Review: Shadow of War is a Perfect Example of How to Make a Sequel
Take the Nemesis system, crank it to eleven, add new features, and you've got a great game.
Platform: (Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC (Reviewed)
Developer: Monolith Productions
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Talion and Celebrimbor raise hell in Mordor again in Middle-earth: Shadow of War. Its predecessor, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, took a genre we all knew (third-person action) and did something we had never seen before: The Nemesis System. This system took Uruk-hai from the game and made every last one of them unique, giving players the chance to create real rivalries that no other player had. Then, Monolith took the ideas of that system and blew it up ten times. This is the gist of what you’re getting in Middle-earth: Shadow of War.
The super-fans of the Lord of the Rings series may have a hard time accepting new lore inserted into Tolkien's bible of a mythos, much like they did with the previous game, but Monolith honestly seems to respect the existing lore and instead prefers tackling events unmentioned by Tolkien. The story of Shadow of War is mostly a “Well, we don’t know it didn’t happen,” sort of play.
Lore-nerds aside (take no offense, I’m one as well), the story is a good one. It picks up an unknown amount of time after the first game, although it seems to be no more than a year ago. The Celebrimbor/Talion alliance has had their new ring they forged at the end of the first game for a while, but as you’d expect, it’s taken away. Shelob, the Queen of Spiders, somehow rips Celebrimbor from Talion’s body. This would kill Talion instantly without their new ring. However, she tortures the elf lord until Talion gives her the ring in exchange for his elf pal.
Talion’s personal drive in Shadow of War is less apparent than in the first game, but the surrounding narrative is enough to keep you engaged while his personal story hits a bit of turbulence.
The story is painted with a broader stroke this time, which is interesting and a shame at the same time.
Sure, Talion and Celebrimbor story wasn’t going to ever really go anywhere beyond “I want to murder Sauron,” but considering we follow them through the entire game, a bit more character development would have been nice. They bicker and argue throughout the game, but it doesn’t amount to much.
The focus instead seems to be focused on Sauron’s wishes to dominate and control the two heroes as opposed to just fending them off. Other than that, we’re greeted with many side-stories involving Shelob, the Witch King, the other Ringwraiths and even more side characters. While her story is a bit of an artist’s interpretation of Tolkien’s work, Monolith’s depiction and background of Shelob is really interesting. Sauron’s “fall” into corruption from the eyes of Shelob is really interesting and even tragic. Looking past some of the game’s contradictory history references, moments like Shelob’s recounting are a welcome addition to the lore, especially told in a visual nature.
Speaking of visuals, they knock it out of the park.
Shadow of War has five different zones this time, as opposed to Shadow of Mordor’s two. Each zone is visually different from the last. The green forests of Nurnen (which got a big makeover since last time), the white snowcaps of Sergost, etc. really make Mordor seem like a big, diverse, evil place. Each area is filled with their own ruins, tunnels, fortresses and even their own tribes of Uruks, complete with their own set of skills, weapons, etc.
Some users have mentioned texture popping issues on console, but the PC version seems like it was designed by a real lover of PC gaming. There’s even a bar in the options menu showing how much memory your selected graphical settings will use on your video card. On top of that, there are quite a number of options to choose from to really tweak your experience.
After all, the experience is crucial with Shadow of War. In the previous game, there were a number of Uruks that looked cool, and a smaller number than actually said cool, non-generic things. To be fair, that was the first attempt at the Nemesis System and Monolith didn’t do a bad job at all. But what they learned from it and applied to Shadow of War is nothing short of brilliant.
No Uruk feels the same.
There are so many types of looks, weapon styles, hairstyles, faces, and skin colors. This doesn’t even cover the vast amount of random stats an Uruk can have or the myriad of voices that can be applied. All of these options are randomly generated onto each enemy as they appear in-game. If that wasn’t enough to impress (and it’s damn impressive), there’s also the addition of an entirely new ground unit: the Olog-hai. War Trolls. Giant, sentient servants of Sauron that make up a portion of his dark army. They have an equally robust number of features available to them as the Uruks do. Lastly, all of these soldiers can have defined relationships. Some may be intimidated by certain other captains, or even be blood brothers with someone. Guess what happens when you kill someone’s blood brother? Bad things. Bad things happen to you when you do that.
We’re not done yammering about these ugly greenskins yet though because they’re truly the focus of the gameplay. The voices and personalities that can be applied are much less generic than last time. It’s almost hard to decide which overly characterized Uruks to have in your army. They range from badass, to cool, silly, funny, and even down-right scary. The titles they earn also tend to refer to something they actually did in-game.
