10 ~

Review copy provided by WB Games for PS4. Screenshots taken by reviewer.