Developer: Monolith Productions
Release Date: 9/28/17
Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PC
ESRB/PEGI: M/PEGI 18
MSRP (USD): $59.99
Written by Rick Warren / Gfn2112
Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor was a game that came out of nowhere. While the story was just serviceable, and the game became repetitive over time, Shadow of Mordor still succeeded due to its extremely smooth combat and its defining feature: the Nemesis System. With Shadow of War, players are given a far deeper version of it. More abilities are available as well, and the open world is divided into five big sections. Shadow of War is clearly a larger game than its predecessor due to these deeper mechanics, yet from beginning to end, it simply feels like more Shadow of Mordor.
More of the Same
With the first Middle-Earth game being as strong as it was, the sequel being so similar isn't necessarily a bad thing. The combat is still incredibly smooth. Thanks to that, building combos feels natural, and before long I was cutting down hordes of orcs in seconds. The main gameplay hook is still dominating orcs (along with a few neat creatures) and making them fight with you, and it too is as satisfying as I remembered.
Shadow of War also does a decent job when it comes to progression. The new gear system is welcome, even if it didn’t feel like it was making me much stronger. Instead, the skill tree is where I made that progress. It’s packed with multiple trees that add new, beneficial traits to make combat easier. The wide range of abilities also influenced the traversal, as I was able to run and climb across the land quickly. While I appreciate the speedier movement, I do wish that the environments I was moving through were more interesting. They offer the numerous collectibles and fast travel points that are expected of open world games, but something still didn’t feel right about them. Nothing was outright "bad", but I struggle to think of anything particularly memorable about the areas. It felt like the developers were going down a checklist, saying "lava area here, snowy area here" as they went along. With such good gameplay, it's a shame that the settings for the action were so unappealing.
What wasn't forgettable, however, was the evolved version of the Nemesis system that gave this series its audience. In Shadow of War, the system delivers hundreds of interesting events and traits. During my fifty hours with the game, I ran into captains with two heads, captains that sang, captains that said one word, and captains that came back from the dead. Some of the orcs I dominated betrayed me, while others ambushed me. On occasion, these captains even captured my followers and held them hostage. The system was constantly introducing new things, from rare orcs with unique personalities to events I had never seen before.
As for the story, it suffers from the same pacing issues of the first game. Here, though, they’re even more of an issue. There are some genuinely cool moments throughout Shadow of War, but they're surrounded by weak filler quests. Act 2 is where this shows the most clearly, and sadly, Act 2 makes up a majority of the game. It's something that is oddly reminiscent of Metal Gear Solid V, which brings back all the wrong memories. The various cameos help soften some of the blows dealt by the numerous "purify all the towers" quests, and pushing through them to reach the short but sweet Act 3 is worthwhile. Even if it would have meant a shorter game, plenty of the quests could have been cut or used as side missions.
A Conflicting Conquest
The title of this game is certainly appropriate, as it absolutely feels like you're fighting a war. Talion and Celebrimbor (the latter of which gets some fun trial missions) begin this game's journey by creating a new ring that will allow them to defeat Sauron. This moment picks up right where the last game left off, and the events of that previous story are recapped well. With their newfound abilities, the Ranger and Bright Lord set out to build an army. That army building is the backbone of Shadow of War, and it's clearly prioritized over the story. The result of this decision is a mixed bag.
Starting on the positive side of things, the system itself functions extremely well. Once I built up my army in each location, I was ready to conquer the area's fortress. Players can choose to take out warchiefs prior to attacking the fort, focusing on one of the enemies at a time (they can also send their orcs to infiltrate a warchief and set up an ambush, which is a clever feature). This strategy allows them to better target the stronger orcs' weaknesses than if they rushed in head-on, but it's completely up to the player if they want to take a more strategic approach or rush in. Either way, after pushing through the defenses, Talion and Celebrimbor will take down the overlord and claim the fort.
Once the fort was under my control, I was tasked with promoting my own overlord. From there, I began to strengthen my fortress. Dominated captains could be placed into slots that unlock fortress upgrades, ranging from archers to dragons. Attack upgrades were available as well, and can be used in the optional online conquests. These are basically the same, except players will be attacking the forts of other online players rather than the regular AI (another thing that is reminiscent of MGS V). It's a fine touch, and it doesn't hurt the game by any means, but online conquests aren't something that would keep me coming back. Perhaps it’s the games painful finale causes this lack of interest. I’d honestly advise against playing the final act, The Shadow Wars, as the previous one wrapped up the game decently enough. It simply isn’t worth it to push through.
The Shadow Wars is made up of 20 fortress defense stages in a row. There are no cutscenes, and there is no new story. No new mechanics are introduced. To get the game's true ending, I had to drag myself through these defenses. While the first few were entertaining, the stages quickly became frustrating. Not due to the difficulty, which many claimed was extreme enough to require the use of microtransactions (these had no impact on the game for me, and were in no way a problem), but instead because these defenses were so damn boring. For over 6 hours, it was the same thing on repeat. I was so glad to be done when I finished the final stage, as this Act was the epitome of "too much of a good thing". The Shadow Wars didn't only have a negative impact on a great feature, though; they had a negative impact on the entire game.
If you enjoyed Shadow of Mordor, you'll enjoy Shadow of War. If not, though, hold off. The same flaws from the first game are present (and amplified), along with a terrible final act that stops the game from reaching its full potential. While it's still very good, it should have been so much more.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is a solid game, but it's held back by repeated mistakes and an ugly final Act...
Nemesis System is better than ever + 4
Skill tree is deep, and abilities are satisfying +3
Combat is still smooth and fun +2
Fortress attacks and defenses are great (at first) +1
The Shadow Wars bores -1.25
Poor Pacing -.75
Forgettable open worlds -.5
FINAL SCORE: 7.5