On top of that, their title can change later on. For example, I fought my nemesis in a particularly epic showdown where I was sure I had killed him. He was part of the Machine Clan. I exploded a barrel on him and ran him through with my sword. Well, as luck would have it, he apparently survived and what a horrifying yet epic reveal. He ambushed me on the battlefield, an arm and leg replaced with a disturbing mix of machine and meat, his body was covered in burns and his armor seemed to be soldered to his half-exposed ribcage. His name changed from Gham the Potlicker to Gham the Machine. I almost didn’t want to kill him because his story (his completely randomly generated story) was so epic. Lucky for me, if you look at it that way, I wasn’t able to kill him until a few fights later.
Encounters are much more robust this time around as well. The end-game of Shadow of Mordor started to feel repetitive, and while some parts of Shadow of War can feel that way, the parts they built up are definitely worth it. Sneaking up on an encounter between two Uruks was a tried and true way to eliminate or dominate two orcs with one stone in the first game. But this time, you could very easily be ambushed by a nearby ambusher Uruk. This isn’t the only time this can happen either. I was in the middle of a very non-stealth fight with two captains when I decided to use a grog barrel explosion to my advantage. As soon as I blew it up, a VERY angry Olog came around the corner, ambushed me, slammed me onto the ground and screamed in my face in anger. One look at his title told me why: He was The Grog Maker.
As someone who grew addicted to Shadow of Mordor, the game did get a bit too easy near the end, especially during a second playthrough, but Shadow of War really seems to keep up, especially on the highest difficulty, Nemesis Mode.
What about that Loot Box controversy?
Okay, I had a lot of thoughts on this. Mostly about loot boxes in games in general, but let's narrow down their use in Shadow of War.
Usually, successful loot box mechanics revolve around the fact that players don’t want to put in the work to gain the items naturally. Instead, they’d rather pay for loot boxes. This causes obvious controversy with games that already cost $60 out the door.
The almost funny thing about this in Shadow of War is how little the purchasable loot boxes actually effect the game. Sure, you can buy a box and get an epic orc captain and gear. But you know what feels really good? Scouting through the game, finding your mark, learning his strengths and weaknesses, finding ways to take advantage of his fighting style and after all that work, finally dominating him and making him a part of your army. The best part about all that is that it’s fun in Shadow of War, making the real-money loot boxes look like a “why even bother?” situation.
So long story short: If you don’t want to use them, they’re insanely easy to ignore. It’s a wonder why they’re even in the game, given the general opinion on micro-transactions.
With that elephant laughed right out of the room, how does the loot in Shadow of War work? Certain enemies carry loot on them, as signified on the mini-map. Most of the time, they carry gems (which can be slotted into equipment) or money, but sometimes they also drop a weapon/armor/ring rune. Likewise, captains always drop one of these things. Many such items might also have challenged attached to them and once you complete said challenge, you can unlock an upgrade for it.
Fortresses: Because somehow, Shadow of War wasn’t already a huge upgrade.
Most of the things listed above were existing features in Shadow of Mordor, but severely upgraded. The biggest new feature that wasn’t present in the previous game, however, is fortresses. Once you work your way towards conquering the holds in Mordor, fortress sieges become an awesome necessity. These are large-scale invasions comprising of yourself and your many mind-controlled uruks.
Your captains can be customized personally before you assault the fortresses. These large-scale battles consist of a staggering 100 to 200 orcs ripping each other apart. It’s honestly impressive to see this type of fight running smoothly. It’s not just mooks beating each other up though, it’s your captains leading the charge, cavalry marching in on caragors, siege weapons, and more. It’s insanely epic, if slightly easier than I’d like. But that’s only because the next step is actually a serious challenge.
Once you breach the fortress to attempt to take it over, the Overlord of that fortress is revealed. He and his henchmen are not a force to mess around with. If you want to take a fortress, the game seriously makes you work for it. But all of this is possible if you prepare for it. It takes some real forethought and planning to take a fortress. A lot of third-person action games can be won with brute force if you're persistent and fast enough, but honestly, this portion of the game takes a bit of a chess mind to conquer.
Once the fortress is finally yours, you have to appoint who you want to defend it against invasions. These invasions happen both as part of the story and as an asynchronous multiplayer feature where other players can fight your uruks in battle, testing your might. You can, of course, do the same to someone else’s fortress. It’s a great mix of additional challenge without the game feeling like a wholly online experience, which was very relieving to a single-player type of gamer like myself.
Unfortunately, building defensive features is a bit lackluster. Perhaps it’s not so much that it isn’t deep, but that the rest of the game is so vast, that it sticks out in comparison. This along with the rest of the features in-game will keep you playing for quite a long time, and the end-game content is meant to be constantly replayable.
The campaign itself, if played very aggressively, should take about 15 to 20 hours to complete. But if the game is approached the way it was intended, taking on challenges and leveling missions for your army, it can take much longer. The pacing is definitely a big plus.
Ultimately, Middle-earth: Shadow of War is pretty much exactly what a sequel should be. Take what makes the original great, and make it bigger. Then add enough new things to make it new.