Middle-earth: Shadow of War Review: High Fantasy at Its Finest

Shadow of Mordor came out almost three years ago. It was an interesting take on the Lord of the Rings universe. The combat was stellar, the story engaging and, of course, the Nemesis system was created. The game tried new things in the world of third person story adventures, even if the system fell short of what was originally promised. Shadow of War improves on every aspect of the series’ original concepts, while at the same time expanding upon it. It’s high fantasy at its finest.

Welcome Back To Middle-earth

For those who haven’t played Shadow of Mordor, the sequel does a great job of explaining the events that lead up to the second game via cutscenes from the start of your adventure. The story is set around a Gondor Ranger named Talion, who watches his family being murdered by the Orcs of Sauron. When the tortured spirt of Celebrimbor (who helped create some of Sauron’s Rings of Power) happens to latch on to Talion during his passing through the Wraith World, they fuse together and set out to destroy Sauron and his forces. The first game left off with Celebrimbor forging a new ring of power to rival Sauron’s, and this is exactly where the events of Shadow of War begin. 

There is a ton of stuff here for fans of the Lord of the Rings novels. It’s clear the developers at Monolith are fans of the books and movies and they dive deep into the lore of the LOTR universe. The game takes many liberties with characters, like Shelob, who is the major baddy for the majority of the game. Instead of her being a giant spider, she transforms into a woman during your interactions with her. Some fans may not like this, but as a huge fan of her character both in the novels and the History of Middle-earth series, I was happy to see her time in the limelight. After all, she is a spawn of an ancient god, and could speak the common tongue, so why not expand on this idea? It is liberties like this that make Shadow of War fun and expand the game's universe overall. 

It was also interesting to see iconic locations in the world, such as Minas Morgul, before it fell in the hands of Mordor. Shadow of War is an epic adventure that pulls heavily from Tolkien’s mythos. It improves on the franchise’s story and gameplay even if it’s not official Tolkien lore. The writing is also excellent, especially for Celebrimbor, who talks a lot like Gandalf does in the Lord of Rings books. Hearing him worry about an enemy to say, “This is beyond the skill of Celebrimbor…” is flat out awesome. A lot the of the writing may go unnoticed by gamers who have not read the books, but for others it’s just icing on the cake. The whole story is fun, epic and is bursting with Lord of the Rings flair. 

Nothing is Beyond the Skill of Celebrimbor

Combat will be familiar if you have played Shadow of Mordor or the Batman Arkham series. The game borrows heavily from Batman Arkham’s combat design, which makes sense as WB Interactive is the publisher both series. This similarity is not a bad thing at all, as the combat is immediately familiar to returns players and genre veterans. It get insanely deep with combos, move sets, and special attacks, along with an interesting talent tree to pour points into. Mastery of these systems is rewarded handsomely as you gain a sense of  increasing power and grace while fighting. Strategy and fighting tactics are imperative to your success during the later part of the game. Simply running in and spamming attack while casually parrying won’t work. Use of proper tactics and management of all your abilties is imperative for success.

In additon to the improved combat, the game also has RPG levels of depth. Players have to manage a wide variety of items, such as armor, weapons, and gems. You can slot gems into certain items to give them extra effects, like bonus damage or life leech.

The enemy types in Shadow of Mordor have a nice amount of variety, from Orc Grunts to Giant War Trolls. Each enemy has a different way to tackle them, but the most innovative part of the game is the Nemesis system.

“The world is indeed full of peril and in it there are many dark places.”

Shadow of War brings numerous updates and improvements to the Nemesis system. There is a hierarchy of Orcs in each City/Hub location. Intel is gained by dominating certain Orcs found throughout the different zones, or by simply finding information scattered about the world on tables or in tents. This intel builds lore and gives insight into special enemies in the Nemesis system. For example, some enemies are frightened by fire, while others are immune to stuns. It pays off to acquire as much intel as possible, as it makes the fights much easier. You can rush into a Captain or Warlord fight without doing your homework, but the game strongly suggests you do so, as some of these fights are incredibly difficult without the proper intel. 

Shadow of War introduces an impressive Fortress and Siege mechanic for the first time. Warlords are often in charge of cities and fortresses, and eventually you must take them over. You are tasked laying seige to a city instead of simply defeating its Warlord alone. The game allows you to build an army by dominating high level Orcs to fight for you, building on the mechanic introduced in the first game. Before sieging a fortress, you desingate units, captains and infantry that will fight for you inside the walls. Players can choose to have a battalion of War Trolls or Orc Assassins with poison weapons to assist in the seige. Heavy artillery bombardments or swarms of Spinderlings (a personal favorite) can be deployed against the fortress and cause chaos in the ranks. You can ride Fire Drakes during sieges, which is also awesome. 

Shadow of War gives players the feeling of being a general in epic fights that rival the Battle For Helm’s Deep. The game rewards clever resource delegation and your choices matter greatly. In one instance, I was running around helping my army defeat captains, only to have gameplay paused to see an enemy Orc Captain dying to swarms of spiders somewhere else in the fortress. I also witnessed a high-ranking enemy orc lose his head by the hand of one of my own captains. It’s a sense of accomplishment and pride when you carry the siege as a team. The siege system is well thought out and fits perfectly into the game’s design.

It was striking how powerful the actual relationships formed with the Orcs that joined me became as the game progressed. I felt a sense sadness if they fell during a siege. In one instance, I was so upset to lose my War Troll Captain that I reloaded my last save and tried again, this time without losing him. I haven't been this attached to a character since the Mass Effect franchise. 

“But in the end it's only a passing thing, this shadow; even darkness must pass.”

If Shadow of War is guilty of anything, it’s giving you too much to do. The world is seemingly bursting with content and side objectives. In cities, you can over take towers, much like the Assassin’s Creed games. Upon taking a tower you’ll reveal hidden points of interest within the city, such as collectibles, a “memories of Shelob” mini game, and side missions featuring the fall and demise of Celebrimbor. The game gives so much to keep you occupied and, with the great combat, you'll never get tire of working through it. It’s a perfect example of a studio taking an already solid game and improving it on every front.

I highly recommend Middle-earth: Shadow of War. It’s a fantastic game with a near flawless execution.The journey is enjoyable and the characters you help and hinder throughout the game make it an memorable experience. If you’re looking for a high quality, AAA single-player game, look no further than Shadow of War. 

This review is based on a Xbox One code provided by the publisher. Shadow of War is available October 10, 2017 on PS4, Xbox One, and PC.

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Middle-earth: Shadow of War

  • Great story
  • Awesome combat
  • It's Lord of the Rings!
  • Combat and battle mechanics may be difficult for some players
  • Way too much stuff to do