Full disclosure: Shadow of War, while touted as a full-blown sequel to 2014’s Shadow of Mordor, plays more like Shadow of Mordor 1.5 than a completely new game.
But you know what? I’m down with that, because the developers appear to have taken everything that worked in the first game, and added a layer of polish on top of it along with some interesting new mechanics, to produce an absolute gem of game.
It’s fun, challenging, and ultimately well worth the cash. If you liked the first game, you’ll very likely enjoy this one, too.
So what worked? The game’s setting (Mordor), its enemies (orcs, uruks, olog-hais, graugs, caragors, trolls etc.), the Nemesis system that lets Talion possess orc Captains and Warchiefs and turn them onto the Bright Lord’s side, Talion’s combat prowess, Shadow of Mordor’s amazing presentation, and Talion’s relationship with the spirit of the ring-maker Celebrimbor who possesses him and keeps him alive.
All of these are present in the new game, just dialled up to 11: the graphics are prettier, the orcs are more repulsive, the location is bigger and gloomier (with some welcome respite coming in the way of some lush forests found in the second act), Talion’s a bigger badass this time around than he was in the last game, and the Bright Lord is just as enigmatic and his motives as inscrutable as ever.
There are some new additions including loot and a weapon upgrade system, the requirement of having to locate the various activities in a region by spotting them from the towers Talion liberates from Sauron’s grasp, and of course, fortress assaults. But more on that later.
In the first part of the game, players will spend a lot of time fighting as they did in Shadow of Mordor, unlocking Talion’s skill tree and powering themselves up. The combat system is largely similar to that of SoM – so expect Arkham-series-style attacking, blocking, countering and pulling off special moves once powered up – but the skills that Talion unlocks are slightly different, giving players more tactical options than the original game featured.
Skills also have a selection of unlockable sub-skills, but only one can be active at a time, making the player choose between them to suit their play-style.
About halfway through the game, though, things change quite a bit: you’ll go from fighting what seems like a losing battle (which unfolds over some very disheartening story missions), to recruiting your own army with which to stand up to The Witch King (Sauron’s second-in-command and leader of the Nazgûl), this game’s major antagonist, and launching your own attacks against him.
Clawing your way to the game’s conclusion involves taking down the fortresses of Sauron’s forces – strongholds packed to the gills with enemies, enemy captains, warchiefs, and a Warlord, which you do with your own carefully-assembled army of converted orcs. Gaining control of these fortresses without weakening them first by brainwashing captains and warchiefs into joining you is a fool’s errand, so each fortress becomes a sequence of side-missions to take on before attempting the final push.
Fortunately, you’re kept abreast of your army’s strength relative to that of each fortress (and you can upgrade your attackers with the Mirian you collect for a further advantage), and if you launch your attack when you’re stronger, capturing and holding the strategic points that lead to victory becomes a lot easier.
Once you’ve captured all the points, the Warlord comes out, and you must defeat him to complete your assault. And when the fortress is finally yours, you must choose one of your own brainwashed Captains to become the new Warlord, essentially installing your own Talion-friendly government in the overthrown stronghold.
It’s all very clever, and a lot of fun at first, but after the third fortress it all starts to become a little repetitive. And therein lies the biggest problem with Shadow of War. Yes, it’s very cool, and yes, taking over fortresses makes you feel like an even bigger badass than you did in Shadow of Mordor, but you’ll start feeling like you’re doing very “samey” things over and over and over after a while.
Encountering orcs you’ve killed before is fun at first, but it can also be annoying to see the same ones over and over again.
The story missions do a lot to save the game from becoming a total grind, though. They’re quite varied, introducing new characters and pitting Talion against some awesome bosses (fighting the Balrog, Tar Goroth, was particularly fantastic), and I thoroughly enjoyed these. The care and attention the developers lavished on expanding and respecting the Tolkien universe’s lore was likewise appreciated.
But by far and away the best part of Shadow of War for me was its orcish stars. Whoever does Monolith’s character design needs a raise, a holiday in Bali, and a lifetime supply of on-demand backrubs, because wow, the orcs in this game are something else.
And it’s not just the unique orc Captains you meet and kill (and are killed by), who remember each encounter and taunt you or cower in fear when they meet you again – there are some surprisingly funny characters thrown in as well. Bruz The Chopper (pronounced “Bruce”, because of course it is), the Australian-accented Olog-hai Talion converts to his side right as the second Act begins, is easily my favourite. He’s huge, he’s a beast on the battlefield, and he’s as funny as only an Australian orc can be.
Think Ozzy Man, but in orc form, and you’re on the right track. His one-liners are hilarious, his “Meh” attitude toward whoever he is fighting for had me in stitches, and I couldn’t help but like the guy even if the relationship had its ups and downs along the way. That’s code for “stuff happens involving him that I don’t want to spoil but it’s very cool”.
Kudos to the Monolith team for their truly impressive character design.
Middle-earth: Shadow of War was, for me, exactly the kind of videogame I like to play. It made me feel like a badass, it’s drop-dead gorgeous (even on the Xbox One, barring the occasional muddy texture), the story and characters were both intriguing, and the combat and general gameplay mechanics were spot-on (if a bit repetitive in places). This is a game that completely justifies its R900 price on console, and thus one I recommend without reservation.
It’s good. Go play it.
A word about loot boxes
I couldn’t finish this review without mentioning the game’s one controversy: the loot boxes that can be bought for real cash from the in-game marketplace. It had the gaming community up in arms over the perception of possibly enabling a “pay to win” situation, but really, they are no big deal.
The loot boxes only do things like give you easy access to better equipment, stronger followers, and XP boosts, all of which can be obtained by just playing the game. Some can be bought with Mirian – the currency you pick up in-game and earn from quests – while others can be bought with the game’s Gold, which can be bought with real money. You will get some Gold while you play, but it’s not a lot, just enough to whet gamers’ appetites for more.
And you can use the loot boxes, or not use them – it’s entirely up to the individual gamer. There’s no proverbial gun to your head forcing you to, and no major drawback to avoiding them entirely, beyond requiring a bit more playtime to power Talion and his army up.
So yes, the loot boxes in the game are a storm in a tea cup, in my opinion. Use them, don’t use them, they are not the evil some have made them out to be.
Oh, and lastly, in case you’re thinking of pre-ordering the Xbox One X, the publisher has just announced (since the Xbox One X launched in the major territories on the 7th of November) that Shadow of War will feature 4K-specific enhancements for Microsoft’s new console.
After a patch download, players will be able to choose from two options – native 4K resolution and sharper textures, or improved overall quality (without 4K native-ness, however) by way of “…increased draw distances, improved shadow and lighting conditions, increased vegetation, improved ambient occlusion, higher polygon counts and texture filtering improvements, all optimised for Xbox One X”. Nice!
Pity us South Africans only get our Xbox One Xes 3 days before Christmas, so we have a while to wait yet before we can appreciate the differences on offer.
Shadow of War was reviewed on the Xbox One, and a code was supplied by the local distributor. Pick it up on console for an RRP of R899, or on PC for R599 at local retail. Forget Steam, it’s R929 there for some reason.