Middle-earth: Shadow of War Review

By Kevin Tavore, 1 month ago
If you'd prefer to see the game in action, check out our short and sweet video review below. You'll see the game's systems yourself and get a feel for the flow of combat to see if it's up your alley. After you watch, drop us a line in the comments and let us know what you think of the video! We're on a mission to provide video content you want to see.

There are few fantasy properties that can match fans' adoration for Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. The series has delighted generations with its expansive world, epic stories and lovable characters. While there are no new stories to be told in the official canon of the series, that hasn't stopped many from expanding upon the world and creating new adventures with characters we know and love or new heroes who can create their own destiny. That's what Monolith Productions did with Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, a 2014 title that earned itself quite a few Game of the Year awards. Now they're back with Middle-earth: Shadow of War and they've created what is not only undoubtedly a worthy sequel, but likely yet another Game of the Year contender.

Middle-earth: Shadow of War

Shadow of Mordor introduced us to Talion, a fallen ranger out for vengeance after orcs killed his family, and Celebrimbor, the elf who created many of the rings of power, plus a host of completely forgettable side characters. Set in between the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, the game's story was essentially fan fiction which didn't do much to delve into the characters' motivations or goals. Shadow of War is still shackled to the predetermined lore — we know Talion cannot succeed in defeating Sauron — but the game does find success in developing the characters. There are defenders from Gondor who struggle with a siege against their home and its aftermath. An elf assassin fights against the Nazgul and must decide whether to trust Talion and his temptations. Talion and Celebrimbor themselves were united in the first game, but here begin to have diverging goals. Even the orcs you work with are injected with personality and desires. The result is a story where the ultimate outcome is admittedly already known, but with characters whose stories you want to see to the end.

The first game was also tied down by its setting in Mordor. The land is traditionally depicted as a barren, molten wasteland and many would say that's all there is. In Shadow of War, those molten lands make their return but with them are new lands within Mordor that are quite different. There's a zone full of rocky cliffs and snowy peaks which stresses verticality. There's the return of Nurnen, a grassy and forested area full of wildlife. There are swamps. There's a jungle. There's a gigantic, ancient city besieged by orcs. These lands may or may not be faithful to the lore, but there's no denying that it makes the game much more exciting to see and explore.

Middle-earth: Shadow of War

The combat uses today's popular Arkham/Assassin's Creed-style attack and counter system. You'll use your single attack button and pull off executions when you build up enough hits at once. In the meantime, you'll need to watch out for button prompts which tell you when to dodge or counter. Shadow of War mixes this up a little bit through domination, which allows you to essentially possess your enemies and force them to fight for you. Many battles start off one versus one hundred, but with a bit of work, it can eventually become one hundred to one. This system isn't so dominant as in the first game — executions are harder to pull off so it's harder to create your own army — but it does mix up the combat adequately to keep things interesting on a second to second basis.

The other factor to the game's combat is the Nemesis system. This is a system that changes how the entire game is played. In combat, it means that you'll fight against orc captains in addition to the orc grunts. These captains have their own personalities complete with intro videos, their own strengths and weaknesses which you'll need to work around, and they can appear at any time. This means you'll always need to be on your toes when you're in a battle as everything is always changing. You can be fighting one captain, working around his strengths and then suddenly he will adapt and gain immunity to the attacks you were using to take him down. Then as you change your strategy again, you might be ambushed by yet another captain who throws a new wrinkle into the combat. All of this happens in real time in the middle of combat, which means even though the combat is fairly simple overall, the way each fight plays out remains exciting and unique.

Middle-earth: Shadow of War

The biggest new feature in the game is fortress assault and defense. In Shadow of Mordor, your goal was simply to infiltrate the army and have your orcs become its leader. In Shadow of War, there are actual fortresses you'll need to attack. These fortresses are huge endeavours which require preparation and, of course, manipulation of the Nemesis system. You'll hunt down the warlords so that they'll be dead and unable to fight against you during the battle. You can appoint orcs to infiltrate the fortresses as spies, eventually becoming warlords who can sabotage defenses during your assault. You'll need to build your own army as well, investing in various siege upgrades such as sappers to blow open the gates, siege beasts to attack the enemy, or a dragon to rain fire from above. When these battles begin, you'll charge the fortress with a huge army of grunts and your own captured Captains at your side. Make no mistake — these are truly epic battles which feel awesome. You'll have a hundred allies at your side and you'll push forward into the fortress, taking points and eventually killing the fortress' overlord. These assault segments and their defense counterparts once you have control of the fortresses are the best part of the game and are quite unlike anything seen in other games. These fortresses are also tied to online play where you'll attack other players' fortresses and the defenses they've set up for points, which is really quite fun though your opposing player isn't ever there, which makes it somewhat of a missed opportunity.

