Full Spoilers for 2014’s Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor and brief spoilers for Shadow of War follow.
The Lord of the Rings is one of my all time favorite franchises. The books, movies, and video game adaptations of the same two previous entities have provided me with endless entertainment over the years. I simply can’t get enough of the world of Middle Earth; and it’s finally time to return. Warner Bros. Interactive and Monolith games have returned to deliver Middle Earth: Shadow of War, a sequel to their superb 2014 title Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor. One element that makes both of these games stand out is a commitment to crafting an original story in Tolkien’s timeline that enhances what we already know without altering its legacy for the worst. There are many different elements of this game that make it a rewarding and matured experience over the first entry; gameplay, new additions, but mainly the evolution of its story and it is under those categories the game will be dissected based on the strengths and weaknesses of Middle Earth: Shadow of War.
There are two aspects to the gameplay that affect the action in this open world depiction of the areas and factions of Mordor. First, of course, is what you directly control in a fight; swordplay, archery, and stealth are your options. Second is the Nemesis System which is unique to this Middle Earth series and has been adapted and expanded on here in the sequel. Each of the open areas of Mordor has an army of Orcs that have ranks in that army from the Fortress Boss or Overlord at the top, War Chiefs in the middle, and Captains at the bottom. Each individual Orc has randomly generated strengths and weaknesses that Talion will need to find out by obtaining intel from grunt Orcs or dead bodies throughout the world. These strengths and weaknesses can and will play a big part in how you will approach each and every combat situation. For instance, I did not spend too much time obtaining intel on captains early on in the game, I simply thrust myself into attack mode. I knew which orcs were Captains, but I did not yet know their strengths and weaknesses. So first, I would stealth kill some archers and sole orcs on the peripherals of an area which would bring me to an overlooking position of another gathering of orcs, anywhere from 10-20 of them, in a circle. I would signal out the captain and attempt to stealth attack him. Some Captains will have a strength against that attack and will fling Talion off him in one motion as if he saw me coming from miles away. Some orcs will lose a modest amount of health from the same attack, and other Captains can be killed with that sole attack due to a severe weakness to stealth attacks. The same follows for combo finishers such as sword executions and exploding, freezing, or poison arrows that you can use after unlocking the respective upgrade in the talent tree; some orcs may be completely immune to some, all or none of these attacks. This flexibility in combat is nice to have, particularly when you can add that mysterious element to add an extra challenge yourself by not seeking out valuable intel.
The biggest problem I have with the combat in Shadow of War is that for me it has finally become stale. Let’s not forget, this is the same combat system that began in Batman: Arkham Asylum. Sure, it’s been tweaked and fine tuned with each successive Batman: Arkham title and for the two Middle Earth games, but fundamentally it remains the same and that fact created a huge rift for me as a player when it came to deciding what I wanted to sit down and play. There is an exception to this stagnation I’ve experienced and that comes at different points in the campaign missions where, as Talion, you are tasked with fighting legions of Orcs that are attacking Minas Ithil alongside a battalion of Gondorian foot soldiers. In these moments, I felt like I was fulfilling my lifelong Lord of the Rings fantasy. The stakes of the battle felt more real to me than anything I’ve experienced in a long time, especially in a game. It felt like I was one of the nine fellowship members fighting side by side in the Mines of Moria. This was my moment of glory against Sauron’s forces. That feeling of living the battle also occurred during one of Shadow of War’s signature new additions; Fortress Assault. Once you reach the second act in the story, the open world of Mordor truly opens up. You’ll gain access to the first game’s strongest and most signature ability, Dominate, which allows you to persuade and convert orc warriors to fight for you. When one region’s quests are mostly complete, you will be given the option to start a Fortress Assault quest that leads you and your converted orc army to attempt to take over the Fortress, naturally. Running up to the gates of the fortress and jumping into the large scale invasion creates the same Lord of the Rings high where you feel like you are living this battle. This feeling does not last long when it does occur, but it does propel you forward in the story.
The Fortress Assaults themselves are a unique idea that become stale and repetitive very quickly. Depending on how many captains or warchiefs you have dominated, you can assign them to be the commanders of your army and gain bonus perks to strengthen the level of your assault force. As well, the more warchiefs you dominate and/or kill, the less perks the Fortress has to defend against you. Once you begin the assault, you are tasked with capturing multiple different points on your way to facing the Warlord of the Fortress. Each point is guarded by the near infinite amount of orcs defending the area, but once you stand in the point circle for the designated time and claim it, the enemy retreats to the next point until you enter the keep. Once inside, you lose your orc army, you have to face the Warlord and his body guards alone and this will pose a challenge. Sadly, it is more of a nuisance challenge than a worthwhile one as his body guards will continue to respawn as you take them out one by one. I know Monolith does not want to make these encounters too easy and repetitive, but rather than make the leader himself harder to fight one on one, the solution is to bombard you until either you keep succumbing to death, or you get the warlord alone long enough to string together a few combos before the triggered final blow. Once the warlord is killed you claim the fortress and region for the Bright Lord, thus ending the main reason to continue in that region.
