Shadow of War takes us back to Middle-Earth, via Peter Jackson’s take on the material, and embraces the ideology that bigger is better.
(Spoilers if you've not completed Shadow of Mordor) The game picks up where the first ended - with our heroes, Talion and the elf-wraith Celebrimbor, forging a new ring of power to battle Sauron. As is the way of all things that have a story to tell involving conflict, things don’t go well and before long you’re on your way to reclaim the ring, while planning to deliver vengeance to Sauron. Unlikely alliances will be made and epic battles will be fought before the end is in sight.
Shadow of War chooses to set its story in the time gap between The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings, and performs its play with deadly seriousness and a rather loose take on the source material. If you’re going into this, as with Shadow of Mordor, you’re best served by leaving your inner Tolkien at the door.
While Shadow of War has some great story moments in it, such as serving alongside the soldiers of Minas Ithil before it fell and became Minas Morgul, or the fight to put down the summoned Balrog Tar Goroth before it incinerates all of Middle-Earth, the story is easily the weakest link in the game’s chain of systems. Part of that is due to already knowing where it ultimately ends and part of it is that, a lot of the time, it simply reads like bad fan-fiction, an aping of Tolkien’s style, prose and characters, rather than an actual understanding of them.
Talion and Celebrimbor’s relationship to Gollum feels much like Frodo and Sam’s relationship to him, while Shelob, now dressed up in a sleek, sexy human form, feels like nothing so much as Galadriel embracing her inner Goth, right down to the telepathic messages with sting in them. Talion is the grim hero, driven by stoic determination and honour while Celebrimbor is. . . well he’s a dick really and I found it hard to care about his motivations or backstory.
In the end, the story is just a means of introducing an Orc to the sharp edge of your blade, or an excuse to take part in large battles that aim to initiate the thrill felt when watching the Battle of Helm’s Deep, albeit on a smaller scale that current generation hardware can churn out.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not bad, it’s just that it could be more were it to stop attempting to emulate the style of the movies and create its own narrative voice instead. And in truth, it does succeed when the Battle for Middle-Earth is laid to the wayside, and the game instead focusses on the quest to secure your own army and strongholds. Here, the strength of the writing for the Orcs takes over. Compared to them, everyone else feels devoid of personality.
It’s great then that Shadow of War succeeds in the gameplay department and is a fantastic blast to slice, dice and explode Orc heads throughout. And by Jove, will you be doing a lot of that! If you haven’t played the first game, then the best description for Shadow of War would be Assassin’s Creed with Batman’s combat system, in an open world.
Shadow of War’s campaign takes place in multiple open-world locations, with each environment distinct from the other, and a massive improvement over the first game’s drab locations. On first glance at the map, you may find yourself overwhelmed at the sheer amount of things to do and collect. And that’s before the Nemesis and online systems come into play, creating an almost endless supply of conflict to wade through if you choose.
Purifying Haedir atop towers unlocks those towers as fast travel points, while also letting you scan the area for the game’s collectibles. Shelob’s memories, a simple puzzle that requires you to piece images together, gives you a glimpse into her past with Sauron. Finding all the Ithildin in each area lets you complete a poem to open Elvin tombs containing legendary gear. The Gondorian artifacts, a favourite of mine, gives you a mini lore lesson on the object’s importance to Middle-Earth history.
Scattered across the map are icons relating to the Orc Captains in an area, each of which amount to mini-missions. They’re typically time-based and you can jump into activities ranging from interfering in a duel to stopping them from killing fleeing captives.
The bigger-is-better approach applies to the game’s many systems along with a healthy level of refinement. Talion still feels very “tank-ish” in his movement but nowhere near as stubbornly as before. Stealth works wonderfully and while you can’t sidle up to an object, you move at a surprisingly quick pace. Combat feels more refined as well. Button mashing can get you a decent way, but a slower, measured approach to combat yields fewer deaths, which may or may not be to your preference depending on your stance to the Nemesis system. My only gripe is that the auto-targeting system often had me attacking an Orc at the edge of the battlefield rather than the one standing right next to me regardless of my thumbstick input.
The game lets you play as you choose. Guns (Ed - Bows?) blazing, stealth or tactically, it’s up to you. Personally, I found a tactical-stealth approach worked better when using the environment to my advantage. Whether I poisoned grog barrels or distracted Orcs into explosives, there are enough options that, when used correctly, set up a wonderful chain reaction of death. But always be prepared to switch up your style at the drop of a hat. Be prepared for the appearance of a Drake to send even your most carefully crafted plans to pot in an instance. These blighters are a true nightmare, especially on the wrong terrain but are a true force of fiery destruction if you mount one.
