Middle Earth: Shadow of War is a sequel that manages to build on everything that made its predecessor great, making for a solid sequel that’s bound to please fans of the first game.
Monolith Software have delivered exactly the sequel fans wanted, opting to bake more into the recipe, rather than take any of the old ingredients out, and it works. Shadow of War is a truly great game, if not a groundbreaking one.
The story picks up pretty much straight after Shadow of Mordor’s rather lacklustre ending, with Talion the human and his ghost Elf buddy Celebrimbor deciding to forge their very own Ring of Power and take on Sauron’s army.
Before they can do much at all with their shiny new bling however, they have it nicked by the giant Spider Shelob (who takes the form of a sexy lady here because video games). Forced into an uneasy alliance with Shelob, Talion and Celebrimbor head into another excuse to hack apart lots of Orcs and Uruks.
I won’t go into too much detail regarding the plot, but I will say that Tolkien purists should be aware that this game plays fast and loose with Lord of The Rings canon – if you can accept that this is intended to be more of a parallel world story instead of the prequel the game often seems to insist it is, you’ll have a much better time of it.
Naturally to take on Sauron’s army, you’ll need to gather one of your own – and it’s through this central premise that the core of the game takes shape. Fans of the first Middle Earth game will remember how satisfying it was – once you’d unlocked the ability – to slowly take out Uruks, enlist them with your weird mind powers, and gradually take over everyone and everything.
Frustratingly, the ability to control and take over Orcs is once again locked away until a little later in the game, but players new to the franchise will definitely need the first few hours to get to grips with the game’s myriad of complex systems, skill trees, menus, gear augments, and nemesis system.
Hell, I played the original and even I was glad of the opportunity to slowly re-learn certain aspects of the game. It’s not that any one thing is particularly confusing, it’s just that there’s so damn much to remember.
Thankfully the game does a fine job of teaching you basics, from combat and stealth to how best to fuck with the Orcs and sew dissent among their ranks – an activity that always feels an absolute joy, thanks largely to the Nemesis System.
Shadow of War’s Nemesis System, returning from the first game, is a wonderful bit of game design so clever that I can’t actually believe it hasn’t been ripped off by any other developers yet.
Essentially, the majority of foes you come across in the game will be completely unique to your experience. They’ll remember you, gloat over victories, and bitterly recall defeats.
Many of them even adapt to your fighting style, so for instance, if you rely on vaulting over enemies to attack from behind, they can learn to put an end to that, forcing you to change up your tactics.
Monolith has vastly expanded on the Nemesis system for this sequel, giving the Uruks a ridiculous variety of strengths, weaknesses, fears, and personalities.
This system gives the player such a unique relationship with the world. Fights can be become so much more personal when you’ve developed your very own arch enemy – I was pleasantly surprised to bump into my nemesis from the first game, until he proceeded to absolutely destroy me six times in a row.
Still, when I finally cleaved his head from his body, it was all the more satisfying given the personal nature of our relationship. I can’t wait to see him again for our inevitable rematch.
There are plenty of these unique enemies to find, by the way. The game’s multiple regions are made up of Captains, Warchiefs, and Overlords. Overlords tend to remain where they are (in the beginning at least), but the Captains and Warchiefs are constantly jostling for power, moving up and down in the Orc hierarchy.
Your main job is basically to screw with this hierarchy and manipulate it for your own end. Take over the mind of a low level Captain and work from the shadows to ensure he rises through the ranks – eventually he’ll end up as the right hand man of a Warchief, giving you a chance to strike at someone even higher up the chain on your way to conquering the Overlord in his fortress.
Obviously taking an Overlord (and by extension, his fortress) is no easy task, and this is where you’ll need to enlist the help of the Uruk’s you’ve taken over. Planning a siege against a fortress has a surprising tactical edge to it, as you’ll need to gather intel and weigh up the strengths of your own Warchiefs against the ones waiting inside, so that you have the best possible chance of success.
Once you’ve done that, you jump into an epic Helm’s Deep style battle, with a truly impressive number of enemies on the screen. As you carve your way through hordes of grunts, Drake’s fly overhead, breathing down fire indiscriminately.
It both looks and feels absolutely incredible, thanks in no small part to a deeply satisfying combat system that works so well you don’t even care it shamelessly ripped off the Arkham games.
Oh, you can eventually fly Drakes by the way, and it’s cool as f*ck.
The world has such a dynamic quality to it, and that your role in it is so essential feels so satisfying. Even the simple act of moving from point A to point B is rife with possibility.
Maybe you’ll come across an execution, and will find yourself considering whether or not to intervene as the outcome will shift the balance of power – maybe you’ll be ambushed by an Uruk captain looking to a make a name for themselves. Even if the regions themselves don’t feel as well realised as other recent open world games, the things that go on within them help it to feel truly alive.
With so much going on pretty much all the time, it can feel a little overwhelming – especially in the beginning – but once you’ve gotten the hang of all the systems and rules, you’re gonna have an absolute blast tearing through Sauron’s army.
I haven’t even mentioned the crap-ton of collectables available to hunt down throughout the world, or the gear and skill trees which can slowly be upgraded to make Talion a true force to be reckoned with.
There are also some truly impressive boss battles – such as Balrogs and Ringwraiths- to be had on top of the smorgasbord (orcasbord?) of enemies on display.
In short, Shadow of War is absolutely packed to the rafters, and the moment-to-moment gameplay is deeply rewarding. The parkour style movement is a blast, combat never gets boring, and the world is always shifting and changing.
If you’re a fan of Lord of the Rings, or even action games in general, I can pretty guarantee you’ll love this one, provided you have the patience to invest the couple of hours it takes to really familiarise yourself with everything. Of course, if you played the first game, you’ll be good to go – just don’t expect anything wildly different.
Oh, one last thing: You really don’t need to go anywhere near the loot boxes to enjoy this game – I didn’t touch them, and I came across plenty of high level gear and enemy types that never detracted from the experience.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I was recently killed by Grom the Heartless, and I’m eager for a little payback.