Monolith’s Shadow of War is their second game that’s set in the world of Middle-Earth. How does this orc-slaying extravaganza hold up to the original? Let’s find out!
This is a hard game for me to review. On the one hand, I had a lot of fun with my playtime, and do not regret my $90 purchase. And yes, this is a $90 game, since there’s quite a bit of critical content you don’t get in the $60 version. On the other hand, there are elements of this game that enrage me. I’ve rage-quit this game more often than I did in Dark Souls, and it’s not even that hard. Perhaps the best way to summarize this game is that it’s “Shadow of Mordor 1.5″. There’s been some refinement to be sure, but great strides have not been made.
Genre: Action-RPG, Open-World
Developed by: Monolith Productions
Published by: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
Release Date: October 10, 2017
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC via Steam
Middle-earth: Shadow of War Review
- Conquer from Within – Go behind enemy lines and use strategy, cunning, or brute force to conquer Sauron’s fortresses and turn them against him.
- A Richer, more personal and Expansive World – Immerse yourself in the epic scale of Middle-Earth as you forge a new Ring and siege epic fortresses to face the Dark Lord and his Nazgul.
- Skills – Combining Talion’s training as a Ranger with Celebrimbor’s Elven skills and the powers of the New Ring the Bright Lord is the deadliest foe the inhabitants of Mordor have ever faced.
- Gear – Forge powerful weapons and outfits as you defeat your enemies.
Audio & Visual
Let’s start off with the most neutral aspect of this game, the visuals and audio. It’s OK. Texture quality? OK. Model detail? OK. Audio? OK. Music? So OK, that I actually had to go back and verify the open world has ambient sound tracks. This contributes the most to the Shadow of Mordor 1.5 feel, I think. The fidelity has improved a bit, but nothing in the visuals leap out. Mordor still looks like Morder. Granted, there’s not much you can do with a wasteland, but still, things really do feel just like an upgrade.
Story & Setting
On to what could be a make-or-break point for many people, the story and lore. Middle-Earth purists, stay far away from this game. It can only enrage you. I’ve often heard other people refer to Shadow of War‘s story as a fanfiction, and that’s a fair assessment I’d say. While it doesn’t change the ending of the books, the in-between details are so drastically altered it’s almost a separate world. Shelob is evil, a direct descendant of Ungoliant, a creature so full of darkness that even Morgoth (Sauron’s boss) feared her. Shelob is evil. She does not care for the fate of Middle-Earth, she never shacked up with Sauron, and she sure as heck isn’t a femme fatale.
If you feel I’m getting a bit to worked up over a spider, I can assure you that this is not the only story point that flat out breaks Middle-Earth lore. It’s just one of the few issues I can talk about without spoiling some major story points. The second ring of power, how they handle the Nazgul, the face-palm inducing way they show the formation of the Eye of Sauron, it all adds up to a lot of irritation if you’re heavy into the lore.
But what happens if one lets go, and just enjoys the story for what it is, a fanfiction? Well I wouldn’t say the story is brilliant, but it becomes a lot better. The first act drags on a bit because you don’t get to really deal with the orcs that much, but once you hit act 2 and 3, the story gets a lot more interesting. It even holds true to one of the major themes from The Lord of The Rings – power corrupts. Can’t really say how it does this without spoiling a major twist, but I was impressed by this.
Of course the big reason why the game becomes more fun in Act 2 is because of the orcs. Just like in the first game, they are the reason you want to keep playing. You meet up with Bruce … excuse me, I mean ‘Bruze’ the orc. I’ll be honest, that got me laughing. Bruce the orc. Anyways, he is one of three major story orcs you encounter, and all three of them are delightful. Even if you do end up killing two of ’em. But of course, the majority of the orcs you’ll be interacting with are powered by the “Nemesis System”.
Ah, the Nemesis System. Still waiting for more games to steal*cough* I mean be inspired by this system, because it really adds a lot to the game. All the captains have their own personality. There’s this one assassin who critiques your poisoning technique, several orcs that sing to you, and more than a few crazy ones. My bodyguard in one region was Sweety.
Twitchy little thing, and all he ever said was ‘Sweet’ or some variation on it. Little guy helped me off the overlord of the region, so I made him overlord in thanks. Then there was the orc that made me feel like I needed an adult, because he was a bit to interested in my dead body. I didn’t recruit him. He went straight on the kill list.
