I’ve never been a massive fan of Tolkien’s work. Saying that is tantamount to nerd sacrilege, but I find the movies and the books poorly paced and pedantic. I respect the effort that went into The Lord of the Rings and its companion works, but it’s just not for me. Luckily, if you want to enjoy the lore and setting of the War of the Rings, but want to cut out the fluff, the Middle-earth series, which started in Shadow of Mordor and continues in Shadow of War, gives an alternate telling of the story centering around the Gondorian Ranger Talion and the wraith of the Elvish smith who forged the Rings of Power, Celebrimbor.
If you’re a Lord of the Rings fan, the first thing you have to do is to let go of everything you know of the saga besides the basics. Yes, in Tolkien’s novels Celebrimbor dies in the Second Age and stays dead, but facts like these are changed or ignored for the sake of storytelling in Shadow of War. Instead of a great and noble quest to drop the One Ring into Mount Doom, you’re on a much hazier journey pushed forward by Talion and Celebrimbor’s need for revenge. Not only does Sauron still wield the One Ring, but Celebrimbor has forged another Ring of Power to rival it.
As the plot unfolds, first through the siege of Minas Ithil then throughout the land of Mordor, it becomes evident that Talion and Celebrimbor are becoming just like Sauron. There are fewer and fewer differences between the Bright Lord and the Dark Lord, and this ultimately provides the theme for most of Shadow of War.
Shadow of War developer Monolith has improved the pacing quite a bit compared to the first game, and since multiple quest lines are going on at once, you won’t find yourself getting too antsy or bored. Unfortunately, this only extends to the first three acts. Without spoiling anything, after act three the game changes gear and becomes a lot more one-tracked. I was invested enough that I wasn’t bothered too much, but I would have liked to see the quest variety spread more evenly throughout the entire game.
Your trip through Mordor is rather drab. That’s to be expected, though; it’s a terrible place filled with orcs and other foul creatures. I can excuse the earthy colour scheme, but unfortunately, the Xbox One version has some pretty low-res textures that sometimes gives the impression you’re playing a late-gen Xbox 360 game instead of a current-gen game. Talion and the Orcs look great in the menus and up close, but it seems when you’re in the middle of the action everything gets a little muddled.
I haven’t had a chance to play Shadow of War on PC because the Play Anywhere feature hasn’t been unlocked yet, but I’m willing to bet that it’s more hardware-related than anything else. Monolith Productions has said that they already have Xbox One X-specific changes ready for the game, and that they will be making more changes to the game for the PS4 Pro when it comes out.
Perhaps the trade-off for the crisp visuals is the fluidity of the on-screen action. Fighting off dozens of orcs never caused any noticeable stutter or frame rate drop, and for a game so reliant on precision, that’s a must. Talion fights in much the same way as he did in Shadow of Mordor, but his powers have been greatly expanded in Shadow of War, and there’s a greatly expanded gear system as well.
“Shadow of War developer Monolith has improved the pacing quite a bit compared to the first game…”
Your skill preferences and gear choices are intertwined, giving you a lot more room to customize your fighting style than in the first game. For example, if you want to be stealthy, some skills will give you more options to strike from the shadows. These abilities can be further enhanced by modifiers from rare, epic, and legendary weapons, armour, and rings.
Also new to the equipment system – and a massive bonus to any game, in my opinion – are visible equipment changes. In the first game, you just slapped runes on your weapons and called it a day. In Shadow of War, when you change gear, Talion’s appearance reflects that fact. This may seem like a small thing to a lot of players, but one of my biggest pet peeves is when games allow you to change your equipment but don’t show it. If I bust my hump to get a sword, I want to see the damn thing in action.
The most complicated system in Shadow of War, and the evolution of what arguably made Shadow of Mordor a hit, is the Nemesis System. You’ll spend a lot of time taking fortresses throughout Mordor, and to help you assault them, and defend them once they’re conquered, are your Orc Captains. Much of Sauron’s power comes from the orc bosses that command troops in the field, and soon after the game begins, you’ll get the power to dominate them and have them join your army. They make as powerful allies as they do devious enemies and are a great help to you — at least if you can bear to risk their deaths.
The orc captains have such personalities that it’s hard not to get attached to them. I had an orc rival named Gruk. He was a much higher level than me when I first met him, and he killed me. I checked the map and saw that there was a revenge mission available. I could attack him at the feast he was having to celebrate my demise. When I reached him, I couldn’t dominate him right away. I had to use the Shame ability to lower his level twice.
When I met him after the first shame, he was still bragging about killing me. After the second shame, his mind broke and he became Gruk the Ruined. The next time I saw him, he could only make tiny screeching noises. He was completely out of it. I felt so sorry for him that I dominated him and made him Overlord of one of my fortresses.
However, Orcs are treacherous, and sometimes your best friends can become your worst enemies. One of the first orc captains I recruited was Ogg the Twins. Ogg had a second face growing out of his first, hence his title. Ogg and I fought side by side in several battles, but he was eventually defeated. Orcs have a chance to survive mortal blows and return, but they return as enemies and gain a new perk that prevents you from dominating them, Iron Will.
There’s a chance to remove Iron Will from an orc by shaming them, but sometimes you have to do it two or three times before you get lucky. I felt I owed it to Ogg to bring him back into the fold after I’d failed him, but even after three shamings, he still had his Iron Will. I tracked him down again, hoping that maybe this time I could remove that trait.
“Middle-earth: Shadow of War improves on the first game in every way.”
The shamings had brought him down to level five, so I tried to be careful not to kill him. I shot an arrow at his head, since they don’t do much damage. However, I didn’t read his stats carefully enough. One of the weaknesses he had was Thin Skulled. He could be knocked down with a single blow to the head. In trying to save Ogg, I doomed him. He died to my arrow, and I’ve never seen another Orc-like Ogg in the 50+ hours I’ve played. Since then, I only use my captains when absolutely necessary, so I don’t have to go through the same thing again.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt as attached to an NPC in any other game as I do to the orc captains in Shadow of War. Sure, most of them are just randomly generated, but there’s something about your responsibility for their lives and all their little personality quirks that makes them feel important. Sometimes they’ll betray you, and sometimes they’ll step in to save your life when you’re at the mercy of an enemy. They keep the drama going in an unpredictable but organic way that adds a lot of character to the game.
The only problem I have with the Nemesis system is that I wish it would allow you to change the colours and icons of your banners more often. As stupid as it sounds, some mini-games where you can hang out and listen to them talk would be awesome.
Middle-earth: Shadow of War improves on the first game in every way. A problem many video game sequels have is that they either feel too similar or too experimental, but I think this one has struck a solid balance. Instead of throwing away what obviously works, Monolith has improved and evolved each system in scope and depth. I loved getting to know the Orcs of Mordor, and I hope that other games will take Shadow of Mordor’s Nemesis system and use it in their games.