The 2014 release of Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor was a huge success by any standard. Monolith Productions and Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment gave people a great open world game set in Tolkein’s universe that bridged two of the most popular stories in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It wasn’t just a good ‘Lord of the Rings game,’ Monolith introduced the Nemesis System which shook up an open world formula that had started to become quite stale across the genre. While words are often thrown around when describing these open world games, like “living, breathing,” and other adjectives to describe a lifelike experience, Monolith actually made something that felt smarter and more realistic than any open world game before it. The Nemesis System allowed players to fight an ever-changing hierarchy of enemies that would not only fight against you, but fight against each other, with everyone trying to get to the top of the food chain. The system in Shadow of Mordor was ahead of it’s time for sure. With multiple years to expand on this concept, Shadow of War is a bigger and more expansive open world game than its predecessor. It’s a game that’s more robust and ambitious in every conceivable way, including the introduction of microtransactions, loot boxes and systems that really feel unnecessary after playing through this game in its entirety.
Shadow of War is a bigger and more expansive open world game than its predecessor.
Shadow of War picks up right after Shadow of Mordor. It continues the narrative of Talion and his ties to the Elf Lord Celebrimbor their fight against Sauron, and of course, rings of power that are constantly being fought over. Ultimately, this tale puts the fate of Middle Earth in Talion’s hands. A ring of power is bestowed upon him that grants the ability to dominate the Orcs that control numerous regions of the realm. As Talion’s army increases, the end goal of the game is to be able to assault Sauron directly. There are some new and interesting characters added in this chapter of the story, and the game does make good on the promises of bridging the gap between the two Tolkein tales. It would be wholly inappropriate to spoil what this is, exactly. Regardless, Shadow of War’s ties to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings feels a little stronger this time around.
The real star of the show is in the gameplay systems though — primarily the Nemesis System, the domination of Orcs, and the building of your army to take on Sauron. This system is so well implemented here. You’ve got a big open world to explore with multiple regions that need to be taken control of by completing quests, tracking down enemies, and either removing them from power by killing them or turning them to your side. While the system is similar to the first game in a lot of ways, the scope has certainly broadened. You still have a lot of variety here in terms of the Orcs you’ll find that are controlling outposts or just roaming the land. There are random events that’ll occur that you just don’t see coming. You may have killed an Orc’s “Blood Brother” earlier in the game only to have them ambush you later on. They all have unique dialogue, appearance, strengths, and weaknesses and it really makes the fights with them feel like an ongoing struggle in a larger war. You can also do things like send spies to infiltrate the ranks, gather intel on your enemies, and assign converted Orcs and Trolls to different ranks in your own hierarchy. The most impressive thing is how organic it all feels for a game with such a broad scope.
The Nemesis System is expanded upon and incredibly well done
Siege Battles have been added to this game and it’s one of the major additions to Shadow of War. This is the main mechanic in each region that has you trying to whittle down defenses by taking out Orcs, potentially recruiting them to your side, and then ultimately making an assault to gain control of the region. The Orcs that you’ve dominated can be placed into slots with numerous upgrades available for purchase. These battles are a lot of fun to play as it features an all-out assault on an Orc fortress led by Talion and a hand-picked supporting cast. The battles are massive, with numerous characters fighting alongside you as you try to hold different points in the fortress. It all culminates with a battle against the zone’s Warchief. Getting to the point where you’re strong enough to make an assault is a bit of grind though, with many activities that repeat themselves throughout the course of the game.
While the Nemesis System and army building mechanics are incredible, there is a lot of open world filler that can get to be somewhat boring after a while. Towers need to climbed, there are riddles to solve, items to find, and story bits to uncover, but they are literally the same thing over and over again in each new zone that you travel to on your conquest. It can get a bit tedious, and we’d like to see more variety in these fetch quests. The upside to doing them is in many cases loot for your character, XP to level up, and currency that helps you purchase power-ups, and loot boxes. The loot boxes we’re going to get to in a bit. Right now we’re talking about some of the repetitive stuff in this game, and there’s a lot of it. Even though the Nemesis System does have an organic feel to it, there’s really only so much of it that you can stomach before it starts to feel tedious itself. Unfortunately, Shadow of War is a long game that requires a lot of repetitive tasks.
