Middle-Earth: Shadow of War Review

Played on Windows.
Also available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One.

Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is the follow up to Middle-Earth Shadow of Mordor, a rather popular action adventure game from 2014. Shadow of Mordor was quite popular and I enjoyed it quite a bit, so I was looking forward to Shadow of War. It stayed on my radar but there was a reason I was hesitating to pull the trigger.

Of course, this isn’t a very timely review, as the game came out in September 2017. During that time period, I was busy with other games, but the inclusion of Microtransactions in Shadow of War kept me at arm’s length. However, in May 2018 the microtransactions were removed and the game was rebalanced for its removal. I picked up the game in November and now have taken the time to find out if I missed out on a gem.

Looking at Middle-Earth: Shadow of War, one thing that’s noticeable is how much life is in the game. The graphics of Shadow of War tend to be rather good considering how many characters are visible and how much wide open space is visible. Many Orcs that are not alerted to the main character’s (Talion’s) presence go about their day, talking to other orcs, walking patrols, or just doing some nondescript job at the side of a street. There’s a lot of life in the land and Talion will slowly move his way through.

Talion also has the ability to get closer to enemies, through stealth and ledges so he can see far more and get an idea of Orc’s daily life, while this is only really interesting once or twice, it’s nice that he’s able to witness chanting, executions and more from the shadows. It shows the orcs seem to have a working society, one that Talion’s goal will be to disrupt.

The graphics don’t always play nice. I noticed a couple of times while in a final stand, right before dying, the enemy that was winding up to give me a death blow faced the wrong direction. There was a couple of points where I still died from this attack being thrown away from my body. I don’t know what caused the animation glitches, but there are enough of them in the game likely due to a large amount of randomized action in the melees that I found myself. It’s possible something could be changing their look at target at the wrong moment, but it’s an odd sight.

Talion, himself, has a few other graphical issues. Hair in video games is an expensive process to render, and so it can be a struggle. Talion’s hair mesh is particularly gruesome. I’ve gone back and checked Shadow of Mordor, and there was a more realistic head of hair on Talion, here you have a few ugly moments, mostly in cutscenes where the model really doesn’t shine. What’s odd is there are cloaks in the game, and Talion even has a version of his cloak that’s up which hides the hair issue. I’m not sure why the game chooses to show off the hair in the state it’s in but I definitely found it extremely distracting a few times.

Talion doesn’t look so good often. Don’t worry the rest of the shots will make up for this one.

The orcs themselves really stand out here, and we’ll talk quite a bit about the orc captains throughout this review. That’s due to the Nemesis System. The Nemesis System promises unique orcs with their own look, voices, and style, and Shadow of War clearly pulled that off. Not only do they have a diverse ever-growing cast of Orcs, but Shadow of War also features the new type of captains, called the “Ologs”, officially named Olog-Hai, which are larger Captains that apparently have been crossbred with Trolls. Ologs are huge opponents, but they have a different feel, and each one of is quite unique as well.

The thing is the Nemesis System brings exactly what it promises, unique looking and feeling captains. I was particularly impressed when I first saw an orc come back from the dead. I had chopped his head off and figured that was the end of him, however, he soon appears again, the head that has been removed had now been reattached somehow. There was a dark growth that could either be an infection or some sewing apparatus. Another time an Orc captain had lost a hand and replaced it with a hook, which gave him an appropriate title as well. The Nemesis System really shined on both of these giving an organic injury to the orc so it looked like they really did survive the great violence I did to their body.

Brand new scars, brand new name… no thank you. Ungrateful little….

In my first look I brought up the topic of Shelob and you can see it below. Shelob is a problem in my opinion. She’s heavily featured in the first act and rarely appears after that, but as a character, I feel that she’s a failure on many levels. She’s an oversexualized witch who looks more in line with what someone would see in a Witcher game, between Yennefer or Triss. The thing is, I don’t fault Witcher for having an attractive or overly sexualized witch. The problem is firmly with Shelob and Shadow of War, and that problem is that Shelob is supposed to be a spider queen. Technically she’s a demon in the shape of a spider.

But if we look at the lore and the movies, and pretty much every reference made to Shelob, she’s never had a feminine form, and doesn’t appear to ever have transformation magic, so the question becomes, why do we have Shelob as an oversexualized character, rather than a new character? To be clear again, my problem with Shelob is that they felt that they had to change her form to something more appealing, using abilities she’s never had. Whereas if she had stayed a Spider, she actually would have been a more menacing and interesting character in the game. This is indicative of the studio’s work with the story and the series as a whole, sadly we’re at the beginning of the rabbit hole with regards to story.

Shadow of Mordor actually told a relatively interesting new story combining an elf that forged the great rings, one that Tolkien created named Celembrior. He’s fated to be unable to die, and Talion, our main character joins him in his curse. It’s a rather interesting take on the video game trope of the 1000 deaths most players will suffer, but it worked. The original game felt like a non-canonical story written by someone who wanted to expand the world but respected the original source material.

