When it comes to fantastic lore there are few universes that stand shoulder to shoulder to Lord of the Rings in both quality and density of detail but Shadow of War manages to stand strong. Shadow of Mordor was 2014’s dive into the land of Middle Earth and received praise across the board. The game picks up after the events of the first game, but rather than just following its predecessor’s footsteps, it takes the formula and pushes it into a faster and more fantastic game at every moment.
Battle For Mordor
The game starts with a quick introduction to the characters from the last game. The ranger Talion, motivated by the death of his family, the ghostly ringmaker Celebrimbor bonded to the ranger, and his connection to the Dark Lord Sauron, and the One Ring.
It then takes that momentum into a full-on dive into the campaign. Within the first few hours of Shadow of War you will save people, kill uruks and do very Middle-Earthy things all from the perspective of the Grave Walker Talion. As the cast is introduced, diversity seems to be making a strong appearance, with representation in Tolkien’s work reaching a larger scale than Peter Jackson’s movies afforded. The interactions between characters feels pretty comfortable for the land of Middle Earth, too. Characters whisper when they tell delicate secrets, betrayal is an ever-present threat and all the good and bad guys run together into shades of morally grey areas that Tolkien loved to paint his world in.
Starting into Shadow of War feels like the player has walked into a highlight reel from Lord of the Rings… until the glossy shine begins to wear thin.
Character betrayal becomes predictable. Dialogue feels over-inflated and the diverse cast that seemed promising becomes either too boring to care about or too involved in their own work to seem like they’re interacting with Talion at all. The format for a campaign mission is a cutscene, the meat of the mission and sometimes a cutscene to conclude, rinse and repeat. After a few rounds of this, the cutscenes are entirely skippable. Saving a captured ally or hunting down bad guys in a certain fashion can only be interesting for so long. The campaign missions tend to reward the player heavily, but since the process of getting into a mission feels the same every time they get cumbersome very quickly.
Since the game is open world, the campaign missions are spread out across a number of different factions and across the different maps that make up the game world. Ultimately, chasing down missions that are consistently less than interesting makes them become low priority pretty quickly. There is a quest line that is fairly interesting, but with only one line and so much freedom throughout the rest of the game it becomes easy to feel like the missions as a whole are not where time should be spent.
Your Enemies Will Remember
Thankfully, the awkward landing of the story missions are easy to overlook when the actual gameplay works so well. While Act 1 starts with a backstory to everything thus far, Act 2 opens things up, allowing the player to begin taking control of Mordor by possessing foes and commanding uruks.
The Nemesis System from Shadow of Mordor is back, meaning that if you die to a foe your killer will gain power and continue to try to kill you. With each encounter, their banter will reflect on your previous moments together. I had one enemy who I burned but after thinking him dead he somehow managed to bring his half-melted corpse back in a bid for revenge time and time again. It was a glorious encounter every time as he continued to become more powerful and I was left reevaluating my combat methods to try to overcome my ever-evolving foe.
Everything about this system has gotten better in this sequel. Foes can now learn on the fly, meaning if you are a player who favors ranged assaults your opponent may adapt to your style. This leads to frantic fights where stealth, free flowing combat and elemental powers must be used in quick rotation with lots of variation. Chaining together quick assassinations, well placed traps and some risky swordplay to get the job done.
The depth of the Nemesis System even have enemies betraying each other. Figuring out spies you’ve planted and fighting for revenge on their fallen comrades. Whether you kill your foe, run away or they kill you, it all changes your game.
When it comes to the fate of the uruk captains you encounter, choosing to take over the minds of your foes or kill them matters too, since some captains cannot be turned and must be killed and killing provides an easy solution. While possessing your foes will be useful, since it helps against taking over enemy fortresses, they can easily be lost during that prep. Which is very likely since these siege battles are the biggest challenge the game has to offer. From learning to upgrade your offenses to take out whatever defences the fortress has, all the way to sending in spies and dispatching Warlords, trying to capture a fortress is a blend of tight combat with the pulse of large-scale, RTS style warfare.
Before the launch of Shadow of War it was announced that loot boxes would be featured in the game, with key elements like uruk captains and RPG armor and weapons for Talion being made purchasable with real-world money. This was met with controversy as the community was widely opposed to a pay-to-win model, especially in what is at its core a single-player open-world Action RPG. These controversial boxes give players new captains typically of higher level, different traits they can apply to captains, as well as timed XP or loot bonuses. While it may sound like paying for better captains and loot would be the way to go, the game makes buying the boxes completely doable with in-game money that is fairly easy to come by. Furthermore, the moments that makes each captain personal are lost when you simply buy them. One of the greatest feelings in Shadow of War is taking an old enemy who has killed you, playing to his weaknesses and converting him to an ally; it’s a shame the convenience that buying loot boxes adds robs players of the game’s best moments; actively going against the whole point of playing.
While fighting old foes and converting new allies in the Nemesis System feels great, it is also a big part of why the campaign feels so lackluster. It’s a thrill to sneak up on a captain you find in the wild, fighting them tooth and nail until either you or your foe meet your ultra-violent demise. But these moment are abundant when you’re not in missions, meaning questing in Middle Earth takes the fun of freedom and the Nemesis System, instead, giving you a checklist of objectives that are simply hoops to jump through.
All of the wonderful stealth, combat and AI systems in place make Shadow of War memorable, but it is the dedication to the Lord of the Rings license that truly binds everything together. Like the Batman Arkham games before it, it seems Monolith Software was able to show genuine love to the world they’ve built. Never forgetting the Middle Earth roots, be it in the sweeping scores or the dialogue that feels well-set in the world around it.
Passing the story moments and looking at the actual gameplay, the land of Mordor actually feels lived in and just as gross as any uruk community should. There are bodies that are hung as set pieces. Uruks will be taking long breaks by tankards of grog that they so dearly value. You will sneak atop ruins of old civilizations, be it man, elf or other, that feel as though they were part of a large battle in days past. It is an absolute delight to leap off an old tower, shoot arrows at unaware foes and land to perform a stealth attack with the fluidity that only Legolas could muster.
While the environment itself feels lifted directly from Tolkien’s books and Peter Jackson’s films, the sounds in Shadow of War are a beautiful blending of dramatic and alerting. Stealth moments are amplified by sharp notes in the music and the free-flowing combat is punctuated by sharp smashing and clanging from the controller itself. The result is a tumbling, dramatic score be it during stealth or slaying that feels powerful and piercing to a player’s core.
Dialogue is the only part where immersion in Shadow of War starts to break. I found myself often not caring about a number of the characters who droned on about family, what they had to do, honor and so on. Talion and Celebrimbor have an interesting dynamic, being bound to the ghost who made the Rings of Power is pretty neat, but when the conversations between them begin to reach their climax, what could be a great story moment fizzles into mediocrity.
It says something when the uruks come off as more interesting characters compared to the more “serious” main cast. When a captain is encountered, not only will he bring up previous encounters but he says everything in his own way. A bard will sing, a complainer will complain and the hilarity of a disgusting uruk yelling at Talion and the player in his own special way is far more memorable than anything the Spider-Lady or the Necromancer had to say.
Middle Earth: Shadow of War is a game unlike anything before it. The already excellent systems introduced in its predecessor have been made better in every way with new consequences and rewarding wrinkles. Boring bosses has been replaced with wonderful battles ripped straight from the films. In a world so well realized, the minor problems of lukewarm campaign missions and meaningless microtransactions only seem like significant flaws because everything else lands so perfectly. If you enjoy Lord of the Rings and are willing to put up with these inconveniences, this is a walk into Mordor you will simply have to take.