Mordor's original odd couple are back in Middle-earth: Shadow of War. You control Talion, the resurrected ranger of Gondor who was slain and brought back to life by the wraith spirit Celebrimbor. Still fused, the two set out to take on Sauron's armies.
Shadow of War tells a sprawling story filled with interesting characters and clashing motives. Talion is interested in saving Middle-earth from Sauron's dark forces whereas Celebrimbor is far more concerned with revenge against Sauron. These idealistic differences fuel the storyline and make for an engaging narrative and one powerful ending.
To go along with a surprisingly meaningful story, Shadow of War features an engrossing but not overly complex combat system. If you played Shadow of Mordor or the Batman: Arkham series, you'll be comfortable with it right away. Mashing square is the best way to hack away at swarms of orcs as long as you keep an eye out for icons over enemies' heads that alert you to counter or dodge. You can also stun enemies with the circle button, a particularly useful tactic against large and powerful orcs that are hard to dodge and impossible to counter. As you fight, your Might meter increases which allows you to pull off some fancy special moves. I especially enjoyed chaining together 3 executions or dominations (where you absorb life from an orc and convert them to your side) whenever my Might bar was full. Stealth executions are still around as well and are best used to clear out archers and large enemies that will be a headache to fight face-to-face.
Shadow of Mordor's Nemesis system returns to Shadow of War and it's more robust and well-implemented this time around. Each of the five worlds has an army of captains, warchiefs, and an overlord. Killing and dominating captains allows you to weaken warchiefs and even send spies back to betray them. By killing the 3 to 5 warchiefs in an area, you make life easier on yourself when it's finally time to storm the fortress and take down the overlord. In Shadow of Mordor, I eventually got bored of the constant captain encounters and would end up just ignoring them but in Shadow of War, there is a lot more value to fighting every captain you can.
Shadow of War's open world is filled with missions, rotating side missions, collectibles, and orc captains and it really does a good job of allowing you to go at your own pace and do the things that you want to do. Of course, it still has a linear mission structure (you can't choose to fight the powerful ringwraiths right out of the gate) but with five different mission storylines to complete, you are provided plenty of options to forge your own path. If you don't feel like working on the central missions, you can hunt down captains to improve your army or search out interesting and meaningful collectibles. While this abundance of content provides a grand array of options, it can be more than a little overwhelming in the beginning. Shadow of War tries its best to explain how everything works but there's just way too much stuff available right from the start for the player to thoroughly absorb everything. My suggestion is to just press onward even if you don't fully understand how a certain mission or objective works yet because as you progress, you'll naturally figure things out.
The upgrade and inventory system in Shadow of War is overwhelming at first, too, but you'll quickly get used to it. Talion's sword, dagger, bow and arrow, armor, and cloak are what you'll want to focus on and you'll receive these in the form of loot from slain enemies, usually captains. There are four different levels of rarity, with Legendary being the hardest to come by. Most loot features special abilities such as catching enemies on fire or granting health or Might when you kill an enemy so you can tweak your arsenal to match your play style. You'll also collect wealth, vitality, and potency gems that can be slotted onto your weapons and armor. These provide additional attack, health, and luck properties which allow for a bit more customization. As Talion levels up and completes other tasks, he'll also be awarded skill points that he can use to learn new abilities and improve current ones.
Shadow of War's overworld is not insanely big which is nice to keep everything condensed as the action is almost nonstop. Each of the five areas has only three fast travel points that let you get to basically any location in the game in about a minute or less. Talion can run fast and scale buildings at record speed so traversal across Middle-earth is never much of a challenge.
The difficulty scales much better in Shadow of War than in Shadow of Mordor. I recall feeling extremely overpowered and unafraid of death for most of the second half of Shadow of Mordor. While Talion becomes quite powerful over the course of his adventure here, so do the orcs. The late-game missions are the toughest of all and I ended up dying many times and regularly had to adjust my strategies to figure out how to survive. Anyway, upon completing the first 3 acts, you'll unlock what essentially amounts to post-game content known as Shadow Wars in act 4. This act simply consists of 20 different sieges against your four fortresses that you must defend. Each siege gets progressively more difficult and you'll need to recruit powerful orcs to help you defend against the enemy armies. These wars become dull fairly quickly due to their repetitive nature and they also get extremely challenging which leads to an additional issue.
One point of contention with Shadow of War even before launch is its inclusion of loot boxes which can be purchased with in-game currency or cold hard cash. Basically, they award you with powerful orcs to add to your army as well as XP boosts and loot. I was able to complete the first 3 acts of Shadow of War (essentially the full game minus Shadow Wars) in about 29 hours and without ever having to resort to purchasing loot boxes. Shadow Wars, however, ramps up the difficulty so quickly that you either have to dig into your wallet to purchase loot boxes or spend hours upon hours grinding XP and recruiting orcs.
I'm of two minds about the Shadow Wars content. On one hand, is it fair to criticize the developer for including additional content for those who absolutely adore the game? Not really. On the other hand, have they intentionally made Shadow Wars so difficult that the best option is to pay real-world money to complete it? Probably. My honest recommendation (unless you just can't get enough Shadow of War) is to skip the Shadow Wars portion entirely and just watch the 4 minute epilogue on YouTube.
Middle-earth: Shadow of War is a sprawling action-filled epic adventure with a compelling story and a living, breathing world that creates real consequences for your actions and failures. Its post-game Shadow Wars content is understandably polarizing but that shouldn't stop anyone from enjoying the core experience.
- + Addictive combat with evolving mechanics
- + Robust, meaningful Nemesis system that creates a living, breathing world
- + Compelling story and characters
- - Overwhelming at the start
- - Polarizing Shadow Wars content doesn't add much and relies on microtransactions