Two of the biggest new additions Shadow of War has brought over its predecessor is the previously mentioned, vastly increased open world, (there are 6 regions to explore, Shadow of Mordor had 2, just to understand the context), of which I will get to later; and the appearance of a Balrog. One of the demo videos I watched leading up to the release of Shadow of War showcased how Talion is supposed to fight Balrog. This demo showed a tree spirit shaped like a troll take on the Balrog physically while Talion shoots the exposed areas of his back with his arrow. This is phase one. Phase two allows Talion, and you the player, to take control of this troll formed spirit to fight him yourself. Like most of the combat, it is a bash him until his dead system and watching the demo I can’t say I was too impressed. Turns out that demo video was the first mission of the Balrog series of side quests. I’m glad there was more to taking this foe down as the lore of this beast is so much more deserving of an accurate depiction. I would even go so far as to say that since the Balrog was so heavily focused in the game’s marketing campaign, that he have some relation to the main story quest line and a connection to Sauron in some capacity. Minor spoiler: there is no connection, the Balrog stands alone in this story strand. It was great to see them integrate the Balrog back into the narrative, not unlike Darth Maul in Star Wars, a villain with very limited live action screen time, but is still memorable enough for us to want to need to know more. Shadow of War does not deliver though in the same way the Clone Wars and Rebels TV shows did for Maul. The quests in this tree meander along, the stakes just don’t exist. When you reach the final quest in this line, the way in which you defeat the Balrog is the most unique Boss fight I have seen in this series, but sadly that isn’t saying much, (more on this later). The execution is clunky at best, and the same rinse and repeat action of hitting him until you have an opening is back and yet more apparent because you do not have Talion’s full suite of abilities that you have against orc captains and warchiefs.
I will admit that part of my dissatisfaction with this quest line could be, in part, my fault. Defeating the Balrog was simply too easy, easier than it had any right to be. I will say that it was in part my fault for making it too easy because it was one of the last quest chains that I completed, and yet one of the first that I had access too. So when I did finally commit to completing it, my version of Talion was SUPER strong in terms of level and abilities earned; simply put, I knew what I was doing and how to do it well. The other side to this coin, and a big frustration when I reached act two is that once the regions open up, the quests, side or main line, open up with them. You have every choice as the player which direction you want to go. Typically in an open world game that level of freedom is needed and appreciated, but while Shadow of War may be large in comparison to its own predecessor, it is no Skyrim, or Witcher 3, or Dragon Age. The unfortunate part is that I think Shadow of War is trying to be its own version of those games in major part by giving complete choice to the player. Based on my experience playing, this was an awful decision. To guard against the moment where I felt indestructible as Talion, there should have been some structural guidelines as to when to complete certain quests. There should have been a natural progression between the main and side storyline quests because there are important connections between the two. What makes this more frustrating is that I felt that this was one of the elements that Shadow of Mordor handled strongly. For some missions you needed to unlock certain skills, completing other missions unlocked the ability to gain those next skills. You still had the freedom as a player to roam around and explore, but when it came time to completing quests, the game was guiding you to its own end. It’s a structure that again began with the Batman: Arkham games, but in this case it should have continued once more because the story in Shadow of War and the way its difficulty progressed as Talion got stronger needed a lot more balance in order to feel right. Sometimes, too much choice can be a bad thing.
There is a third new addition to the game, but her impact on the game has so much more to do with the story and it is there that I will discuss her impact.
I LOVED the story in Shadow of War. It tickled my fancy in every way as a Lord of the Rings fan. Yes, this story is largely filling out backstory for the world of Middle Earth, but it does so in engaging and challenging ways. For Lord of the Rings purists, it would have been hard to accept the idea of an Elf ring maker being hired by Sauron to craft the nine rings of men, the seven of dwarves, three of the elves, and of course the One Ring to bind them all together. But I have accepted the gravity of the role that Monolith’s creation of Celebrimbor and Talion have on the Lord of the Rings narrative. Both Talion and Celebrimbor in Shadow of Mordor, and here in Shadow of War, are able to have enough of a substantial impact on the narrative without the necessity to include them in the original source material. These characters are explored on the peripherals of the story, they are appendices, created in an effort to embolden and illuminate what we already know, and on that front, Monolith Games has delivered beyond what I expected.