The early chapter here starts by redefining Shelob to be the sexy witch, it also says that Celembrior creates a new ring of power, this is intended to rival the “one ring” but not be beheld to it. Early on as the player explores the first dungeon, the player hands the ring of nearly unlimited power to Shelob because…. Well, Shelob has Celembrior captured, but at that point, the player has the second most powerful ring in the world and just hands it over. It’s an odd moment of the story but it also shows that the game doesn’t really pay attention to the lore it creates.

Shelob is beautiful… but that’s not Tolkein’s Shelob.

The first act that follows this mission is rather weak. Most missions are just telling the player to do some minor tasks to teach them something, and then includes a random opponent from the Nemesis System and delivers a rather poor siege story about Minas Ithril and the Palantir. While this is all story based on the history of Middle Earth, the game does nothing to really make this part of the game very compelling, they are just missions to teach the player, and the characters just go through the motions, many having already been taught in the last game. Most of the characters are set up just to die, and only a couple will survive the act.

At the end of the Siege, Minas Ithril falls, and the player returns to Shelob who just hands the new ring back to Talion. It’s a lazy moment of storytelling where you get back the powerful object because it’s time for you to get the new power for yourself. But handing the ring over for eight to ten hours of gameplay really makes no sense in hindsight. Perhaps the ring should have been forged at the end of Act 1, instead of being out of the player’s grasp for the entire act.

The thing is, the ring unlocks the idea of “domination” And suddenly the player can now dominate enemies rather than just slaughter them. From there, the game kicks into gear by setting up the world and the numerous fortresses that Talion and Celembrior will have to tackle.

The biggest issue with the story is that the entire process gets held back because of a reliance on the Nemesis System. The game wants you to interact with the various enemies, but because each enemy is made to be replaceable, no character is able to be developed because ten minutes later, you might kill them and the game will waste that development.

Shadow of war has a few different storylines and the fact is, the game violates the adherence to the Nemesis System by creating non-random enemies. There are two major orcs I remember chasing, as well as a few friendly orcs, all outside of the Nemesis System, and it’s remarkable how well the game works when it talks about characters it can develop and care about. It ultimately shows that as life-like as the Nemesis System can claim to be, it can never reach the heights of the scripted system, by the simple fact, the disposable enemies are exactly that. If the Nemesis System is designed so the player can have randomized enemies that they can slaughter, the story will be unable to develop those enemies due to their randomize factor.

Bruz here is not a Nemesis enemy, though the game pretends like he is.

A few missions do stand out though, but all of the mission arcs take a long time to get moving, as the player doesn’t realize that they’re anything but randomized enemies at first. Eventually, the player will grow to respect the two main villains in the story, and they are rather well developed. However, neither are the main enemy in the game and only the villain of their own story arc.

I don’t wish to give spoilers, and I’ll avoid the main thrust of them, but I do have to bring up the ending of the game. The reason is the game’s ending should be offensive to fans of both Tolkien’s writing and the Peter Jackson movies. The studio making Shadow of War seemed to want to integrate their storyline into the main story’s canon and give an ending that could do that. The issue with this though is that everything the game says, both through the main ending and the alternate ending that’s hidden behind a very long grind, changes quite a bit of the famous storyline. This is clearly non-canonical work and doesn’t fit with the true nature of Tolkien’s work, but there’s almost a nudge at the end and it feels like the game smiles at how clever its story integrates with the main series.

The game has many problems with trying to pass off its core part of the story, but the biggest piece is that the writing style of Shadow of War never even attempts to reach Tolkein’s level of literature. Tolkien was a master of subtext. There are many interpretations of his books, and a ton of time spent in crafting the universe he builds. He develops many different facets and views, and in fact, he rarely talks about absolutes.

Instead, Shadow of War feels more like a kid playing with his Lord of the Ring Toys in Tolkien’s world. While the Nemesis System is interesting, everything else is quite blunt and poorly developed. That’s what really can be infuriating with the story. The writer is clearly playing with beloved lore here and then tries to redefine it to fit with his view, but the view doesn’t really work in the universe they’re developing.

Shadow of Mordor isn’t a better story necessarily, but it also knows that it’s ultimately a fan fiction and stay in places more comfortable, where they can expand a new universe, without interfering with the famous story that it is based on. Shadow of War instead tampers with the universe, and there are at least three major changes here that would change the universe. They’re not changes that should have been made nor ones I can really accept.

It’s clear I have major problems with the story here, but that’s not the only thing I’ll base my review on. However as an IP and really any game, the story should have some value in the final review, but at least we can look at the gameplay to hopefully give us something we can enjoy.

