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Middle-earth: Shadow Of War – Review
Middle-earth: Shadow Of Mordor could have been seen as just another Assassin’s Creed clone. But its Nemesis System elevates it to be one of the best games in 2014- a generally drab year for gaming as we transition into a new console generation (check our review here). The sequel, Middle-earth: Shadow Of War, should be able to top its predecessor easily.
Shadow Of War turned out to be a good game, but after months of bad press- the mishandling of a DLC meant to honor a developer that passed away, the way developers Monolith try to justify some odd changes to the Lord Of The Rings lore, and of course, the inclusion of loot boxes with micro-transactions, have soured many people.
It’s a shame, because at its core Shadow Of War is a good sequel, but its defining feature has been undermined by some new additions to the game.
Graphics & Audio
Is Shadow Of War a looker? Sometimes yes. Your main characters, the duo of Talion and Celebrimbor- a.k.a. Gravewalker or The Bright Lord, look immaculately detailed. Each sword, dagger, and armour piece has a ton of detail on them. The world of Mordor is expanded with a very distinct look. It’s not all grim, dark and ashes this time around.
Obviously the game has to cut some corners to ensure the framerate remains at a steady 30fps. Foliage pop-ups are noticeable and animations tend to clip through body parts if you inspect closely through the photo mode. Textures can be rough as well, some more muddled than others. Cut-scenes are pre-rendered using in-game assets. I am impressed that Monolith’s Firebird engine could handle so many orcs appearing on screen while still maintaining performance.
Which nicely segues to the stars of the show, the natives of Mordor: the orcs (and trolls). They are as diverse as you could imagine with many colours, hairstyles, facial features and tons of voicelines. Good voicelines too. You would be surprised how many good voice actors, this time more than just a Cockney accent, lend a hand at giving the many orcs to life. Seeing people having strong reactions to the nefarious things you can do to these orcs is a testament to how successful Monolith brought the orcs to life. The rest of the characters are all well-acted too.
The soundtrack is what you expect- very orchestral, very brooding. The theme of the various orc tribes certainly stands out, but I usually leave the game idle on the map screen just to hear the menu theme. The music is also put to good use during fortress sieges, it will surely get you hyped the first few times hearing it.
Shadow Of War continues directly where Shadow Of Mordor left off. Despite being rooted to the lore of The Lord Of The Rings literature the story is going wild with many canon-breaking points. The duo of Talion and Celebrimbor forged a new ring of power and is attempting to defeat Sauron. Shelob, the giant spider from the books and movie, now manifests herself as a lady and Gollum makes an appearance again for some reason.
The less we talk about the story, the better. It’s not memorable- though I have to mention that the team definitely knows its lore. There’s a reason you only see one black guy in Minas Ithil. The new regions of Mordor featured all lined up to what is already canon.
Gameplay for Shadow Of War is still the blend of Assassin’s Creed parkour and Batman Arkham style of combat like the previous game. So it’s good. Climbing and navigating through the five regions are all fun.
Shadow Of War introduces RPG progression, where you have to gain XP to reach the next level, which grants an additional skill point. There are many basic skills, and tons of choices on optional skills to choose from, though the layout can use a bit more work. For instance, despite the last row being unlocked through story missions, there are a few skills that are also tied to story, but placed in other categories. The UI isn’t as snappy as I hoped, considering you are spending a good chunk of time here.
But this is just a competent Assassin’s Creed clone if it didn’t have the revolutionary Nemesis System. In each region of Mordor there is a rank of orc captains, all randomly generated. The orc captains have a ton of variety- different names, traits, things they hate, things they fear, tribe, classes and other quirks. They can range from disgusting to wacky, which makes them all feel fleshed out.
Sure, there are chances for bland orc captains to appear, which makes seeing the more unique ones a pleasant surprise.
The Nemesis System allows these orcs to grow as time passes- each time you do a Nemesis mission a turn is passed. These missions are not required, sometimes you can just enter the mission and just watch two orcs try to kill each other. If you are not there before a mission expires it auto-resolves it. This give an illusion that the world is alive and growing around you- to a certain extent.
The orcs also remember any encounter you had with them- try and run away and they’ll mock you in the next encounter, or should you cut off their limbs they can cheat death and you’ll see some prosthetic appendages on them.
Once you passed through the opening act you can recruit the orcs to your side (given they are below your level) or shame them to keep them alive but levelled down (and a chance to break their mental-either which sometimes lead them to level up even more). Orc captains drop gear like in the last game and the gear drop depends on your current level, their class and rarity (regular, rare, epic or legendary).
The best part of the Nemesis System is when it can bring out your emotions. I was gutted when I saw four of my orc followers staged a simultaneous betrayal just because the last fortress siege claimed many orc captains. I went in rage after being killed by an orc who was already near-death, which made me want to shame them over and over again- even if it means breaking their mind. Out of context those acts are straight-up cruel, which will make you question your own moralities once in a while.
It’s not to say the system is perfect. With too many orcs coming in and out of the Nemesis System (because it’s not worth keeping them around this time), it’s just hard to develop a long-time relationship with the pesky orcs. If I didn’t keep on screenshotting their amazing intro cut-scenes I don’t know if I can remember them all.
It’s also hard to keep the same orcs in the Nemesis System for too long. In Shadow Of Mordor you will find encounters that are not worth killing them at first sight and there’s incentives to let them grow in power including letting them defeat you. But the game design of Shadow Of War doesn’t support that. You will need to recruit orcs but they must be of your level. Once you’ve progressed up a few levels through the story and returned to a previous region your followers don’t scale with you, rendering them near useless. The Nemesis Missions that auto-generates and auto-resolves don’t net them enough XP to keep up.