Shadow of War gives you the tools to be a total bad-ass on the battlefield with its skill tree system, but uses the Nemesis system and Orc castes to make sure you’re never unstoppable. Each skill has a subset of skills, only one of which can be active at a time, which goes a long way to customising your play style.
The Nemesis system, the series’ major selling point, has been expanded upon immensely. Coupled with some tremendous writing, the Orcs really are the stars of the show. Their wide range of personalities shine through from the Australian sounding Bruz The Chopper, who becomes your right hand Orc, to even some throwaway Captains who love to introduce themselves to you mid-fight with an explanation of why you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.
As many of them are generated randomly, there’s a great range of personalities on display. Each Orc comes with its own set of weaknesses and strengths, and learning to exploit these are key. It seems as though the game tracks your activities and generates them according to what you’ve been doing, making them harder to fight while also dealing with the constant spawning of standard Orcs. Fights can become hectic. Die at an Orc’s hands and they become stronger. Kill them instead and someone new takes their place. Higher level Orcs equal better gear but are harder to kill or dominate.
That randomisation leads to some fantastic unscripted moments. During one mission, in which I had to kill a Captain, scouting the area showed me two others along with him. Choosing the tactical approach, I poisoned grog barrels from a distance. After a couple of Orcs met their maker I was attacked from behind by the Grogmaker, a Captain who wanted to destroy me for wrecking his mead of the gods. Choosing to run before I had all the Captains on me along with twenty or so other Orcs, I bided my time plotting my revenge. Just as I was about to begin I got a cutscene showing the Grogmaker keeling over dead after drinking from one of the barrels I’d poisoned. Delicious irony. And I can guarantee you’re going to have plenty of these sorts of stories to talk about during your playthrough.
Orcs can be recruited to your side with Captains filling various roles in your power chain. You can set them up as bodyguards, send them to infiltrate an Overlord’s fortress as a spy, which has the added benefit of watching them shank a Captain in the back during fights. You can teach them new skills or send them to fight in a pit to level them up. They’re like your own personal collection of homicidal Pokémon.
Laying siege to fortresses is an integral part of the game. Each region has one that can be captured and then you need to hold onto. You’ll need to build your army first by dominating Captains who bring their followers with them. Sieges are mechanically a simple affair. Capture points and hold them before advancing on the Overlord. It all happens in real-time though, so you’ll find yourself running alongside your warriors and fighting Captains to capture a point. This makes choosing your Captains and levelling them up of higher import. As with your skill tree, each Captain has a skill subset of which only one can be active at a time. These range from bringing in Caragor mounted troops to summoning huge brutes that can smash down walls. Put it all together and you have a wonderful melting pot of possibilities and depth that you probably didn’t expect from the game.
The game’s online functions are based around Vendetta missions. As others play the game online and are killed by Captains, a Vendetta mission will show up on your map displaying the target and who it killed. If you play the associated mission, which has mini-objectives in it as well, you’ll be rewarded with XP and a lootbox, while the original player also gains a reward. Once you gain enough XP, you’re awarded a Warchest.
So yes, the game does have lootboxes you can buy, but you can earn them, and quite easily too, by simply playing the game. Lootboxes contain anything from Epic gear to high-level Orcs but the nature of the gear and the Orcs doesn’t unbalance the game at all.
If there’s any issue I had with this system, it’s that you have to accept WB’s advertising "terms and conditions" or you’re locked out from online functionality, which means being locked out from lootboxes you can easily earn in-game. Having the WB store rather noticeable in the pause menu showing you what’s on sale today is also a little invasive. Unfortunately, I see this as a trend going forward in all forms of gaming.
It must be noted that you can get through the game without needing to purchase or earn any lootboxes at all. There are more than enough Orcs to dominate and skill up, and plenty of Legendary and Epic gear drops. If you choose to spend money on them, then that’s on you but the game’s balance really does make them pointless.
Just about all the missions you do in the game have sub-objectives which earn you more Mirian (money) or gems that give you stat boosts, such as foes dropping more money to boosting attack damage. Gear is plentiful and the Legendary and Epic gear sets come with buffs that need to be unlocked by competing specific gear-focused challenges. Old pieces of gear can be converted to more M that is used to unlock gem slots on your gear and to improve your fort’s defences for the endgame Shadow Wars content.
The Shadow Wars content is all about defending your forts as Middle-Earth’s evil tries to reclaim them. It’s a fun way to waste some time for a bit. Unfortunately, the game’s second ending is locked behind completing this tedious content. Unless you want to YouTube it that is.
I never really got into Shadow of Mordor the way many others did. Shadow of War, however, is another story entirely and is definitely one of this year’s games that you should not miss.
Please login to post comments.
Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
PC, PS4, Xbox One
10 October 2017
Latest ReviewsBrowse All Reviews