Nothing will be forgotten.
That’s the tag-line for Middle-earth: Shadow of War, and I certainly haven’t forgotten how brilliant Shadow of Mordor was; it became an addiction to hunt down Orcs and slash them to pieces to get my kicks in what was my Game of the Year at the time. The bar has been set pretty high for Monolith’s sequel, Shadow of War, but can it recreate the magic without just being more of the same? How many stories based on J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantastical world are there left to tell?
Well, it seems there’s plenty of life left in the tales of Middle-earth, and whilst a lot is similar, there’s so much to Shadow of War that I’m not sure where to begin!
The Ranger who cheated death, Talion, and the greatest Elven craftsmen there has even been, Celebrimbor, return for round two of the quest to decimate Sauron once and for all. Despite crafting a new Ring of Power, free of Sauron’s influence, nothing is ever straightforward and that creepy giant spider Shelob gets involved – albeit mainly in a less spine-tingling human female form. It appears the two warriors bound together, Talion and Celebrimbor, must initially work with Shelob, begrudgingly, to achieve their common goal of taking down Sauron. It’s time for the Bright Lord to settle the score with the Dark Lord.
If you’re wondering how a newcomer would fare, having not played the first game, Shadow of War goes over the events leading up to where we are now, recapping everything worth knowing. And due to certain events occurring, the Bright Lord needs to learn some of the fancy manoeuvres all over again. This leads to a tutorial of sorts, getting to grips with the movement and combat by throwing you in the deep end, metaphorically speaking. So fear not Middle-earth newbies, there’s nothing you missed out on that you cannot figure out in time. And then you’re let loose to basically do as you please for the most part.
When approaching the story-advancing quests, it’s good to see a healthy variety in the general setups of missions; something which is helped by having a few different mission givers along the way. Bruz the Chopper is a real diamond and the ones involving him are easily amongst my favourites to do, whilst Carnan and Shelob are pretty damn scary, but still great to interact with. Whether the aim is to recruit a member for your army, or to stealthily infiltrate an Outpost, there’s plenty of fun to be had.
The quality of the cutscenes is top notch, with character renders having very realistic features up close and the detail on the attires is brilliant. Nothing bad can be said about the voiceovers either, as the cast do a terrific job at bringing all the characters to life – even those Orc Captains and Warchiefs who are mere seconds from death have personality which shines through. Did I get lost in the storytelling? Not really, because for me that side of proceedings gets overshadowed by the awesome gameplay.
With a sword, a bow and a dagger in Talion’s arsenal, the sheer brutality he displays towards any who dares challenge him is great. Swinging the sword as the Orc masses swarm around you, slicing and dicing, executing them in turn, satisfies me to no end. Throw in the Wraith abilities brought about by sharing a body with Celebrimbor and you’ll be having a blast popping the heads off of Orcs and such. Everything regarding combat is so smooth, even the countering and dodging mechanics are spot on. I could, and have done, go around causing mayhem, draining grunts, slaying Captains and dominating folk for hours without needing a purpose. It’s that addictive.
Brute force can work just as well as sneaking in the shadows; picking enemies off one by one without raising alarm and reinforcements being called for. That’s where the environmental dangers can be of great use. Release the bloodthirsty Caragors from their cages to devour the Orcs, disturb a nest of Morgai flies to terrify them, or lure a gigantic Graug to cause devastation. With barrels to poison and explosives to detonate too, you could sit back and enjoy the fireworks.
Although Talion is pretty handy in the art of war to begin with, story progression rewards new skills to enhance him and more are available to purchase using skill points, which are earned by levelling up and performing certain objectives. Need an icy stun attack to slow down tricky foes? Check. Want to be able to dominate and mount a beasty Drake? Not a problem. Can’t be bothered to pick up all the dropped loot manually? It even has a skill for that. There are a lot of skills and upgrades to unlock, but none of it solves two little niggles I have.
Much like my experience in Shadow of Mordor, the parkour element has a penchant for being tetchy on occasion. Imagine being swarmed by a ton of foul Orcs and needing a quick exit. Well it’s rather fortunate that Talion has an immense agility to leap large distances and climb huge towers, rock walls etc. But there’s a bench just in the way of where you’d like to climb, so Talion just wants to roll around as if that tiny bench is too difficult to scale. Chances are you’ll die and although an Uruk will no doubt claim the victory, that bench orchestrated it and I’ll not forget it.