This seems to be designed as intended to stop from grinding and getting overpowered early on. The big XP drops come from story missions and some small XP drop from killing orc captains and doing Nemesis Missions. So you have to progress the story (and do the optional questlines) if you want to reach the level cap by the end of the game.
There are ways to raise the levels manually, you can send them to pit fights where you just watch a duel to death or generate your own Nemesis Missions though it’s a slow process. It’s much more efficient to kill off your orcs by dueling each other and hoping the extra slots will be filled with newly generated ones that scales to your level.
There are main story quests distributed in several branches, based on the characters you meet throughout the story. The story missions, like the story, are pretty bland. It’s very restrictive, and it feels like it has been done in other games so many times.
But sometimes, it has its good moments, particularly on how they integrate it with the Nemesis System. There’s one good mission at the end of a questlines that took me by surprise- all I’ll say is it depends on how much you remember the many orcs that you have encountered (again, screenshotting helps). Though the use of the Nemesis System here leads to some awkward requirements. One mission required that you have three orc followers in the region… so that it can begin a rescue mission featuring these three orcs.
Outside of the story missions and Nemesis missions, the new fortress sieges are the highlight of Shadow Of War. You have to take over a fortress in each region, and all your orc followers will be part of your army. Assaulting the fortress can be fun, it allows you room to charge straight in or take your time by offing the warchiefs and installing your own orcs as spies within the fortress. There’s upgrades to buy to exploit the defending forces’ weaknesses, and the action during the sieges are relentless.
However, there’s so many orcs around the area that I find that the loose and forgiving controls are just not good enough as I struggle to hit the right orc and avoid the friendly followers in most cases.
Content & Longevity
Shadow Of War’s map is broken into five seperated regions. The region map makes it look huge, but there are smaller open world instances. What it lacks in size is that it has good uses of verticality, with layouts that promotes the use of parkour. The managable map size makes collecting collectibles much more bearable- the distribution of it in each region is just nice and going to one end of the map to another is fast. Aside from side missions there are challenges that will test how good you use certain skills. Certain gear can also be further upgraded by fulfilling challenges.
The game is broken down in four acts- the first being a prologue that will take roughly ten hours. The second is where the game fully opens up, allowing you to start recruiting orcs and unlocks all the regions available. This takes around 20-30 hours, depending on how much you spent time getting all the collectibles and missions. The third act is a short one and marks a point of no return, which leads to act four, the endgame.
In terms of content it’s decent- plus points if you lucky to have some crazy orc encounters. But by the endgame it becomes a total grind. There are only fortress sieges over and over again. No more story content or whole new missions by this point. And now you will see why the game has loot boxes.
(You can totally skip using loot boxes in before the endgame, thankfully. That part of the game is fine as is.)
Even if seen as a games-as-a-service, this portion of the game is just bad. The fortress sieges are not dynamic enough to make things interesting and to progress quickly you just have to treat your orc followers as mere numbers. Discard them when there are not useful anymore, or prepare to spend a long session just having to watch pit fights over and over. The Nemesis System takes a backseat here, which makes the game boring. It added 20 more hours of my playtime, and I fully completed the game around 60 hours.
I did not enjoy the endgame at all.
The loot boxes are just not worth spending real money. You can buy loot boxes using the in-game currency mithril (which you will earn in bucket loads). Loot boxes content will scale to your level so it’ better to hold off opening them until the endgame. I find it unnecessary to use the loot boxes before the endgame- which can contain orc captains, gear, follower orders or boosters. Follower orders will add an extra trait to a specific follower and are only available through loot boxes.
The higher ranked loot boxes are purchasable through gold. Gold drops in small amounts by completing online challenges or available via micro-transactions. The highest tier boxes straight up guarantees all legendary items, which makes it less random, but more of a straight-up micro-transaction purchase. The interface is dodgy with too many loading times, there isn’t even a loot box animation (or even a 3D model of the loot box), and all of the items are basically consumables- start a new save and all your items that are used in the current game will be lost. There’s a follower order to take one orc back into the garrison- items in the garrison will carry over into a new save- but that is if you are lucky to have one.
Having a boring endgame is already bad, but having the game shove in micro-transactions that alleviate the grind makes things worse. I can’t tell if that the long grind is intended to fit the theme the game is going or just a ploy to monitse the game further.
Injustice 2, another game by Warner Bros that also had loot boxes, did it fine and I praised its implementation. But the one in Shadow Of War is just shameful.
In conclusion, Shadow Of War is a by-the-book sequel offering more things to do. Yet its big new additions, the RPG progression, gear and loot boxes undermine the strongest point of the whole series: the Nemesis System. Having all these fleshed-out orcs with ton of personality being boiled down to just replaceable numbers undercuts a lot of its potential. The game is boring when it tries to do serious, linear missions because it’s the same thing you have already seen. The randomness of the Nemesis System encounters, both in missions and outside of it is where the game becomes really fun.
I enjoyed the first 30 hours of the game, and it felt like a competent follow-up to Shadow Of Mordor up to the point. By the endgame, it all turned sour- becoming a pointless grind (which, oddly enough, goes well with the theme of the story). The approach to monetise the game via loot boxes is not only a bad design choice, but badly implemented as well.
Thankfully, the game left me with some hope. The story of Talion is concluded definitively, which leaves me hoping that the next Monolith game will be something new. The Nemesis System still has more potential left unexplored. I just hope they plan the system to generate more personal stories for us to share, rather than more points to loathe about a very good game.
Review is based on version 1.03 and 1.04 of the game, played on a regular PS4. Review code provided by the publisher.