Shadow of War can’t shake the repetitive elements of most open world games
Most of the gameplay elements have been carried over from the original game. The Batman style beat-em-up combat feels like it was lifted entirely from Shadow of Mordor, with very little modification to it in terms of animation or function. The battles can be massive, having you take on upwards of 20 enemies at once. You’ll need to use all of the skills available to you, environmental hazards, and some well timed blocking. This aspect of the game wasn’t broken in Shadow of Mordor, and it’s not broken here. It can feel like a bit of a button masher at times, but on the whole it’s enjoyable. I really do feel like there a couple of aspects of this game that could’ve used refinement though. The movement mechanics can feel somewhat sloppy at times and you just don’t know whether Talion is going to do what you’re asking him to. This usually occurs when trying to do things too quickly, hopping off of a small ledge for instance, or over one. The game just won’t respond to your input until you stop, take a second, and wait. The instances where pinpoint navigation is required can be downright frustrating, and in vertical levels that require you to climb and jump saw us needing multiple attempts. While you don’t necessarily die in these instances as you character takes no fall damage, it’s the process of having to do something again from what feels like no error of your own. On the topic of things that feel broken, Talion will sometimes just slide across the screen while in combat as he locks onto a specific enemy. You feel disconnected from the character you are controlling in these instances, and much of it feels like a carryover from the first game.
Not everyone will get bored of the systems that we mentioned above, and there’s actually quite a bit of depth to character progression, army building, and loot in this game. The skill tree for Talion and Celebrimbor is massive, with numerous options and upgrades on each skill for a lot of customization. That combines with a loot table that’s been expanded dramatically for powerful loot drops that you can equip to improve your fighting prowess. A lot of the loot aspect of this game does feel like it’s been added with the intention of selling loot boxes to players. It’s important to note that you can play a lot of Shadow of War without buying any loot boxes at all. You’ll be earning plenty of in-game currency that allows you to occasionally purchase one if you wish, but playing the first three acts of the single player campaign you’ll have plenty of loot thrown at you through just playing the game. There is a constant nag to push you into this marketplace, an actual advertisement for microtransactions in the main menu, and other things that are trying to nudge you towards opening your wallet again. For players that want to bypass some of the tedium, Warner and Monolith certainly make sure you know that they’re there for you with a shortcut to a more powerful army and loot for your character.
Loot Boxes and their constant advertisements can be off putting
While the majority of Shadow of War feels balanced in terms of a difficulty curve, things do start to slow down in the end game. The first game did have players asking for more to do once the credits rolled. The Nemesis System was something fun to play with and players wanted more to do. They’ve certainly gotten it with Act IV of this game, but it’s more of the aforementioned tedious repetition in dominating orcs and building your army. Simply put, the loot box aspect of this game allows you to buy these Orcs and bypass this time sink to see a “true ending” for the game. Some players will enjoy the end game grind while others won’t, it will come down to personal preference. On one hand the “grind” of the final act is more fun than it sounds. There’s still a lot of variety in the encounters, and if you enjoy the combat of the game it’s a lot more of the same. On the other, if you’ve had your fill of Orc killings, it’ll be a massive multi-hour undertaking to see all there is to see in Shadow of War.
On the multiplayer front, things do get interesting. There are numerous multiplayer components to Shadow of War and both are ambitious additions to make this feel like a connected experience. As Talion continues to take over and install new leadership in each outpost, it’ll become susceptible to attacks by other players in the online arena (and offline by AI). You can also assault other players fortresses, and it works like the single player Siege Battles. You’ll command a group of Orcs against another player’s installation, and it culminates in trying to overthrow their Warchief. A lot of this has been misconstrued as “Pay to Win” multiplayer. It’s not quite that bad. Sure, you can certainly purchase Loot Boxes that’ll give you a more powerful army that will help in your assault, but the defending player isn’t losing his Orcs in these online raids. There are also online bounties that allow you to avenge other players that have been vanquished on the battlefield. Each of these online components allow you to earn better gear, XP, and other progression elements.
Pay to Win, but not quite as bad as you think
Shadow of War is a deep and complex game that has many systems and elements to it that make it a much broader and more engaging experience than its predecessor. We’ll never know what this game would’ve been like without the Loot Box system, whether things have been tweaked and changed to push impatient people to buy them or not, but it all feels really unnecessary in a game that has so much good going for it. While it can get a bit repetitive at times, Shadow of War is still incredibly fun to play.
Middle Earth: Shadow of War is bigger and better than its predecessor in almost every conceivable way. If you don’t mind the repetition found in most open world games, there’s a robust strategy layer here that combines with a great combat system to offer hours and hours of Orc slaying, army building fun.