Review - Midde-Earth: Shadow of War
Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor from 2014 shouldn’t have been as good as it was. Borrowing the Batman: Arkham Asylum freeflow combat and incorporating the new Nemesis System to emotionally engage the player in creating orc rivals resulted in a sleeper hit earning Game of the Year from many publications. The long awaited sequel, Shadow of War, should have been a leap forward in terms of gameplay and even storytelling, as the first lacked in that department quite a bit, but for as much as developer Monolith progressed with the Nemesis System, they regressed everywhere else.
Immediately following the events of Shadow of Mordor, Talion and Celebrimbor create a new Ring of Power but in doing so alerted the presence of the malevolent Shelob, who, for some reason, is a sexy woman instead of a terrifying spider. Shelob wants the Ring for herself but makes a deal with Talion, offering him glimpses of the future hoping this would provide an opportunity to save Middle-Earth from the Dark Lord, Sauron. Using the new Ring, Talion and Celebrimbor create their own army of orcs to destroy Sauron once and for all but not everything is as it seems and even the closest of allies can become your greatest enemies.
Forget the story. It is forgettable and dumb as hell. Even a Tolkien fan itching for some good fan-fiction might find this to be some of the worst. The starting hours of the game consist of going back and forth to Shelob for visions of the future and you do it so often you begin to think it's the whole game. Thankfully, the game progresses the player through several different story beats, each with their own exclusive characters; however, the characters are poorly written and even worse, the mission structures are atrocious. The best writing comes from the orcs and Uruks, whose personalities brighten the ever embracing darkness emanating from the human characters.
The gameplay loop is a little different this time around where instead of slaughtering just a few orc at a time, Talion can controls entire legions whom can then be used to attack fortresses, which are strongholds in various sectors of Mordor. By controlling these fortresses, you're every step closer to saving Mordor, but there's a catch in maintaining these strongholds. The high ranking orcs you now control have individual levels with their own unique strengths and weaknesses. If you're going to be attacking a fortress or defending one, you need to carefully exploit those variables in manners such as making sure that a Beastmaster Orc (controls various creatures in Mordor) isn't attacking or defending along with a captain who's afraid of beasts, but you could have them work alongside one that upon seeing beasts, drives them into a rage, making them even stronger. Upgrading a Captain's level can be done in various ways by sending them on specific missions to fight other captains or even by participating in Arena Matches.
This new system is really exciting at first but after thirty hours, you realize it doesn't go any deeper than the first few hours you put in and the game's final act forces you to play through many of these scenarios before reaching the ultimate ending. And upon realizing how much of a grind that would be, I turned the game off and watched the ending on Youtube. Very similar to the ultimate ending to Batman: Arkham Knight, after which I now think of Riddler trophies with a frown.
Talion is no slouch compared to his armies and his repertoire of weapons have improved as well, making the slaughter of orcs that much more fun, albeit more of the same from the previous entry. While I will always be a fan of the Batman: Arkham-style combat, I wish that series and this one could improve in some new ways instead of just the usual button mashing with a quick dodge here and there. Monolith has added some fun teleportation attacks and a crowd controlling staff as an extension to combos, but it still doesn't feel like it's enough to justify moving away from the usual hack and slash mechanics of yore.
Main missions and side missions are a joke. The first game took Assassin's Creed's Follow missions to a whole new level of boring, but Shadow of War somehow makes it even worse. Nearly every mission you're following an NPC or running to a destination within a time limit while helping allies escape as side objectives or slaying a number of orcs until the mission concludes. That's it. There's nothing extraordinary or unique about the missions and there's never that standout moment that earns any sort of redeeming mention.
The game itself is beautiful in some spots and runs well on a PS4 Pro. There are a wide variety of environments this time around with snowy mountains, lush forests, and fiery volcanoes. Each area looks great but they feel more like a checkbox on a list rather than locations you would naturally happen upon in any other game world. Where the human characters lack any sort of expressive depth, the orcs make up for with their voice acting and personality. Every orc is detailed to the nth degree, making them stand out from their brethren and though you'll notice some doppelgangers along the way, you'll either dispatch them with disgust and anger or rule them with respect. Or you'll hate them when they betray you. Yes, they can betray you.
Of course, I'll need to mention the egregious inclusion of loot boxes, which can purchased with in-game currency, earned through various activities but can also be purchased with cold hard cash. The worse aspect of the loot boxes is that they can contain strong orc allies and even high level weapons, making the game considerably easier. Since many others have covered this aspect of the game to great lengths, I won't say much other than you can play through the story without ever needing them. It's just gross that they're there, specifically for a single player game.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is a mixed bag. While it retains the things I loved about the first game and includes some new additions to the Nemesis System, it doesn't feel like a full sequel. It instead feels more like a thirty hour add-on with loot boxes.