Middle-Earth Shadow of War Review

Middle-Earth Shadow of War is a very paradoxical game.  In some respects, it’s a much better version of its predecessor, Middle-Earth Shadow of Mordor. However, in other respects, it’s a massive step down.  Shadow of War it’s not the huge surprise that the first Mordor game was. You could say it’s more of the same, with some improvements. Well, right up until you hit the end. Then, it all falls apart.

Middle-Earth Shadow of War Review

Title: Middle-Earth Shadow of War
Platform: PC, Xbox One, PS4 [Reviewed]
Genre: Action-Adventure
Developer: Monolith Productions
Publisher: Warner Bros Interactive Entertainment
Players: 1
Release Date: October 10th, 2017
Price: $59.99

Story

Shadow of War places you back in the role of Talion with his spectral partner of Celebrimbor, forging a new ring, which is promptly given up to a human-Shelob in exchange for Celebrimbor’s return. Talion sets off to recover the ring. While also trying to save folks in Mordor, and stop Sauron for the final time.

There’s more to the story, but not much more, all told.  You meet new characters, although different from the first game. Some die, some turn on you, and others are just there.  It seems more disconnected from the core Lord of the Rings mythology. Although, truth be told that’s not entirely a bad thing.  Well, except for the whole “Shelob can turn into a sexy goth chick” thing.  That is pretty bad.

Gameplay

The core gameplay of Shadow of War isn’t too dissimilar from its predecessor, or the various Batman, or Assassin’s Creed, games.  It’s a third-person action game that is focused on combat. Specifically, countering enemy attacks. And then, unleashing various combos on your enemies.  You have a main sword attack, the dagger (which is only used in stealth kills), and your trusty bow for headshots.  You can also do plenty of acrobatic moves and stun various baddies who come your way.

Once you build up a certain combo string, you can do special moves, like a one-hit execution, or creating an elemental wave around Talion.  You also have “Elven Rage”, which is a short-term super-move that lets you take out several enemies at once. This also allows for massive damage focused on one specific enemy as well.

Nemesis System

The Nemesis System returns and has some added features.  Captain orcs have names and different strengths/weaknesses against your character.  A certain orc might be immune to executions, or stealth attacks. However, he might be very weak against poison attacks.  Generally, the higher level, the more rare the orc. Orcs come in common, epic and legendary variants. Anyone familiar with these variants, understands how this works. Strength improves at epic and legendary. While weakness lessens at those levels.

Orcs also now come in different tribes. For example, the “Dark Tribe” or the “Feral Tribe”.  Tribes also have an impact on the orcs you come across. The Mystic Tribe dabble in the dark magic, so they can teleport around when you fight them. While the Feral Tribe has claws to use, and such.  Not only do you have to contend with tribes, but orcs also have different jobs.  Jobs like trickster, or tank, or assassin.  It’s just another variable when you face them.

The various orcs you come across also rarely stay dead for long.  Occasionally, even after you’ve decapitated an orc, he just comes back stronger and angrier to fight against you.  The real way to deal with orcs is to dominate them and turn them to your side.

Orc Domination

As with the first game, you can use your special ghost/ring powers.  Instead of the two different orc hierarchies of the first game, this one has five. And each one is different (more on that below).  Once you dominate the orc, you can do one of four things. Make them fight for you currently. Make them leave your army. Have them retreat from the battle. You can also have them be your bodyguard as well. Not to mention, orcs can go on missions to spy on higher ranking orcs, and then backstab them.  There are three levels of the hierarchy, normal orcs (the bottom ones), war chiefs and then the overlord.

Fortress Domination

One of the general goals is to take over each region’s fortress as your own.  You can typically assault a dungeon at any time. Winning does combine several factors. The fortress has a number signifying their level. While your attack strength also has a number. Giving you information on how strong your forces are.  Before battle begins, you slot in your own orcs on your side as assault leaders. While the fortress has defenders, which are the war chiefs.  Earlier, I said you should use your captured orcs to go after the war chiefs, and this is the reason why.  You can knock them from the defenders list and strip a part of the fortresses defenses away. So, you may see metal walls, or fountains that shoot flames on attackers disappear.

Once both forces are in place, you begin the actual assault. Basically, your goal lies in capturing a few control points. Then, the door to the overlord opens, and then you fight (and hopefully kill) him.  Once that is done, you pick an orc out from your own army and he becomes the new overlord. Making the fortress loyal to you.

Quests and Side Quests

Unlike in the first game, which had a fairly strong main story campaign with slightly underwhelming side content, Shadow of War flips that.  The main story is kind of weak, and because of the region issue (again, down below,) I lost track of the story on occasion during my time playing the game.  The flip side though is the game has three side characters, Eltariel, Carnan, and Bruz.  These missions go deeper into the characters, and also generally follow three directions. Eltariel has sneaking objectives. Carnan covers general combat. While Bruz is a tad more about domination.  These quests lines aren’t only about these topics, but do follow those overall themes.