Just like the first game, the orcs also remember their encounters with you. If you ran away, or they ran away, or if they killed you, they would remember it and comment on it the next time you meet them. Sometimes orcs would come back from the dead, and how you killed them would always impact how they look.
They would also, of course, comment on how you killed them as well. One orc seemed rather put out that I had poisoned him. His face was rather melty as well. Now while I greatly enjoyed the orcs, there is a small problem with them. Repetition. You will encounter the same orc archetype over, and over, and over again.
There’s no need do to this. It’s not worth the headache. I generally found that it made things more frustrating than it did challenging, to the point where I rage-quit the game quite a few times until I just got fed up with it and cranked the difficulty down to easy just so I could finish the darn thing. Even then, I still rage-quit on occasion, which leads me to some of the serious mechanical flaws of the game.
Generally speaking, while you’re in the open world roaming around and killing orcs, the game works great. Having the ability to play cat-and-mouse with a hard orc, dashing around a corner for a quick health-topper courtesy of some helpless grunt, hiding in a tower for bit to get the heat to calm down, all of this works great. Until, you get mobbed. Or pinned against a wall.
The original game had this problem as well, though it seems worse in this one. When you are surrounded by orcs, it becomes very hard to control where and what Talion attacks. There were numerous times that I attempted an execution on the current captain I was fighting, only to kill a grunt. It got to the point where as long as the captain wasn’t poison or fire immune, I’d just use “Elven Light” instead of execute. Had the benefit of thinning the herd as well.
This problem becomes even worse during fortress sieges. You have multiple enemy captains, your captains, the enemy grunts, your grunts, and probably several packs of caragors, all milling about the place. It becomes maddening to keep track of it all, not made any easier by the fact that if you hit your captains too many times, they’ll think you betrayed them.
Most of my rage-quits came from these situations, where I would die not because I made a mistake, or because I wasn’t prepared, but because I couldn’t properly control Talion, or respond correctly to the myriad of prompts popping up all over the screen.
Finally on the mechanics side of things, the skill system has been greatly expanded from Shadow of Mordor. Perhaps a little too expanded. There are a great many skills, and each skill has three (sometimes two) modifiers. This does allow a great deal of flexibility, especially when dealing with captain immunities and rage triggers, but it can feel a little overwhelming. I also didn’t feel the need to switch very often. Perhaps I’m just too set in a specific play style, but with the exception of switching out frost/fire/poison on Elven Light and what creature you summon, most skills felt like there was a correct answer to which modifier to enable.
Yes. I’m going there.
The loot boxes are an interesting paradox. They simultaneously mean nothing, and have ruined the game. I shall explain.
In the previous game, the gear meant something. It was your bow. It was your son’s broken blade as a dagger. It was your sword. Here? Eh, nothing worth fussing over. I mean, you need to upgrade from time to time to get the stat boosts, and they do look cool, but you don’t even preserve the look in the cut-scenes. Getting an orange epic drop doesn’t mean anything, especially once you hit the end game and are probably using the legendary sets.
To a lesser degree, it is the same with the orcs. Orcs are disposable bundles of RNG, of randomness. They die at the drop of a hat during fortress assaults and defenses. They die because they are idiots in the fighting pits. An orc might be awesome, except that it is heavily damaged by fire. It creates this odd, disposable feeling to them.
So how does all that tie into the loot boxes? Because all of these things, weapons and orcs, are most efficiently gathered through loot boxes. Orcs especially. Even on easy mode, in the time it takes me to track down and enslave a single level 30ish orc, I could have opened a lot of loot boxes.
Now during Acts 1 through 3, I never felt the need for swiftly ramping up my orc army. Playing through the regions naturally provided the fodder I needed for the fortress assault, and items dropped frequently enough (and mattered little enough) that I never felt starved for items either. Then you hit Act 4, the Shadow War. Professionalism demands that I not type what I think of the Shadow War.
The Shadow War is a long, painful series of Fortress Defense missions. It will drain your currency, drain your orcs, and drain your patience. With every siege, the enemy orcs get stronger and more numerous. You will lose orcs, and your remaining orcs will swiftly be out leveled, leaving you with the choice of painfully grinding up new orcs using the fight pits, or opening lots and lots of loot boxes. I found it to be such a dreadful slog that upon reaching the 5th siege battle (and there’s 10 battles) I threw my hands up into the air and watched the ending on YouTube.
So yes, while the loot boxes are not needed in the slightest for Acts 1-3, Act 4 was clearly designed with free-to-play patience testing tactics.