Middle of Earth: Shadow of War is a follow up to 2014’s Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, best known for its novel “nemesis system” and exploration of Lord of the Rings lore that took some fun liberties. Developer Monolith seemed to have the same intention for Shadow of War, with an emphasis on army building and even more fun liberties taken with established lore – but somewhere along the lines micro transactions and loot boxes came in and complicated things.
Shadow of War takes place shortly after its predecessor. You play as Gondorian Ranger Talion – banished from death, and merged with the smith who created the rings of power, elf Celebrimbor. Together you act as one –the combat skills of a ranger and the magic of a powerful elf make Talion essentially a super hero that is capable of teleporting across vast distances, striking faster than is perceptible and dominating beasts, Uruks and Ologs to fight for him. Some familiar characters show up along the way- Gollum shows up, as he did in Shadow of Mordor¸ and Shelob plays an important narrative role. Before you start building an army to take on Sauron, Shadow of War eases you into Talion’s controls and the current situation in Mordor. The story itself is gravely serious, but despite its fast-and-loose take on Tolkien’s established world, it is fun and keeps a steady pace of forward progression.
As with Shadow of Mordor¸ Shadow of War’s combat mechanics are ripped from the Batman Arkham series (both share Warner Bros. as a publisher) with flowing combat, counters, stuns, dodges, etc. Talion has no qualms with killing, though, and dismembers, decapitates and otherwise kills orcs in slow motion and gratuitous fashion. Eventually Talion will have to dominate Uruk and Olog captains and war chiefs to assemble his army to conquer Sauron’s fortresses. Each of these orcs and trolls are unique, with their own names, personalities and character traits. While hunting or fighting these captains you can gather intel to determine what their strengths and weaknesses are. If you are killed by one of these captains or if they survive an encounter with you, this further adds to their personality. Talion’s banishment from death is established in the lore (which I love), so orcs will make reference to your death and even throw feasts in celebration of defeating you. This is mostly as it was in Shadow of Mordor, and the crux of the “nemesis system” that made that game so novel. Shadow of War’s scope does away with what made the nemesis system so great- how personal it felt. Now there are multiple orcish armies spread over several regions, removing some of the personal nature. Sure, you can have a ridiculously overpowered orc captain kill you a few times while he taunts you about it, but with so many captains it’s hard to keep track of each of these personalities save for “fuck this one guy in particular.” The large scope does turn you into a drake-riding master of several orc armies. There are even fight pits that allow you to put your orc and troll captains against others to level them up and see who comes out on top.
That sounds good on paper (so much of this game does) but when it comes to actual gameplay it can be tedious, frustrating, or both. Sure, the combat is inherently fun, and you can feel like an overpowered half-human, half-spirit darting across the hellish landscape of Mordor. But everything good about Shadows of War comes from its predecessor and for some aspects, the novelty has worn off. When an Uruk captain stopped to taunt me in Shadow of Mordor, it was exciting. Now, it’s annoying. The action stops as these guys prattle on about who the hell cares – it’s especially bad if you’re encountering multiple captains and they all stop to have their say. I found myself trying to kill these windbags before they had a chance to speak just to spare me the pain. Who the hell wants to hear about an orc’s childhood pet? I wish I was making that up. Large battles can also be frustrating control-wise, as it’s hard to “aim” your dominate skill, not hit the angle just right and start dominating the wrong orc while your captain bleeds to death (potentially losing real-world money if they came out of a loot box). It does favor selecting your dying captain to be saved, but it does not seem to care if you’re in the middle of a pitched battle and you repeatedly keep missing a captain that is broken and ready to be dominated. So much of the game hinges around it that it seems like the inaccuracy is a glaring oversight. It’s not unworkable, just frustrating as hell.
Shadow of War is best when it is narrative-driven, unfortunately there is a lot of filler. Not just the regular open-world busy-work of item collecting, either. After the story quests are all completed there is an entire “war” phase that is what feels like an endless grind of base defenses. This happens after the story climax of the game and it is so drawn out that it would have left me baffled as to why they absolutely destroyed the pace of their game except for the inclusion of paid loot boxes. These loot boxes contain gear, captain upgrades and have a chance of containing powerful epic and legendary Uruks and Olags that will deploy at or around your character level. This bypasses much of the grind required to make an army capable of fending off Sauron’s forces. And the only reward you get for doing so is a cutscene that sums up the story of Lord of the Rings. Again, I wish I was making that up. It’s true though that it’s possible to beat the game without spending a single dollar – and you shouldn’t, even if you want the satisfaction of gambling, because there is a non-premium loot box option that includes the most powerful legendary orcs. There are also ways to get legendary orcs through normal gameplay, but acquiring and them levelling them up can be time consuming – hence the allure of the loot box.
There are some online interaction aspects in Shadow of War. You can conquer player fortresses and avenge their deaths, but there is no direct multiplayer. Conquering player fortresses can be fun, and so is avenging a player death or seeing that your death has been avenged. But ultimately it is just part of a list of filler and, while fun, just exists as a non-cohesive part of the patchwork that is Shadow of War.
Middle Earth: Shadow of War is a good game. The combat is fun, building armies to take on Sauron has fun aspects to it. The story is written with appreciation for the source material, but the grave seriousness of the tone is in stark juxtaposition to constant cash-shop advertisement on the main menu. Unashamedly making the game a grindy hell just to incentivize the purchase of loot boxes is unforgivable. It is blatant pay-to-win that is rarely seen outside of free-to-play and mobile games. If you must play Shadow of War, you absolutely do not need to spend a single cent to win. Middle Earth: Shadow of War is out now on Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Windows.