Talion has returned to Middle-earth alongside his annoyingly grumpy and totally overpowered wraith/elf sidekick (Celebrimbor) to fight a systematic hierarchy of talkative Orcs. Yes, we are of course talking about Middle-earth: Shadow of War.
The sequel to 2014’s surprise hit has arrived and it has brought with it a continued narrative, a lot of controversy, and an almost endless stream of Orcs, Caragors, Goblins, Ghuls, Uruks, Nazguls, Olog-Hai and… well… enemies… an almost endless stream of enemies.
For those who haven’t played the original game, Shadow of War brings a massive open-world with slowly unlocking regions that you can parkour around and fight your way through. The game can be pretty succinctly described as the movement of Assassin’s Creed meets the combat of Batman Arkham, all tied up in some Lord of the Rings lore. The game mechanics worked fantastically in the franchises they were borrowed from, and they function really well here too.
Smooth and powerful animation seems to be the winning ticket for this style of gameplay and it must be said that Shadow of War brings an extra layer of badassery to that front when your wraith pal gets involved. Especially when Celebrimbor emerges to parry that additional hit or stealth kill that additional enemy, it’s just a really clever way of handling multiple inputs. The one let down here is the rag-doll effects of your foes after they die doesn’t live up to the cinematic standard of the rest of the game.
The world is populated by enemies who aren’t your typical fodder, many of these foes have personalities, special traits, and most importantly, they’ll remember you if they happen to defeat you in battle, or if they survive or run away. This is Shadow of War’s main selling point and oh my god it may be the best thing to happen to gaming in a decade. Yes, I’m talking about the game’s Nemesis system.
Introduced in the first game and expanded in Shadow of War, the Nemesis system is one of the most clever and satisfying mechanics in gaming. Getting slayed by an Orc only to have them return later down the line with a promoted title, advanced level and new tricks up their sleeve is so evil and yet so clever. Your foes, or nemeses, are organically created thanks to your gameplay and are therefore totally unique to your experience. And when that asshole of an Orc ambushes you to gloat about his past victory, you’ll get an appreciation of how personal and effecting this system is.
But here’s the real kicker to the Nemesis system. Open world games since their inception have been batting to somehow create a huge range of dynamic and unscripted content that is actually fun and rewarding.
“There is a chasm the size of middle-earth itself that separates the ingenuity of the game’s Nemesis system and the snorefest that is the game’s ‘point of interest’ system.”
Very few games can claim to have ambient quests and unscripted events that are as engaging as a scritped linear sequence. But Shadow of War achieves this. It did the impossible. And I don’t know how to praise that enough.
The hilarious reverse of this however is that the rest of the game’s exploration incentives are as dull, unimaginative and uninspired as they come. There is a chasm the size of middle-earth itself that separates the ingenuity of the game’s Nemesis system and the snorefest that is the game’s ‘point of interest’ system. Climb the tower, scan for points of interest, mark the point of interest on your map, go to the point of interest, collect resource – argh I’m almost falling asleep just thinking about it. But thankfully you can fairly safely avoid these sequences altogether. Or if you’re a completionist, they provide extra tat for you to mindlessly acquire – if that’s your sort of thing.
The narrative of the game is pretty much what you’d expect. I’m not a huge Lord of the Rings fan (I know, how dare I) so to me everything just sounded like incoherent ramblings about Orcs, Elfs, Sheelobs and the Pallantia. But to an actual fan of the lore there is probably something half interesting to engage in here. Just don’t expect strict adherence to the cannon.
At times the game takes itself quite seriously and at other times it goes balls to the wall mad. I kind of wish Monolith had the confidence to go all out with the silly aspect of narrative and dialogue. Because encountering an Orc who sings all his lines and beats people over the head with a lute is much more engaging than listening to your wraith pal grunting about Orcs.
And on that note, the level of variety and hilarity that comes with the varying Orcs is super commendable. Somebody had a lot of fun giving those guys personalities and designing their looks. Not to mention all of the unique interactions that are likely to only occur to a very limited amount of players. I know a lot of people playing this game and the thing everybody wants to talk about and share are their own experiences with Orcs and their nemesis. Everyone seems to have their own unique stories, which is just such a special thing to be able to share.
Probably the best part of Shadow of War’s gameplay comes from its expanded Nemesis system where you can recruit Orcs to your own team and use those Orcs to battle other Orcs, infiltrate enemy ranks, or storm a fortress alongside you. Running head on into a massive fortress battle with your team of lovable pals and clashing with a formidable enemy force is just so satisfying. The battles can be grandiose with siege enemies lobbing bombs, Drake’s swooping in and a bunch of Orcs going toe to toe.
The game also has this odd strategic element that I didn’t really expect. Infiltrating enemy lines with your own followers, taking down War Chiefs one at a time and paying strict attention to enemy strengths and weaknesses and matching them against your parties strengths and weaknesses can turn a hard-fought castle siege into a cakewalk. I genuinely love amassing an Orc following and that hole gameplay loop is just super fun.
Which is also the reason I freakin’ hate that you can straight up buy Orcs with real money. It just removes the feeling of accomplishment and makes going up against real world players potentially unfair and aggravating.
This leads in pretty nicely to the game’s loot system which offers weapons and armours of varying rarities and stats that can be found after killing an enemy, or also purchased in Loot Boxes. I actually just don’t like the loot at all. At best you get a small upgrade to your damage or armour, maybe a barely noticeable passive effect. Loot just isn’t that engaging and I often found myself ignoring the loot I was acquiring for long periods of time and then equipping all my best stuff at once.
The Bottom Line
For those thinking about playing Middle-earth: Shadow of War without touching the original game, just do it. The gameplay is so similar and the narrative is inconsequential enough that you won’t be missing too much. If you have played Shadow of Mordor I’d actually give a bit of a warning. Shadow of War feels like it’s designed for first timers to the series. The entire first chapter of the game felt straight out of Shadow of Mordor and it left me initially dissapointed. You’ll be doing the same things in a very similar looking area and even unlocking the same skills you already unlocked in the first game. Give it time though, because once things open up and you begin doing castle sieges with your new found Orc pals you’ll be in for a great time.