The big new character addition that I alluded to earlier is Shelob, the great Spider that lives between the high mountain pass of Gondor and Mordor, and the very same Spider that Samwise Gamgee has to fight to save Frodo’s life. Here though she is presented with a neat twist, she is in fact a human, one with the power to morph into the giant eight legged creature. In the opening moments she confronts Celebrimbor as he is completing the finishing touches on his own master ring, one that will challenge the power and will of Sauron’s. She steals the completed ring to have power on her own for motives that must be uncovered through the course of the game. Those would be Shelob’s memories, collectibles among the regions that you can find at your leisure in order to uncover her past. But she also possesses the ability of foresight and can share her visions of the future with others. This is a skill that Talion continues to seek her out to use, against the recommendations of Celebrimbor on the basis that she cannot be trusted. Sage advice considering she stole their ring. But Shelob realizes quickly that her goals fall in line fairly closely with Talion’s and Celebrimbor’s in that all three want to rid the world of Sauron. For different reasons, sure, but they are united enough to share their strengths.
As you progress through the story and get closer to facing Sauron, different threads will begin to reveal themselves; how Minas Morgul came to exist, the fortress of the Witch King and Ring Wraiths; fleshed out stories of some of those nine wraiths; and perhaps most importantly an exploration into why Sauron poses such a significant threat to all life. As much as Shadow of War is a continuation of Talion and Celebrimbor’s story, there is as much of an effort placed on humanizing Sauron’s plight. Make no mistake, he is evil, but we start to see more of the man that resides in the imposing black armor.
The climax of the story slapped me across the face a couple of times, stunning me where I sat watching it unfold, it is all truly unexpected and completely engrossing. I won’t spoil it in detail, but rather hint and what is to come by saying that Monolith tells their story of how Sauron’s flaming eye came to exist and how Talion is to survive if he allowed Celebrimbor’s spirit to leave his body. These are the types of shocking reveals that people watch mid-season finale and finale tv show episodes live for; to be in the moment and be completely surprised by what happens in the story.
With that said, you do have to fight Sauron in combat at the end, and once again, what a dud of an encounter. While there are strengths to this combat stretching back to the originator in Batman: Arkham Asylum, what also existed in those games is a complete inability to adapt it to a unique foe that requires intellect, intuition, puzzle solving, and creativity in order to defeat that enemy, and that same crippling problem occurs in the Sauron fight just like it did in the fight(s) with the Balrog. I can’t even say I’m asking for a whole lot in terms of improvement, I did say that this was not The Witcher 3, there are not, nor do there need to be, so many variables in how to fight that your head will start spinning, but I would like a smart challenge, one that requires me to use my brain to read the environment as develop my own strategy to beat the foe in question. Everywhere else in both Middle Earth games the dedication to a freeflow combat system is clear, but when it comes time for a boss we are given video game cliches instead with quick time events that require button mashing and nothing else. With so many great games like Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and even World of Warcraft able to create such iconic and long lasting impression based boss encounters, I cannot excuse Monolith Games failure to execute in that department.
As you have discovered after reading through my thoughts of Middle Earth: Shadow of War, there are a lot of aspects to this game that were supposed to feed into the hype in order to deliver an unbelievable experience when sadly what resulted was an exhausting rehash of gameplay that has finally hit its peak and made this reviewer feel bored to take on a group of orcs and mow them down. My Talion was always strong enough to take on the next encounter and that severely limited my ability to experience challenge in spite of playing on the second hardest difficulty available at launch. I was never given the structure in the narrative nor in the gameplay loop to suggest that it was required to farm kills at any point of my playthrough. In a sense that is a good thing, you never want to feel like you can’t do anything because you haven’t progressed far enough, but on the other hand it would be nice to know every once and a while that I had tried to bite off more than I could chew and that I needed to get stronger in order to keep going. Balance is the name of the game and sadly Shadow of War does not have much of it except in the strength of its storytelling. If I were to pitch the game on one thing only it would be this: if you like Lord of the Rings, this is a must play experience to the very end. You need to get to the cut scenes at the end in order to understand what had been going on the whole time. In a nutshell, it is worth it to play through stale but still enjoyable enough gameplay to get where you’re headed. On that front, you won’t regret it.
Developer: Monolith Productions
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive
Format: PS4 (Reviewed), Xbox One, PC, Android
Released: October 10th, 2017