Middle-earth : Shadow of War is the much anticipated sequel to the 2014 hit Shadow of War, with Talion and Celebrimbor returning as they fight against the forces of the dark lord Sauron. Does it manage to hit the high standards set by its predecessor ? Does the nemesis system still deliver ? Let’s find out.
For those of you who have played, and loved Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, Shadow of war should feel right at home. The basic gameplay remains the same, and Shadow of war builds on the previous game’s excellent foundations. The combat is still fluid with a mix of Arkham combat and counter system, along with a new heavy attack, which can be used as a crowd control. Most of the old moves are retained and the old executions return allowing you to execute your favourite nemesis.
The game still needs players to capture the old towers, but this time, players need to “purify” the towers from Sauron’s influence. Purifying the tower allows the players to scan the nearby areas which reveal new missions and points of interests. New features such as double jump, allows you to *wait for it* jump twice mid air making travel faster, and travelling fast is definitely needed in this game. The map has been greatly expanded with mountains and swamps being featured. This vast map allows visual variety but the enemies and optional side quests are the same no matter where you go, which is a missed opportunity in my opinion, variety in flora and fauna could have added a lot more immersion in this game.
Returning from Shadow of Mordor is the ability to posses highlighted Uruks, which in term can reveal a captain in the nemesis system(Yes, it is back again, and better than ever), revealing the traits and strengths/weaknesses of the captain for the players to approach adding a layer of tactical strategy to the combat scenarios. And each captain has a different trait and strength/weakness, which brings gameplay variety on the table. Even after 40 hours of playing we still found new dialogues and traits.
Killing a captain gives you loot which can improve your stats. The difficulty in this game seems awfully easy, but thankfully this time around you can choose between 3 difficulties. On normal, dispatching small troops of Uruks is easy but things start to get a little bit hairy when you encounter two captains and their entire war party. Should you die, the Uruk killing you gets promoted and conflicts get resolved, with or without your hand in them. This creates a dynamic and living world where you feel you are going up against an actual Uruk society and not AI controlled zombies.
The meat of the gameplay lies in building your army, which makes you hunt down captains, with the motive of turning them to your side or shortening the opposition’s ranks. Turning them to your side strengthens your forces, along with giving you the opportunity to infiltrate the enemy ranks, activating them the moment you lay siege to a stronghold, to give you the upper hand. The biggest new features of Shadow of War are its fortresses, which you can conquer with a large-scale invasion force of controlled uruks that you customize and upgrade before each assault. These invasions are technically impressive with hundreds of Uruks fighting it out on the battlefield, I am impressed with the Firebird engine being able to handle so many NPCs without any noticeable drops in performance.
But the battle at the end with the local Overlord features a sudden difficulty spike that can catch unprepared players off guard, as these Uruks are harder to take and can dish out some serious pain, on top of that the arena is usually rigged with traps that choke down on your fighting space forcing you to continuously adapt. Once you end up defeating the Overlord you can capture the fortress which is where Shadow of War’s multiplayer comes in, you will need to post your own forces for defence.
Now there has been some significant controversy regarding loot boxes which needs to be addressed. Loot boxes basically allow you to get Uruks, which is basically the meat of the gameplay. Yes there is some grind involved if you want to get the best of the best orcs without shelling out real money, but if you do cave in and pay just remember you’re paying to avoid the real fun part of the gameplay.
The story picks up right where it left off in the previous game, starting with a cutscene to refresh old players memories and bring new players up to date. From there, the prologue starts which shows the hero Talion and the wraith Celebrimbor creating a new ring of power for them to use against the Dark lord Sauron, only to lose it to Shelob, only this time she’s a woman. Yeah, Tolkien fans be warned this game follows a heavily modified part of the lore and is totally non cannon. If you are a Tolkien lore lover, the game might cause some serious head scratching moments.
Rather than following the actual stories and events Shadow of War takes advantage of it’s excellent nemesis system creating a dynamic love hate relationship with your orcs, imbuing them with unique personalities that you can catch a glimpse of every time you fight them. The nemesis system is so good that it in fact overshadows the main story, which is a forgettable mess. I often found myself completely ignoring the main story to partake in playing Orc politics, sending my beloved orcs to fight each other while I watched from the shadows, occasionally leaping in to help if my dominated orcs were getting overwhelmed.
Gollum returns and is excellently represented and thankfully retains his appearance and personality from Tolkien’s actual version. The story also features characters that fans of Tolkien lore will appreciate, such as Nazgûl, Shelob and a Galadriel who were not so fortunate and received the Monolith lore mutilation treatment.
At the end of our playthrough we found that the story lacked the warmth of Tolkien’s stories and Talion our protagonist himself is as generic as it gets, unlike the actual heroes of LOTR. Thankfully the nemesis system allows you to create own stories and is this games saving grace.
Shadow of War features improved visuals over the previous game but the overall leap is not that impressive, mind you it’s still a very beautiful game with a lot more visual variety on the plate now. Orcs are still detailed downed to tiny trinkets so that they can be visually distinguished. The lip syncing is on spot and overall character visuals are spot on.
We did encounter the occasional texture pop-up but none of it was game and the ugly out of place textures here and there but the performance was absolutely flawless with little to no drops.
But the most impressive feature this time around are the fortress sieges which feature hundreds of orcs and the engine does a great job of handling them without any noticeable hiccups.