Middle Earth: Shadow of War Review
Sony PlayStation 4Also available on PC and Microsoft Xbox One
Released roughly three years ago, Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor was a surprising sleeper hit, originally launching in August with little to no fanfare, but gaining mostly critical acclaim and some excellent sales numbers. The team here at TDF were included in the choir of voices quite taken by it, expecting a standard movie tie-in cash grab and actually finding the delightful nemesis system along with a serviceable middle earth tale, rewarding it a not-too-shabby 9/10.
It seems fairly standard procedure that for every sleeper hit comes a hyped, over-the-top, bigger, better, more badass sequel, and this is no exception. Middle-Earth: Shadow of War launches smack bang in the middle of silly season this time around with a seemingly much larger marketing budget and a huge wave of hype to carry it across the finish line. So let us be clear: Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is significantly bigger than the previous title; minute to minute it’s arguably a better game and thanks to the new generation of consoles it’s running on it’s a much slicker endeavour this time around. That said, it’s not without its issues as bigger and more badass doesn’t always translate into a cohesive overall package. Let’s take a look...
Following on from the original we find ourselves in control of the dynamic duo, Talion and Celebrimbor, fused together fresh from their battle with Sauron in the original and resigned to the fact that the only real way to finally defeat the dark lord is to create another One Ring. As bad an idea as that sounds given the problems such rings have caused, the duo set off to firstly push back the dark forces from Minas Ithil, teaming up with some rather dark forces along the way, namely Shelob. Once a giant spider that would scare the bejesus out of anyone, she is now transformed into a sexy brunette with a raft of magical powers for reasons and overall it’s difficult to see Shelob as anything more than a silly plot device mixed in with a marketing ploy. If you set aside the strange decision to change form for the sake of the story, Shelob offers very little and is only really in the first of the four acts for any noticeable length of time.
The one thing on the sequel check list which has absolutely positively been ticked is the size and scale of the content on offer. The sheer amount of content is both bewildering and overwhelming at first and aside from the initial hand holding through Act 1 the game steps back and doesn’t do a particularly great job of showing you what you need to do to progress through the core story. As as a result you can really easily get sidetracked from the core story-based missions, setting off to find the three sets of collectibles which can be highlighted on the map for each region by climbing Haedir towers (think Zelda: BOTW or Assassin’s Creed). The three sets - Ithildin Doors unlocked by collecting parts of a poem puzzle per region and solved by completing the blanks, Shelob memories and Gondorian Artifacts - offer a lot of open world busy work without ever being too much of a chore, and provide excellent rewards such as a armour, weapons and currency.. As well as these collectibles you have the ability to complete shadows of the past, repeatable historic missions littered around each region which provide you with skill points and currency depending on your completion score. If that and the raft of story-based missions leaves you wanting more, then Middle-Earth: Shadow of War has your back with the all new, now on steroids, Nemesis System.
Whilst there are plenty of story missions they are by far the weakest content in the package and can be downright frustrating at time. On the flip side and easily the standout performer of the suite of content available, the new implementation of the nemesis system is phenomenal. The freedom and flexibility that this system grants you in each area really is the best thing that the game has to offer. By killing or dominate orcs in each area to decimate the area’s existing army of captains and a warchief, you can build up your own force with a view to taking the area’s fort. The system gives you so much freedom it’s an absolute joy to get into a new area and start to cause havoc. As with the first game you can grab ‘worm’ orcs for Intel which will give you the location, name and in turn the weaknesses of a given orc - from there you can track them down and either maim or recruit them. After a while once you’ve recruited a few you can set them on non-recruited enemies in the form of ambush missions, within which you can either let them play out by advancing time or join in the fun and get involved. As you recruit more you will learn that certain orcs are quite close to the big boss orcs in the area and with this knowledge you can set them up to spy and in time betray them. At any stage you can create an assault force and attempt to lay siege to the fort but it’s logical and a ton of fun to chip away at the areas’ army and associated defences leaving little standing in your way once you decide to go all out assault.
Sieges are also a nice new touch, these are simple enough defend or attack missions which are enhanced by your ability to choose your squad of defending captains and their associated defensive buffs. Both positions on the battlefield take the same format, attacking or defending points, and the scale of these battles is mighty impressive at times. That said, the final act, entitled Shadow Wars is a strange design decision. Without giving away too much detail once you’ve completed the story missions and done a fair chunk of the games content on offer you are propelled into Act 4 which isn’t really an Act at all, it’s simply twenty sieges increasing in difficulty. Now, as a result of this coming as the “end game” you will start to find yourself struggling to replace any orcs downed in battle. Never fear though, as the game has an ingenious plan for remedying that...you can buy some with in-game currency or actual real money.
Loot boxes seem to have been in the news a lot lately and they are indeed included in Middle-Earth: Shadow of War for no other reason than to make some extra cash from what we can tell. The market is ever present in the menu and there are multiple promotions to grab those loot boxes which catch your eye every time you open the menu. Boxes come in two forms; orcs with power ups, and gear. Here’s the interesting part for us - yes they are a complete cash grab, it’s more than that as they are just daft in the context of their use. Essentially by buying them they encourage you to play the game less - but you don’t have to buy them, you can just grind. Their only real benefit comes in Act 4 where you can replenish your forces quickly by buying and deploying replacement orcs. So, for us, the fact that you don’t really need to buy them (you simply just have to play all the content), from a developer's point of view this feels like quite the statement - pay to play our game less and then from a gamer's point of view just plain stupid as any gamer who does this is paying to play the game less. Weird.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is a hell of a lot of game for your money and in an odd way probably even the developer seem to think it’s a little too much, to the point where they’ve added microtransactions to speed up the final act to allow you to get to the so called ‘real ending’. It improves upon the original in many ways and delivers a wealth of content including the phenomenal upgraded nemesis system which is why it’s infuriating to come away from fifty to sixty plus hours with the game, not enjoying it as much as the original. Sadly it’s all let let down by poor story missions, silly microtransactions and an artificially lengthened final Act.