Middle Earth: Shadow Of War Review
Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is one of my favorite games of all time. When it released back in 2014 I picked up a copy for my Xbox 360 and was instantly hooked. To me it was everything I had always wanted the Assassin’s Creed series to be and more; the combat was fast and fluid and the parkour/exploration felt responsive. This, combined with a great story that had me captivated for the entire 20 hours of my play time and the introduction of the wonderfully innovative Nemesis system, left a long lasting impression on me which failed to diminish even after I played through the Xbox One version and the Game of the Year Edition. When the announcement of Shadow of War came at E3 2017 I was absolutely ecstatic however the press leading up to the release had me a little concerned due to the talk regarding the implementation of Loot Crates as well as the supposed ‘hiding’ of a different ending at the end of another section of the game. Fortunately, after an extensive play through, I am pleased to say that Shadow of War manages to surpass the first game in almost every way possible, although it isn’t without its flaws.
Talion and Celebrimbor – Picking up almost immediately after the events of Shadow of Mordor (which are recapped in the introduction) Talion and Celebrimbor continue their pursuit of The Dark Lord. One of the things that I really enjoy about both of these characters is just how different they are to one another. Talion is a noble, and somewhat reluctant, hero who rarely cracks a smile whereas Celebrimbor comes across as self-centered and focused only on his quest to possess the Ring. Together they make a great double team with their contrasting personalities along with the top-notch performances by Troy Baker and Alastair Duncan behind them.
A Beautiful World to Explore – One of my biggest gripes about Shadow of Mordor was that it all felt very samey. There were far too many grey/brown environments which made the locations you visited lack any real sense of identity. Whether that was in part due to the fact that Shadow of Mordor released on last-gen consoles as well as PlayStation 4 and Xbox One I am unsure, but this time Monolith Productions have really gone all out with some stunningly realized locations. You now have numerous locations to explore and you can fast travel freely between them fairly early on in the game, whether you are fighting a Fire Graug in the depths of Gorgoroth or planning to capture the Orc fortress in Seregost you’ll find plenty of opportunity to take in the stunning scenery.
Intuitive and Addictive Combat – The fighting in Shadow of Mordor was definitely some of the best in-game combat I’ve experienced. Anyone who has played the Arkham series will be very familiar with the control scheme. You have light and heavy attacks which you can use to hack and slash away at the enemies, where it gets interesting is when you start getting attacked mid-fight. When this happens you’ll get a prompt above your character which if pressed quick enough will allow you to counter your enemy and continue your combo. Once the combo meter has built up and you’ve managed to avoid any damage you can unleash a devastating execution attack. These are usually one hit kills unless used against an Orc Captain and are a joy to watch. The camera pulls you in close to the action and slows right down as Talion slices off limbs galore which makes pulling off these moves never old.
If all out carnage isn’t your thing then you can always choose to use stealth. Playing this way is just as rewarding and you can easily decimate an entire army without any of them ever knowing you were there. Ranged combat is pretty self explanatory as you have a bow with a limited amount of shots; the upside of using this is that, for a limited amount of time, you’ll slow things down to the point that enemies are barely moving to give you a tactical advantage if you start to get surrounded. The only combat I didn’t really enjoy involved using the beasts that can be found and controlled. You can choose to ride a Caragor, Graug, or Drake but for the most part I found that handling these creatures was too cumbersome and it was just as quick to take them out with stealth or charge in and dice them up.
Creating a Nemesis – Shadow of Mordor first introduced us to the innovative Nemesis system that really made each play through of the game feel unique but Shadow of War has really taken this feature to the next level. Each of the Captains, Warchiefs and Overlords have their own distinct personality and unique traits that change as you battle them throughout the game. Some of the enemies you encounter will turn and run in fear of Talion whereas others will actually become stronger when they see you killing Orcs. You can find out each enemy’s weakness by scouting out and interrogating Orc ‘worms’ who, when captured, give you all the information you need to know. As you battle these Orcs you’ll really see the Nemesis system come into its own when Captains who you thought were dead will ambush you along with being able to be betrayed by your own army. You can use your Orcs to protect you like bodyguards if you wish, or you send them to the fight pits to prove their worth against the best that Mordor has to offer. It is a wonderfully intricate system that makes Shadow of War stand out from the competition.
Sieges and Online Conquests – One new addition that was heavily featured in the promotional material leading up to the release of Shadow of War is the ability to wage war on Orc fortresses via siege battles. Each location in the game has its own Siege setup and the way you tackle these will either make them manageable or a hard-fought battle. You’ll be given missions that have a specific objective which, when you beat them, will trigger the appearance of one of the Warchiefs. Once they appear you can choose to kill them, which will disable a certain fort defense mechanism, or you can be crafty and choose to dominate them so they fight for you. Doing this to every Warchief will give you a massive strategic advantage as not only can you use them to fight the Overlord but also disable nearly all their defenses. The online conquests work in a similar fashion, you can set up your attacking forces with a plethora of upgrades to take down your opponent however you’ll only be fighting the A.I. that the randomly chosen player has assigned to defend the fort. The battles that take place during the Sieges are often 20+ minutes long and a lot of fun, I’d have liked to see more variety in what you do with the Siege battles as after they do get stale but they are a very welcome addition to Shadow of War.
