Middle Earth: Shadow of War Review

Developer: Monolith Productions

Publisher: Warner Bros.

Release date: October 10, 2017

Available on: PC, PS4, Xbox One

Middle Earth: Shadow of War picks up where its predecessor left off. Talion and his ghostly companion, Celebrimbor, have finished crafting another ring of power but in doing so, the two become separated, and Talion sets out in search of his other half. After a quick bout of sneaking around and killing Orcs, Talion finds his spectral friend in the clutches of the gigantic spider Shelob, and for the cost of a small sacrifice, the two are reunited and given a short glimpse of the future, forcing the two to set out for Minas Ithril.

Much like the first game, the two characters have differing opinions about how to stop Sauron. Monolith has dropped the ball in this way, as the two are always at odds yet there’s never another path offered. While the ending will undoubtedly leave you talking, the story is probably the weakest part of the game as neither character ever really develops. Talion remains steadfast in his quest to protect Gondor; Celebrimbor remains worried about taking down the dark forces of Sauron. Many of their conversations go in a way such as this, “Why bother with giving her this information Talion? We can stop Sauron without her!” To which he promptly replies, “because it keeps Gondor safe!” So just imagine that on repeat between the two, with other friendly NPCs being the catalyst for this conversation again and again.

The biggest stories you’ll be taking away from Shadow of War, however, will be those provided to you from the Nemesis System, which has been improved on in just about every possible way. My first death came at the hands of an Assassin named Snafu in Minas Ithril. This happened at the beginning of the game, and I was still pretty rusty. Afterwards, I interrogated a “worm” and sought out this assassin. Exploiting a weakness I had learned from the worm, I set him ablaze which killed him instantly. This would come back to bite me as his death caused him to come back bigger and badder. He upgraded to a legendary Uruk, and his name became Snafu of the Flame. I’ve killed this guy every time I’ve stepped foot in Minas Ithril and taken just about every body part from him. His arms are rusty hooks, and he’s missing a leg from our last encounter.

Minas Ithril is just the beginning of Talion’s adventure.

That’s just one of the many stories I’ve crafted in Shadow of War. One encounter happened while I was collecting items. In route to the next Gondorian artifact, I hid in a bush as two cannon fodder Uruk drew in close enough for me to chain a stealth kill . As Talion struck the final blow on his target, a captain pounced on me, commenting about how all these items I had been collecting were worthless for a fight, but I quickly decapitated him, never to see him again. Another sought me out the moment I targeted him on the map which led to a wonderful fight on the rooftops of a fortress which he now commands after being recruited into my army.

Not all encounters with the Uruks are as fun as the ones mentioned though. Some orcs ramble on too long, which can lead to a frustrating interruption to the flow of combat when the game stacks multiple Uruks in one spot.

Uruk captains have their own strengths and weaknesses as mentioned above, and the higher in level they are, the better their traits. You may meet an Uruk with a fear of flies but riding in on a Caragor will send him into a blind rage. Approaching a fight requires a bit of planning, but even the best laid plans can go wrong by an Uruk captain who can adapt to Talion’s moves or a berserker Uruk who catches you off guard with a tackle. Some captains will even come with an elemental effect like poison or fire, or even a curse which prevents the counter icon from popping up and hides the mini map behind an Eye of Sauron.

One of the biggest improvements to the Nemesis System is the added siege features. Once you get into Act 2 and start building your army, Talion will be given the opportunity to lay siege to an Uruk fortress. As he and his army of dominated Uruks invade, they’ll fight to capture points within the fortress before progressing deeper, and once all the points have been captured, Talion will go in to take on the Overlord himself. Of course, before going into a fortress, you’ll have to capture Uruk captains, place them in your assault force, and purchase siege upgrades which vary from Olog-hai to smash down walls and gates, to fiery siege beasts and even dominated drakes when Talion’s level is high enough. Taking down an Overlord’s warchief’s will also weaken the fortress as they’ll lose their siege upgrades. The whole act of taking a fortress is very epic and incredibly fun. I had some of my Uruk captains climbing over battlements as I fought along the tops of them taking out archers as others stormed the gates below.