And speaking of dying, it’s surprising how weak Talion is. Roughly two whacks from a badass Captain, or tougher, and the last chance QTE will be kicking in, meaning you really can’t afford to get hit at all. Sure, draining enemies replenishes the health bar, but there’s barely enough time to breathe, let alone stand there sucking the life out of some poor soul. It’s a testament to the game that neither this, nor the parkour issues, are really damaging to the enjoyment factor.
Back to the good stuff, and the Orcs are all so different this time that you really must interrogate any Worms loitering around to gain vital Intel on Captains and Warchiefs. Figuring out their strengths and weaknesses is one thing, but putting it into practice is another. The Assassins and Tricksters don’t like you getting too close and will most likely decide to flee, whilst the Berserkers are rage-fuelled threats that have to be dodged a lot.
More variety equals more dynamic battles, and the Nemesis System ensures that anyone who survives your wrath will remember you, possibly adapting to your combat techniques to. Just ask Krimp the Survivor who cheated death multiple times and rubbed that fact in my face until I destroyed him again. Maybe I should’ve recruited him for my army, given that he’s a resilient bugger.
Building an army of capable Orcs is something you really must do to enable the capturing of fortresses, in order to bring about the demise of the specific Overlord in charge. After wearing enemies down to recruit them, it’s up to you whether they serve tenure as your own personal bodyguards, fight amongst themselves for your approval, or spy from within the Orc ranks. But there is so much more to do that you could happily hold off from a fortress siege, for a little whilst at least.
Nemesis Missions allow you to intervene in a Captain’s latest escapade to try and rise through the ranks, which lets them level up if they succeed. Then there are Shadows of the Past to relive moments from Celebrimbor’s life long before merging with Talion. Online Vendettas meanwhile let you avenge a random person’s death by killing the Orc responsible, and much later on in Shadow of War you can attempt to conquer other people’s fortresses – although online, they won’t be defending in real-time.
Taking over the Haedir towers are crucial in opening up fast travel opportunities to get from region to region, and close to where you need to be, far quicker. Purifying a Haedir tower initiates a surveying mini-game to locate various points of interest such as Shelob’s memories, ancient Ithildin symbols and Gondorian artifacts. I loved collecting all the Ithildin as it leads to being able to unlock a door in each area and there’s treasure inside. The Shelob memories are cool at first, but don’t offer much until all are retrieved.
As an open-world action RPG, one can expect a large realm to explore and Shadow of War doesn’t disappoint with huge regions to traverse and conquer, from Cirith Ungol to Gorgoroth. Size isn’t everything though, and it’s the variation in the scenery, the different layouts, which ensure each region plays and feels dissimilar. These vast lands are not only diverse in terms of the biomes, but also the enemies within as the Orc Tribe controlling the fortress will have its influence spread throughout that region – another advancement of the Nemesis System.
And now to address the elephant in the room. A lot of hullabaloo was made about the loot boxes and micro-transactions potentially ruining the experience. Don’t worry, you can easily earn enough Mirian to buy some loot boxes by killing Orcs bearing treasure and I’ve not been tempted to use real money once. Gaining new gear for Talion to boost his damage, health and stealth ratings is exciting, especially when that Legendary gear drops from a defeated enemy. If anything, I wish there were more Gems to actually upgrade the gear with, as with only three different types, it’s a bit limiting.
So, Middle-earth: Shadow of War has taken the addictive nature of Shadow of Mordor, thrown in various new beasts, creatures and Orc types to enhance the experience and made sure there’s a shed load of stuff to do across the massive regions within. Having spent many hours already slaying and recruiting, I can assure you that it’s a real joy to be back in Middle-earth. It can even be customised to make it more difficult for the hardcore gamers too, so they can have fun without counter prompts, smarter A.I. to battle and no HUD on display. Monolith has something for everyone here, and just like Gollum with his ‘precious’, you’ll be hooked after a little taste of the power you can possess in Shadow of War.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a Siege Beast to tame. Don’t be a bloody fool, join me in Middle-earth!