‘Middle-earth: Shadow of War’ dominates in fun but falls short of ruling them all
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of Middle-earth: Shadow of War.
Middle-earth: Shadow of War is the anticipated sequel to Monolith’s Shadow of Mordor that released in 2014. The games follow the story of Talion, a Ranger of Gondor who is stationed at the Black Gate with his family. Sauron’s forces attack the fortress and his servants (the Hammer, the Tower and the Hand of Sauron) sacrificing Talion along with his wife and son to resurrect the wraith of Celebrimbor, the maker of the Rings of Power. Instead of heeding their call to return to Sauron’s side, Celebrimbor possesses Talion and the pair set out on a quest to conquer Mordor and defeat Sauron.
The story in Shadow of War follows where the previous installment left off, with Talion and Celebrimbor forging the New Ring within Mt. Doom and eventually waging the all-out war the elven wraith desires. Talion’s motives are different in this installment. Instead of vengeance for his family, the Ranger seeks to save the remnants of Gondor’s holdings in Mordor and to keep the Dark Lord’s forces at bay long enough to give the rest of the world hope for survival.
There are also various characters that Talion and Celebrimbor meet, fight alongside, and rescue. These characters include Idril, the young daughter of General Castamir in Minas Ithil, the last Gondorian bastion in Mordor. She tends to the various artifacts held within the fortress, but that doesn’t mean she spends all her time in a library. Idril is a brave and persistent fighter who leads raids against the Orc invaders. Another compelling character is Shelob the Spider, who appears as a woman in a black dress for most of her scenes and gives Talion grim visions of the future he seeks to prevent.
The story, while mature most of the time, has lighter comedic moments that break the tension caused by Shelob’s visions and the constant fighting and dominating of Orc captains and fortresses. These moments serve to present a human side to Talion and some of the Orcs he works with during the conflict.
But it isn’t Mordor without betrayal and darkness, and this sequel presents those elements in spades throughout the various quest-lines. These elements lead to utter surprise on Talion’s part at a crucial moment and build to a grim fate for him. At one point in his bewilderment, Shelob visits him again and says, “You pitiful man. I gave you sight, yet you did not see.”
Gameplay in Shadow of War is much akin to its predecessor with combat and climbing, but it has slight improvements to speed and accuracy for both Talion and the mobs of Orcs he fights. However, these mechanics become cumbersome during massive battles where Talion is surrounded by enemies and allies alike. Sometimes the game suffers from input lag during an attack combo, failing a block and resulting in lost health and Might, the meter that allows you to do executions and other abilities. At other times, Talion will end up auto-targeting the wrong enemy or ally when you are in the heat of battle trying to attack or heal. This can make the fort assaults and defenses frustrating. However, when actions work they really work. An intentional domination or execution that lands when it’s supposed to can turn the entire battle in Talion’s favor.
Another minor complaint is the addition of microtransactions. These leave a bad taste in the game as it and other single-player titles have taken a step toward the pay-to-win system often seen on free mobile games, but it is avoidable altogether as Orcs and loot already in-game are more than sufficient to complete the game.
Shadow of War also adds new upgrades to familiar abilities from Shadow of Mordor, such as the Wraith Blast ability which can send out waves of poison or frost instead of fire, or the Attract ability which can be charged up to send out a physical wraith to kill or brand an enemy. Some of the new abilities in the game allow for Talion to tap into Celebrimbor’s power to summon a Spectral Glaive, a type of halberd/spear, to slash and sweep enemies around him, or allow him to use stealth kills on enemy animals such as the vicious Caragors.
Next up is the series’ most famous distinction on enemy and story development: the Nemesis System. Shadow of War improves vastly on the previous incarnation of this system that procedurally generates enemies based on looks, weapons, armor, personality, strengths and weaknesses. In the previous game, each enemy was somewhat unique, but later they started to feel similar in terms of strengths and weaknesses. Here each enemy captain, war-chief and overlord has even more listed strengths and weaknesses that cover everything from fear of Caragors, hatred of betrayal, to commanding a gang of warriors and using war banners to rally their allies to attack harder. There are also more cosmetic features to the various Orc leaders that depend on their clan such as Dark or Mystic. Dark Orcs tend to wear hoods and darker clothing and use cursed weapons to disrupt your wraith abilities, who Mystic who wear silver armor and masks.
The Nemesis System also more accurately portrays personalities and makes each enemy unique. One might be called the Screamer because instead of speaking he will let out loud and obnoxious cries in and out of battle, while another might be called the Collector because he has a penchant for absorbing the strengths of his vanquished foes by claiming trophies from them. By extension, their titles and looks can change based on their interactions with Talion. An orc captain could be cleaved in half only to return encased in metal armor from head-to-toe a la Darth Vader, identifying as “the Machine” and saying, “My brothers put me back together, but it was you who created me.”
Talion can also shame Orc leaders to reduce their level, with a possibility of making them either deranged (weaker) or maniacs (stronger). Their minds will be broken and they will become shells of their former selves, making Talion into something of a Sith Lord on top of the desire to conquer Mordor.
One such Orc is a proud Olog-hai (a smarter type of troll) who calls himself Ar-Benu the Bludger and crushes every one of his enemies with his mace. Talion decides to dominate this Olog and make him his bodyguard, but a sudden betrayal leads to Ar-Benu being too strong-willed to be taken back into Celebrimbor’s influence. After repeated shaming, Ar-Benu’s mind collapses with fear and loathing, causing him to mutter gibberish and cry in despair, then erupt with cackling laughter. Talion kills the broken Olog out of mercy by cutting his head off to end his suffering quickly.
Overall, this game is a worthy installment in an awesome franchise that has far-reaching effects on the larger Tolkien lore of Middle-earth. It expands on the world by exploring the Second Age exploits of Celebrimbor, Sauron and others. It also adds in sprinkles of lore for lands outside the borders shown on the maps of Middle-earth, such as Rhun, the Heradrim and Numenor. Fans of the series and the Lord of the Rings trilogy will enjoy it for its 50- to 60-hour campaign and its pages of lore that describe things not well-known outside the books.
Featured image from LOTR Wiki
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