Conquests are as epic as they look.

After you take your first fortress, you’re given the ability to take on other players’ fortresses and in doing so, increase the strength of your Uruk army in the region. You can also use your Mirian to buy fortress upgrades like steel walls, elemental traps, and stronger defenders so your fortresses have a better chance of repelling invaders. Just like assault upgrades however, defender slots are locked behind Talion’s level and you’ll need to do some organizing to make sure your fortress is well defended. Thankfully, the game will automatically shift your army around after you’ve taken a fortress to make sure you at least have a few defenders.

Much of the core gameplay mechanics remain intact with Monolith building on to what was already there. There’s much more to do and a lot more to collect.

Shadow of War features multiple quest lines across five different regions. The Haedir towers which worked as a fast travel station and a place to respawn when you die can now also be used to locate collectibles, barrows, and Ithildin poems to complete which unlock pieces of Celebrimbor’s armor and weapons. Challenges have also been added to the game, and completing them will reward players with Miridan, runes, and even gold which can be used in the marketplace. Some weapons come with challenges as well, which when completed give the weapon an updated look and make them stronger to boot. The combat itself remains the same, but Talion has a lot of new skills at his disposal. One of my favorites is dominating a pack of Caragors using the Packmaster skill, unlocked through Shadow Mount. Breaking one and dominating it with Shadow Mount will also dominate surrounding Caragors too, which leads to funny results when an Uruks are riding.

The online vendetta’s have changed a bit too. Instead of an Uruk who killed a friend showing up in game like they did in Shadow of Mordor, you’ll receive a quest to do an online vendetta which simply requires you to complete a few objectives and then kill the captain. The biggest downside to this is that while you can dominate the captains in an online vendetta, you cannot keep them for your own personal army. However, if you invade another player through the online conquest feature, your captains can permanently die. It’s a little disappointing that you can’t balance it out by dominating captains through the online vendetta’s.

It doesn’t help that the coolest captains I faced were all online too.

Bozu the Poet simply had to die for his taste in clothing….

My biggest complaints about the gameplay is that it does get repetitive. Most quests involve getting from point A to B and killing Uruks. Sometimes you’ll need to interrogate an enemy or two or track down and Uruk by finding clues to it’s whereabouts, but by the time I traveled to the fourth region, fatigue began to set in. I’m also a little disappointed that Monolith didn’t really pay much attention to the movement system as I always felt it was a little clunky in Shadow of Mordor. However, with the inclusion of a double jump ability, getting around is much more fun as its easier to remain up high and keep your forward momentum going. On the reverse, riding around on a various mounts doesn’t feel good, and the drake controls are confusing at first.

There’s also the inclusion of micro-transactions, which in all honesty, if you’re willing to put in the work, they’re entirely unnecessary. I did buy ten dollars worth of gold and got a cool group of Uruks, with one Olog-hai looking like Hulk from Planet Hulk. You can also buy a chest full of gear for Talion, but it definitely isn’t worth the price. If you’re going to spend money, buy orcs. Gear is plentiful, and there’s a skill later on in the wraith tree that improves the quality of dropped gear.

Graphically, the game seems to have taken a step forward and a step back. The environments look good and Talion has less of a… squashed face, but the design of the characters and specifically the texturing of their hair is lazy. Eltariel looks awkward in her hood as it doesn’t quite sit on her head but just sort of floats around her face. The Uruks have undoubtedly received the most care though as they all look really cool, especially since the Nemesis System will change the way they appear as Talion interacts with them.

Despite it’s narrative shortcomings, Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is an improvement in just about every way. While the movement system really could have used some tweaking, you’ll spend countless hours developing relationships with Sauron’s forces across five large regions and then burning them to ground on the back of a drake.