Middle-earth: Shadow of War is the sequel to Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, and released in 2017 to quite a bit of discussion. While a lot of people thoroughly enjoyed the game and its features, it stirred quite a bit of controversy with its inclusion of micro-transactions (in-game purchases) and how players were initially encouraged to participate in these micro-transactions to proceed with some parts of the game. However, earlier this year, the game did a 180 on its approach and opted to remove those micro-transactions from the game entirely and tweaked the game to incorporate that change. That change, along with the recent sale that allowed me to secure the definitive edition for less than $20 made this game an instant-buy from me. This review looks at Shadow of War in its current state so whatever the game was like prior to the definitive edition is stuff I have not experienced and will not cover.
Shadow of War’s premise is that of a direct sequel to Shadow of Mordor, with its events taking place more or less right after the events of the first game, so I highly recommend playing the first game if just for plot reasons alone. The sequel also takes the core game-play system of the first game and builds upon it, so playing the first game also gives you a pretty good idea whether you’ll enjoy the game-play of Shadow of War. You play as the ranger Talion with his wraith companion Celebrimbor, both protagonists of the first game, and you continue your quest to defeat the Dark Lord Sauron with the power of a newly forged Ring of Power. While this game takes place in Middle-earth, do note as this game’s plot was not written by Tolkien so it is not considered “canon,” though for the most part the game tries to keep its creative liberties in the boundaries established in Tolkien’s universe.
Concerning the game-play, Shadow of War’s combat system revolves around Talion fighting the various orcs throughout Mordor, while usually being heavily outnumbered to make up for Talion’s combat superiority to the orcs. The core is very simple to learn; you essentially mash the attack button, and you’ll be given button prompts to time dodges and counters to avoid being hit. This combat system gets expanded upon the more abilities Talion acquires, and eventually you’re given access to skills like shooting a bow while mid-air, unleashing area-of-effect explosions, and dominating (taking control of) orcs mid-fight. It’s simple, but can get complex and challenging depending on how you choose your battles. The combat system is also enhanced by the game’s Nemesis System, which was the first game’s claim to fame. More powerful orcs in the game are given unique names and strengths/weaknesses, and you can acquire intel on them to figure out the best way to defeat them. Some orcs ignore arrows, others can be instantly killed with stealth attacks, so it is highly advisable to do research and prepare accordingly for each big target you go after instead of blindly rushing in. Also, given Talion’s inherent plot armor and ability to come back to life (for reasons explained by the story I won’t spoil), there’s always the possibility of you dying to a particular orc. When that happens you’re given the opportunity to take revenge on that orc, but because he’s killed you once, he becomes more experienced and stronger so the second time fighting that orc won’t be as easy.
Shadow of War also gives you the option to conquer and defend fortresses. Not only are you able to raise an army of your own orcs after progressing far enough in the story, eventually you’re able to take these orcs and actually take on other fortresses and seize control of them for yourself. Each fortress is commanded by an overlord, who is usually a very powerful orc, so it is usually best to undertake a bunch of missions to weaken the fortress first before smashing into it head-on. After conquering a fortress, eventually someone is going to try and take that fortress back, so you can also customize your fortress to make it impregnable to outside invaders.
Fighting orcs and taking fortresses can be done by yourself, though this game does give you the option of some online play, albeit in a somewhat limited fashion. Throughout the game there are opportunities to engage in the nemesis systems of other players, accepting missions to avenge your fellow players and killing the orcs who defeated them for gear rewards. You can also take your chances and attempt to conquer other players’ online fortresses, though personally I haven’t delved too deeply into that game-play mechanic so I can’t speak much about it. It definitely looks like a fun diversion from the single player adventure however, and it’s also not added in an obnoxious and intrusive fashion; you can always ignore it if you’re not interested.
Regarding the story’s writing and story, it is fairly straightforward and while satisfactory, nothing to really write home about. It does its job well, but it didn’t really “wow” me in the same way a few other games have. That said, Shadow of War’s unique characters are written very well. Talion and Celebrimbor both have their own character traits, and seeing how they interact with each other while sharing Talion’s body is always interesting. The orcs are all very entertaining, and each captain has his own distinct personality, which is incredible considering how many different orcs there are in the game, and their personalities are always somewhat befitting of whatever title they have. The game also adds a lot of details to characters that already exist in the LOTR universe but were never expanded upon in the original books (won’t elaborate due to some of these details being major spoilers), and it also brings back a character from the first game that I enjoyed a lot. Granted, these story details are not canon as Tolkien did not write the plot of this game, but it is still nice to acknowledge how the writers behind Shadow of War gave additional life to some of these characters.
Overall, Shadow of War is an excellent game, and is a worthy successor to its predecessor. If you avoided playing the game initially due to the microtransactions controversy, definitely give it a second shot as that stuff has since been acknowledged and removed.
Rating: Worth getting retail price.