Aside from these storylines, there is a lot to keep you busy in Shadow of War. Well, that’s until you reach the end anyway.  There are combat/stealth trials, which net you skill points and gems. There are also ways you can interact between orc fights too. Plus, grabbing collectibles, poems to figure out, or you can participate in online fortress attacks/defenses as well.

Regions and the Map

I harped above about the region system and it is straight up baffling.  I literally have no idea why the world in this game is this way.  In the first Mordor, there was a huge area for you to explore that was a continuous open-world.  You could literally run from one side of the game world to another.  This was then expanded, when they introduced another area that was around the same size, with more difficult enemies. Of course, there were only two orc hierarchies to deal with, so around 25, elite orcs as well.

On the other hand, this game has five distinct (and separate) areas for you to go through.  One is a snowy area. While the others vary from a big city to a jungle. These areas do offer more varied settings than the largely spartan setting of the first game. However, each area is walled off from the other, and generally feel claustrophobic.  Also, because the areas are separated, there are a whole lot more orcs to deal with in each area too. Upping the number from 25 to about 100. Meaning, things can get very overwhelming.

Lootboxes

Lootboxes are a very popular topic right now. Honestly, in Shadow of War, it’s not that big of a problem.  You get in-game currency from doing quests, or you can also kill enemies for it.  There are only three things to spend the money on, upgrades for your weapons, which have a very negligible cost. Upgrades for your fortress (or to unlock new spots for more captains on a team), and finally lootboxes.  There are only two types of lootboxes you can buy with the in-game currency. Basic boxes that contain either new equipment or orcs.  Honestly, save as much as you can for the end game, for a reason I’ll get into in a little bit.

Gaining Experience

The experience ramp with the game is another confusing aspect.  I finished the game, the main sidequests, and a decent chunk of the miscellaneous quests, with my character at level 45.  By this point, I had amassed a pool of unspent talent points, due to the miscellaneous quests, because I literally had nothing to spend them on.  I’m not talking two or three points, I have 15 extra points because all the choices in the skill menu are not that important.

The Weird Endgame

Once you complete the main story that is where the real “fun” begins. Hopefully you also detect my best sneer quotes in saying that.  You are tasked with something called “The Shadow Wars.”  These are 10 missions where your own fortresses get invaded by Sauron’s forces and you have to defend them against the various orcs.  The game explicitly tells you that the orcs are going to be higher leveled than before, and it’s a good chance for you to replace some of your lower leveled orcs with higher leveled ones.

Except that, you can’t actually recruit an orc who is a higher level than you are.  So, if you are only level 40, you can only dominate orcs who are at 40, or below. And, since all of the actual big experience-giving missions are over, it’s very easy to get stuck here.  For example, in the Shadow Wars line, I have to defend my fortress against a collection of level 48 orcs, while my orcs are around level 30.  Sure, I can use the lootbox system to get higher level ones. But using it takes money away from me being able to upgrade the defenses of my fortress.

Here’s another great example, once you take over a fortress you get access to “Fight Pits.” These pits let you have one of your orcs fight another one, in a CPU vs. CPU match.  I have no idea why they would think this is fun for a player. Especially, since this is just watching two bad AI’s fight each other for three minutes, but that’s beside the point.  I have a fight pit quest to take out a level 55 orc.  My highest leveled orc is only 45, which is 10 levels below it.  The second I send an orc into the fight, one attack kills him, regardless of his quality or skills.

Why It Doesn’t Work

The only available opportunity I have to gain any real experience, is with the miscellaneous side-quests, by engaging with the Nemesis system.  The highest amount of experience I can gain in one of these quests is 2,000.  Meanwhile, I need 20,000 experience to gain a new level. Since I’m at level 45, the new requirement is 68,000 exp, and I have 48,000 exp. So, do some math, and think about this. I need to do that mission (or one like it), 10 times, to get me to a new level. Just to be at level 46. 

So, imagine getting to level 55. I would need, roughly guessing, 612,000 experience points. This actually winds up being much higher because requirements go up a little with each level gained. Regardless, it’s a big number. 612,000 divided by 2,000, to be exact. Meaning I would need to do that mission 306 times in order for me to get to level 55. Then, I’d finally be able to complete that Fight Pit level. I should also note, only by completing The Shadow Wars thing, is the way you see the actual ending of the game. So, good luck with that.

Bonus

Here’s a great video of the game glitching and an orc throwing me through the game world:

Pros:

  • Fighting orcs is a satisfying experience
  • The side stories are interesting
  • You can approach combat in a lot of varied ways

Cons:

  • The main story is a bit of a bore
    Game world feels smaller than the first game
    Experience system is broken
    Limited in actual interesting things to do

Final Rating

Overall Thoughts: 6 out of 10. In its distilled form, Shadow of War is still a superb game.  However, it is the stuff surrounding the game, which bring it down. The awkward way they handle the game world. The throwaway story. Not to mention, the way they gate the “real” ending of the game with dozens of hours of pointless grinding. These are all disappointing detriments to a franchise which had such a great cache after Shadow of Mordor. I wanted a Mordor 2, with a grander experience than the first one.  Instead, Shadow of War is a hollow shell of a game, overstuffed with too much nonsense.