The Nemesis feature doesn't only invade the way combat works, but it serves as comic relief as well. Mordor is a depressing place even when it's beautiful, and the game could drain your desire to play if these orcs weren't so full of personality. You'd imagine orcs are growling, stupid and vicious with not much to say other than promises of death and battle. In most games, you'd be correct, but in Shadow of War these orcs ooze charisma. They each have random personalities and regular voice actors, which is jarring but undoubtedly fun. Each player will get their own stories and they'll build up a host of orcs whom they hate. These orcs will remember past battles, either because they won and killed you or because they came back to life with mechanical limbs ready to try again.

One of my orcs began as a random, skinny grunt who killed me, rose to the rank of Captain and named himself "Tark Slayer." I then fought him again and pushed through his incessant taunting about how he's the Tark Slayer and taught him a lesson, ending his life. I figured that would be the end but it wasn't — he came back to life again and this time he gave me a nickname: "Tark Slayer... Slayer." It's in these moments you can't help but smile and it's what sets Shadow of War apart from any of its contemporaries.

Middle-earth: Shadow of War

Shadow of War features a huge open world filled with dozens of activities. The main story sees Talion facing off against the Nazgul, but there are plenty of stories operating on the side at any given point. In Shadow of Mordor, these side quests felt tacked-on and lifeless, but here they are directly connected to the main story. They feel like there's a real, legitimate reason you're completing these quests. These are where you'll really get to know the other characters and the stories are often as good or better than the main story. Beyond those side quests, there are the standard Nemesis quests where orcs try to gain power and there are special quests where you relive scenarios from Celebrimbor's and complete unique scenarios. Beyond that, there's your standard open world smattering of collectibles, all of which come with rewards for finding them and can be tracked on the map to avoid frustration.

Shadow of War is not a perfect game, but its flaws are few and verge on nitpicking. One of the side activities, Fight Pits, are completely uninteractive. You'll send an orc to the fight pits and they'll square off against a random different orc. Then you just watch a fighting game-style battle. It's not fun, especially when your level 40 orc somehow loses to a level 31 orc, something for which you couldn't have possibly prepared. These activities are necessary to infiltrate fortresses, which makes them frustrating. Then there are the loot boxes. These boxes can mostly be earned using in-game currency, but there's quite a lot of other things to spend that currency on so if you want loot boxes, you'll probably need to invest your own money. Nothing in them is strictly necessary, but the game is clearly balanced around you using XP boosts and finding special orcs in those boxes, so you'll need to grind if you don't purchase any. That grind wouldn't be terrible, but it's definitely there which is unfortunate.

Shadow of War Screens

The achievements are your standard fare that will see you doing mostly everything. You'll complete the game, you'll complete side quests and you'll find collectibles. There are also a decent number of achievements tied to completing various scenarios in the Nemesis system. These achievements are fun to hunt, requiring you to really experience everything that unique system has to offer. None of the achievements are particularly hard, which means you can play through the game enjoying what's there and knowing that you're always working toward them as you play.

Summary

Middle-earth: Shadow of War is the best Assassin's Creed-style game available. It's also a worthy successor to a game many called 2014's Game of the Year. The world is huge and full of tons of activities. The new fortress assault system creates awesome battles that feel truly epic. Then there's the return of the Nemesis system, which runs through every system the game has to offer. The system keeps combat fresh and it gives Shadow of War a much-needed splash of character and humor. Its faults are undoubtedly minor. One of the game's more prominent side activities, fight pits, are simply not very fun at all. Then there are the loot boxes, which aren't strictly necessary but will undoubtedly create a need to grind if you don't purchase them. Overall, Shadow of War is an excellent game that offers dozens of hours of enjoyable content. It's a game that's worthy of every minute you'll put into it.
4.5 / 5
Positives
  • World is filled with tons of fun activities
  • Nemesis system makes its return with new improvements
  • Fortress assault and defense feels like a real battle with high stakes
  • Online play is unique and entertaining
  • Huge skill tree allows development of Talion to suit your playstyle
Negatives
  • Fight pits are necessary but are entirely hands-off
  • Loot boxes aren't required, but have such a great benefit that it feels like the game is designed around them
Ethics Statement
The reviewer spent 22 hours playing through the game, killing plenty of orcs and dominating even more, capturing fortresses, playing online, completing side quests and finishing up the main story. 33 of the game's 52 achievements were unlocked along the way. An Xbox One copy was provided by the publisher for this review.
Kevin Tavore
Written by Kevin Tavore
Kevin is a lover of all types of media, especially any type of long form story. The American equivalent of Aristotle, he'll write about anything and everything and you'll usually see him as the purveyor of news, reviews and the occasional op-ed. He's happy with any game that's not point and click or puzzling, but would always rather be outdoors in nature.
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