Feel the Bright Lord.
I’d been pushed back to the final, defensible point in my fort. Three enemy Warchiefs remained, and only one of my low-level captains stood with me to face the oncoming slaughter. Suddenly, my prayers were answered; one of the attacking captains, a large ogre fellow, went berserk and proceeded to start slamming the ground indiscriminately. In the minutes that preceded, this Uruk’s violent rage had killed two of the warchiefs, and freed up enough space — that wasn’t being pummelled by his mace — for me to single out and decapitate the last leader of the enemy force. This unique tale of my own triumph over adversity, with a whole ‘lotta death defying luck, is Middle Earth: Shadow of War at its finest.
Back in 2014, Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor had me completely in love. At long last, I had discovered an Arkham-style combat game that wasn’t stupid Batman. Combat flowed, upgrades were meaningful, and the Nemesis system was a breath of fresh-air in a very stale period for game development. Given my love for the first entry in the franchise, it may strike you surprising that I’m only now giving Shadow of War a go, but I’m glad I did because I’ve enjoyed most of the 20~ hours I’ve sunk into it.
Fundamentally, Shadow of War builds on the thrilling combat and extensive catalogue of activities to engage in throughout Mordor. Though it took me roughly 5 hours to unlock enough new abilities to really fall back into the gameplay ‘groove’, once it clicked, I could not put the game down. Chaining counters, timing critical strikes, exploiting enemy weak points, and mastering slick mid-flight/fight bow attacks made me feel unstoppable. However, don’t presume the game will be easy. If you wander into battle unprepared, things can quickly take a turn for the worse.
Despite the slow start, it shouldn’t take long for you to unlock a plethora of tools to destroy your Uruk foes. Don’t be fooled by the huge array of side quests on the map either; I quickly realised there were so many different ways of procuring skill points that I wasn’t ONCE forced to approach the map as a shopping list with endless tasks to mark off just to be more powerful.
Arguably, the most important upgrade from Shadow of Mordor is the revamped Nemesis system, which forms the core of the game’s mission structure. After a lengthy introduction to the game’s mechanics (painfully slow if you’re already familiar with the fundamentals,) players are presented with the task of attacking and defending strongholds. Both of these activities are accomplished by engaging in the Nemesis system. Players are afforded the opportunity to recruit Uruks into your army for an assault, and weaken the enemy stronghold by taking out their Warchiefs or forcing them to work for you.
For instance, prior to launching my Army of orcs on an enemy stronghold, I would ‘dominate’ the opposing enemies Warchiefs and their bodyguards in order to make my assault easier. My preparation meant that when the time for the assault had come, I charged through the fort, capturing each point with virtually no opposition. It’s basically a mission of conquest, inevitably ending with a showdown against the stronghold’s Overlord. A successful assault hands control of the stronghold over to you to be defended.
Though, here’s where my issue with the expanded system resides. Every fibre of my historical knowledge burns with the belief that DEFENDING a castle is monumentally easier than attacking, yet, in Shadow of War that is distinctly not the case. What frustrated me the most was that there is no way, aside from suring my own defenses, for me to make defending my castle any easier. I couldn’t infiltrate the attacking Warchief forces, or weaken them prior to their assault. The sad fact about this is, that when my defending forces were too weak, all I could do was forsake the stronghold and have an easier time retaking it in the future.
While this difficulty curve does present unique storytelling moments like the one I described in my opening paragraph, more often than not it can be frustrating to be put up against seemingly impossible odds. Though, there definitely is something satisfying about preparing your defenses, beginning the mission and charging head first into lines of Uruks that are being set ablaze by your catapults and archers.
Beyond the Nemesis system, an otherwise obvious addition to Shadow of War is loot. I found it surprisingly enjoyable flipping through my gear, upgrading it, and trying to match sets that benefited my particular ‘in your face’ play style. The implementation of loot also opens up difficult choices of whether or not to subjugate an enemy orc, or kill them and take their gear. It’s a minor improvement, but one which spices up the choice that was in Shadow of Mordor which was always: ‘eh I’ll just make him mine’.
Unfortunately, it’s upsetting to see that more success wasn’t discovered in the story department, given efforts to expand the Nemesis system. I won’t beat around the bush, Shadow of War does not present an engaging story, mostly because it suffers from horrible pacing issues. Talion’s turmoil with conjoined wraith, Celebrimbor, is as rote as any ‘ends justify the means’ conflict, and most of the other characters are simply dull, or suffer because they’re constrained by the franchise’s legacy.
Luckily, it isn’t all bad. Ratbag reprises his role as the lovable coward from the first game, and the new addition, a charming dumb oaf of an Uruk, Bruz, is always a hoot to see pop up in the story. Similarly, hunting down each Ring Wraith and uncovering what led them into the control of Sauron was an aspect of the journey I actively enjoyed taking part in, and Talion’s fate ties in well with the overall Lord of the Rings narrative.
Now, the developers may argue that the real story is the one you make for yourself through the Nemesis system. While I don’t disagree with this statement, an over reliance on this form of storytelling seems lazy, and to be honest, halfway through the game I desperately wanted the option to skip character dialogue.
To address the elephant in the room, there is barely any remaining grind from the first iteration of the game, and now there are NO loot boxes. Unless you hate the new Nemesis system, the Epilogue is just the right length to let you fully explore the game’s systems some more, but not be forced to engage in a horrific grind to see the true ending.
Middle Earth: Shadow of War is a mixture of disappointment, and satisfaction. On one hand, 90% of my experience with the game was thoroughly enjoyable; the combat is as good as ever, and the Nemesis system is still a blast to mess around with. On the other hand, I can’t help but think how interesting the story, mission and characters could have been, if it weren’t for the boundaries imposed by the Lord of the Rings franchise. That being said, if you’re yet to give it a go, and are looking for something to sink hours into before the coming onslaught of video games, Shadow of War is a good bet.