Middle Earth: Shadow of War is a great game that is sometimes at odds with itself. It’s nearly a triumph. It really could be. And it should be! The game reeks of passion. Its clear talented people ached over every corner of this landscape, and that shows.
Let me make this clear. It is a solid, satisfying experience that will steal away your hours without you realizing. A real juicy hunk of Orc with all the Uruk trimmings. If you liked Shadow of Mordor, you’re really going to enjoy this. But you’re also going to encounter some unsavoury stuff that may sour your experience. Missteps that you really wish weren’t there, but you can’t ignore, even though you want to in light of the fun you’re having.
First, I think it’d be best to let you know what this game gets so crucially right. Combat. Slashing and hacking are so responsive. You can feel the Arkham influence but with a twist of Tolkien in the mix. Everything is so beautifully gratifying.
Slicing through an Orc’s guts, spinning around and just batting his severed head into a crowd never gets old. Leap off a building with the new, incredible double jump and tap LT in mid-air. I dare you not to gasp. The game throws bullet time in the mix as you glide gracefully to the floor, filling Orc heads with wraith arrows.
Do you want more? I know you do, and Shadow of War happily delivers. There’s an elven spirit move akin to Ciri’s multiple persona attacks in Wild Hunt that evokes wonder. Hell, brutalizing a captain after dazing him with poison and watching his underlings run for their god damn lives makes you feel like the most badass Viggo Mortensen body double ever conceived.
Leap off a building with the new, incredible double jump and tap LT in mid-air. I dare you not to gasp. The game throws bullet time in the mix as you glide gracefully to the floor, filling Orc heads with wraith arrows.
Sending one of your trained orcs to betray and backstab a warchief just as he thinks he’s about to wreck your shit… Ok, I’ll stop. But you get the picture. Shadow of War has these moments that you’re looking for, but the cool water is a little muddy.
The graphics are passable, considering the scale. Textures get a bit dodgy up close. Alas, you’ll struggle to notice anything poor, but this is no Uncharted. I guess the sacrifice is made for the scale of some of the siege battles, which is an understandable compromise considering how fun they are.
The story is uh… almost unimportant when you consider the complexity of anything else. If you want a game rich with narratology, I don’t know if this is for you. The only narrative I really cared about was the relationship with my Orc sons and the Nemesis system, which returns in style. Vendettas, bad blood and hierarchy abound. It’s gnarly and still as incredible as it was in 2014.
Doesn’t change too much beyond a few bells and whistles, but the monologues are better and the characters have more depth. Therefore, the ugly bonds and virtual hatred are exaggerated in a wonderful way. If you’re looking for an upgrade, this is most definitely it. The game doesn’t feel as revolutionary but is a follow up that improves on a lot of the aspects of the first game.
Now I’d like to dwell on my first issue. The game takes at least four hours of play until you reach what I would consider ‘Shadow of War’ and not ‘Shadow of Mordor V2’. What I mean by that is the first act of the game is pretty much just the first game. There is no orc recruitment, relationship or army building, or anything that feels radically new until you get past it.
The story is pretty basic, and if you’ve played the previous game, it will feel like a huge hand-holding tutorial. Sure, the combat is a little more refined, and it’s enjoyable, but I feel like the game would be much improved if you were building an army from the start, as the XCOM-esque bonds you form with your Uruks are the glue that holds Shadow of War together.
The game takes at least four hours of play until you reach what I would consider ‘Shadow of War’ and not ‘Shadow of Mordor V2’
There are some new collectables that are pretty forgettable, and a number of side missions like the Shadows of the Past, where you play as a figure from the Second Age like Tirith or Celebrimbor and basically haul ass within a time limit to earn upgrade points and gems. Those are fun, as well as the fighting pits. There is a lot to do in this game, that’s for sure. If you can think of it you can probably upgrade it.
Robust progression systems will overwhelm you and leave a certain taste in your mouth depending on your disposition. I tend to thrive on these systems so for me, having everything in my arsenal constantly upgrading was cool and didn’t feel like a problem. For some, I can see how this can become an issue, as nothing is really pinned down and the freedom can become scary.
Traversing around the map is good fun once you figure out the games reaction commands and upgrade your elf sprint. The fast travel spots are few and far between sometimes, but this is in good taste to make you encounter ambush, betrayal or more dynamic events that underpin the best part about this game: A.I. Truly, it’s a marvel, and if anything, this game just makes me want a piece of the Nemesis system in absolutely everything I play.
There’s also the loot boxes, which I whole-heartedly ignored but have to address. There is no real reason for them to be there in a game like Shadow of War, but they’ve been worked in. Mind you, I did struggle to ever need one, but the way the third act is structured, the market menu may as well be giving you puppy eyes.
The sound overall is neat, borrowing tones from the movies to give you that adventurous feel. I also fell in love with the use of the PS4 controller as a mini speaker for Orc piss or crunching wood as you duke it out with a captain. It’s moments like the ones I’m describing here that make me love this game in spite of its flaws.
Some of the issues come from the fact that the game feels a few sandwiches sort of a hamper in its scope. It’s big and overwhelming, but there are no intricate menus to sort orcs or weapons. The whole third act of the game is a decent slap in the face, where the game forces you to defend all your fortresses over 15 times for a cutscene. But this is what you wanted right! Bigger, louder and uncut.
I also fell in love with the use of the PS4 controller as a mini speaker for Orc piss or crunching wood as you duke it out with a captain
That it sure is, but I’d be pained to say I’m better for my exuberant content meal. You can see that most of my screenshots are me getting that rush after taking down an orc. That is the sign of a good title, and I wish I could contain the small bolts of joy that propelled me through this game and ignore the swamps between, but I can’t, which leaves me bittersweet.
This is not a bad or even mediocre game. Shadow of War is a win, but it’s got two left feet and there are too many cooks spoiling the Uruk broth. A definite pick up for fans of the first game looking for more content, and a ‘well I wonder’ for inquisitive first-timers.
This copy of Shadow of War was provided by Warner Bros. Our Editor-in-Chief, Jordan Oloman befriended, enslaved and mutilated so many damn orcs in his 20-hour playtime.