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 gotten a chance to play Shadow of War on PC because the Play Anywhere functionality hasn’t unlocked as of writing, but I’m willing to bet the graphical issues are more the hardware’s fault than anything. Monolith Productions has stated that they’ve already got Xbox One X specific enhancements ready for the game, and there’ll likely be drastic visual improvements on Microsoft’s upcoming console update, PS4 Pro, and PC.
Perhaps the trade-off for sharp visuals is the fluidity of the action on the screen. Fighting off dozens of Orcs never caused a stutter or framerate drop of any note, and for a game so dependent on precision that’s a must. Talion fights much the same as he does in Shadow of Mordor, but his powers are expanded a great deal in Shadow of War, and there’s a much-expanded gear system as well. Your skill preference and gear choices intertwine with each other and give you a lot more leeway to customise your fighting style than the first game did. For example, if you want to be stealth-oriented, some abilities will give you more options for striking from the shadows. Those skills can be further enhanced by modifiers from rare, epic, and legendary weapons, armour, and rings.
Also new with the gear system — and a massive bonus for any game in my opinion — is visible equipment changes. In the first game, you just slapped runes on your weapons and called it a day. In Shadow of War though, when you switch gear, Talion’s appearance reflects that fact. That might seem like a small thing for many players, but one of my biggest pet peeves is when games allow you to change equipment but don’t show it. If I work my butt off getting a sword, I want to see that sucker 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 personality 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 a vendetta mission was available. I could attack him at the feast he was holding to celebrate my demise. When I reached him, I couldn’t dominate him right off the bat. I had to use the shaming ability to lower his level twice. I ran into him after I shamed him the first time and he was still boasting that he killed me. After the second shaming, his mind broke, and he became Gruk the Ruined. The next time I saw him, he could only make tiny shrieking noises. He was entirely out of it. I felt so sorry 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, thus his title. Ogg and I fought side-by-side through several battles, but he was eventually struck down. Orcs have a chance of surviving fatal blows and returning, but they come back as enemies, and they gain a new perk that blocks 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 luck out. 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 held his Iron Will. I tracked him down again, hoping that maybe this time I could remove that trait. The shamings had lowered him to level five, so I was trying to be careful and not kill him. I fired an arrow at his head since they don’t do a ton of damage. However, I didn’t read his stats closely enough. One of the weakness traits he had was Thin Skulled. He could be felled by 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 during the 50+ hours I’ve played. Since then I only deploy my Captains when it’s absolutely necessary so I don’t have to go through the same thing again.
I don’t think I’ve ever attached feelings to an NPC in any other game like I have the Orc Captains in Shadow of War. Sure the majority of them are just randomly generated, but there’s something about all their little personality quirks and your responsibility for their lives that makes them feel vital. Sometimes they betray you, and occasionally they step in to save your life when you’re at the mercy of a foe. They keep the drama going in an unpredictable but organic way that adds a lot of character to the game.
The only quarrel I have with the Nemesis System is that I wish it let you do more to customise your banner’s colours and symbols, as well as providing more interesting ways to spend time with your Orcs. As dumb as it sounds, some minigames where you get to hang out and listen to them talk would be awesome.
Middle-earth: Shadow of War improves upon the first game in every way. An issue a lot of video game sequels have is that they either feel too sameish or too experimental, but I believe 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 developers take note of how to do randomly generated NPCs right from Shadow of Mordor’s Nemesis System.