Excellent Use of Achievements/Trophies – Not everyone is an achievement or trophy hunter, but those who are will know how boring a lot of the tasks involved can be. Whether it is killing thousands of a certain type of enemy or grinding XP to level up it seems that developers have forgotten how to make this side of gaming fun. Fortunately, Shadow of War has some of the most innovative tasks found in a game for a very long time. There are several story related unlockables as well as achievements/trophies tied to completing all the side quests but there are some excellent examples of using the achievement system to fully explore a feature. My favorite achievement/trophy was called ‘Everything Is Permitted’ which is a cheeky nod to the Assassin’s Creed franchise. For this achievement you have to use the shame ability you unlock midway through the game on an Assassin Orc until he turns deranged, which is not quite as simple as it sounds. A lot of the achievements/trophies are tied in to the Nemesis system so those looking to get 100% completion in the game will be the ones that get the most enjoyment out of Shadow of War.
The Shadow Wars – As much as I like the inclusion of Sieges and Online Conquests the one thing I didn’t enjoy was The Shadow Wars. These are only accessible to you once you have beaten the story and it is basically an extended Siege mode. I mentioned that I enjoyed Siege mode however after having to go through 10 rounds of this it tends to get old fast, especially as the rounds get longer closer to the end. It might not seem like it is worth going through these rounds but there is an achievement tied to beating all Shadow War rounds with this being the only way to see the “true ending”. This ending is around three minutes long and ties up a lot of loose ends, to say any more than that would be a massive spoiler but I think it is a real shame that to see this you need to trawl through a minimum of ten hours of this mode.
Cumbersome In Places – The combat and movement in Shadow of War was very fluid for the vast majority of the time but that doesn’t mean it is 100% perfect. There are occasions where you are fighting a large group of Orcs and you’ll use an execution move only for the A.I. to hit a different enemy you were not targeting. Also, I found that ground executions were a little hit-or-miss with how reliable they were to pull off which would may frustrate many. In some of the Siege battles there are so many Orcs on screen at once that you can easily lose sight of your character and the camera would lack in keeping up with my movement on the occasion. Controlling the various beasts in the game never felt that intuitive so I would often end up running to every location or fast travelling to the nearest spawn point instead. These are only small niggles but that happened just enough that it became a bit of an issue for me especially after playing Shadow of War for close to 60 hours.
Leveling and Loot Drops – When the initial press release for Shadow of War mentioned that there would be in-game loot crates my heart sank a little. I absolutely hate it when developers lock content behind boxes that randomly distribute in-game goods. This goes especially when it’s behind a pay-wall so I was pleasantly surprised to find that when playing Shadow of War you can play it entirely without ever having to use loot boxes to progress. You can use in-game currency (Miriam) that you earn from completing tasks and missions to buy these if you need to but there is such an abundance of resources gained during story progression that you’ll likely never require these. What I didn’t like, however, was the semi-RPG loot element that’s been added. When you fight Warchiefs and Orcs they sometimes drop equipment for you to pick up which are oftentimes common items but occasionally legendary pieces. These not only raise the level of the item you picked up (so if you get an armor pickup you’ll be able to take more damage, for example) but these also have bonus abilities such as the ability to recover health after an execution. The problem I have with this is that if you don’t get a good set of items it can make the difficulty of your game a lot harder than for someone fortunate enough to get legendary drops.
Treasure Hunter skill – The way the skill tree has been set up was a little confusing not because of how it works but because of the inclusion of what I would think would be fundamental for any game. The skill I took the most issue with was the “Treasure Hunter” skill since, until you unlock and equip it, you no longer have the ability to pick up items by passing over them (which you could do in Shadow of Mordor) but instead press RB/R1 on your controller. This being a feature of game-play that’s an unlockable skill may come off as strange and feels like it may have been tacked on the skill tree to pad things out.
Shadow of War pretty much lived up to my every expectation and I have a feeling it will appear in my Game of the Year 2017 article however that isn’t to say that it is a perfect game. As I mentioned above you could easily lose ten hours of content and not really miss it and there were times where I was close to getting bored, especially when working through The Shadow Wars. That being said, this is still a wonderful game that really draws you into the story of Talion and Celebrimbor and I would love to see a third entry in the franchise in the not-too-distant future, just be sure to leave the Shadow Wars behind when that happens!
Middle-Earth: Shadow of War was developed by Monolith Productions and published by Warner Bros Interactive Entertainment. It was released for PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One (Reviewed) on October 10th, 2017. A press review copy was provided for The Hidden Levels. Many studios submit copies for site review but this is in no way factored into our review scores. Games are scored on their individual merits and our rating system is explained here.