The gameplay itself is a mixture. Much of the gameplay is focused on the Nemesis System, the random fodder in the game is quickly dispatched, but the captains all have multiple lines to deliver as they enter the scene, as well as threats they can throw at Talion. As mentioned, earlier, a big change here is the additions to the Captains, not only is there more diversity, including assassins, hunters, beast tamers, captains that have gangs at their back, and shielded enemies, but there are the large Ologs as well, and many enemies also can use special attacks ranging from fire, poison or even curses to make it harder for the player to fight them.

There’s a few of my random enemies who stood out, maybe they were more “Scripted” but more interesting too.

The Nemesis System is rather strong and a big focus of the game is the idea that the player has to capture everything. The world map has multiple different areas each with their own army and horde of enemies. While the players can charge the bases early on in the game, it’s far more efficient, to tackle each captain on its own and dominate as many of them as you can. This approach is more time consuming, however, it has a higher chance of success as well.

The capture everything gameplay goes on for a great amount of time. I spent 60 hours according to Steam on the game, and while much of that time was spent chasing down various captains, only ten to twenty hours of the gameplay is very solid. The final missions and the first couple of sieges you start in are some of the best moments of the game. The majority of the rest of the game is just repetition for repetition sake.

While the Nemesis System is heavily improved here, being forced to play with it for so many hours makes the freshness of the system wear off remarkably fast. The unique experience is well done, but not much is done with it. Most Orc Captains were dominated by the second time I met them, and were never really seen again. The two captains that I remember, are not part of the Nemesis System because the time and effort were put in to develop them further.

The majority of the missions are all hooked into this system as well. You’ll do a simple task, and then get one or more of the random captains, after you slaughter (or dominate) him, the mission will end, but the big confrontation with the captain is rather mediocre as the player has already fought more than his share of these randomly generated captains by this point. Eventually, the missions start to become more scripted and while random captains might appear, there are more defined missions with hard-coded enemies which improve the experience greatly.

Oh wait Shag the Friendly killed me? But he wanted to be my buddy?

The level system in Shadows of War seems interesting at first, however, after playing the entire game I really dislike it for a number of reasons. The reason it appears to be in the game is to give the player another grind to go for. Enemies can be higher or lower level than your current level, and if they’re over your level by five to ten levels, they become sponges who can take a massive beating, whereas if they are similarly below your level, a single Execution attack can kill them.

The issue is how the game treats levels, it appears to be damage modifiers. Levels in RPG replace the idea of skilled play because in an RPG there’s a limit to the amount of “skill” a player can bring to the game, so instead, the character grows in power through a level system showing they’ve reached a proper mastery to proceed. However, Shadow of Mordor was focused on skilled play, and so a good player would be able to rise above any challenge.

Adding levels to Shadow of War doesn’t change much of this, but the change only requires a skilled player to just fight the same enemy longer to cause more damage to an enemy. Having to fight an enemy twice or three times as long because my character’s level wasn’t high enough becomes more tedious than engaging, and that’s the wrong place for a level system. Instead of being a more challenging fight it just becomes a need to repeatedly exploit a weakness of the enemy.

There was a similar level system in Shadow of Mordor, but the big change there was that it wasn’t related to the player’s power, but rather when a player earned ability points that they could spend for new skills. Those ability points are still here, but now we also see that there are also gear levels, player stats, and more. None of which feels like it fits.

The gear system also has an interesting idea, and there was a similar “Rune” system in Shadow of Mordor, but now the player becomes a bean counter, and now needs to find the highest leveled gear, with the right stats. Anything but the most common gear also gives a mini-quest that will unlock another skill for the gear, and the ability to upgrade it with money. These are all RPG elements, but they don’t really work well in Shadow of War.

Dominating enemies always results in a chance to look at them up close and personal.

Shadow of Mordor set a pretty good pace for itself where the player constantly gets better at the game, and more powerful through skills. Shadow of War gamifies the experience so the player is no longer looking at fighting the enemy, but rather thinking about if their 11 damage weapon is powerful enough to replace the 9 damage weapon when the 9 damage weapon also adds in additional fire damage. It makes the player focus on the wrong thing and overall detracts from the game rather than benefits it. Similarly, there’s a gem system which has the same effect.

The inventory system irks me for a very specific reason. It feels like it’s made to be part of the microtransaction system, as it is another thing that could be monetized. I never played the game when the monetization system was in effect, but I can’t help but notice how easy the gear system would be to give away top tier gear in a loot box.

The real problem though is there’s no way I could trust the studio if they told me it wasn’t made for monetization purposes. Even if I knew someone really well there, and they confided in me why they went with a heavier gear based system, at the end of the day, the feeling that it was made to be monetized is still there, even if that wasn’t the intended purpose. The way the gear system feels like an unneeded expansion really hurts its experience.

An orc that had free hand surgery due to Talion. No thank you card given.

Levels also get in the way of the player as well. Levels become the reason that the player can’t just dominate an orc he’s fighting, but rather than force him to kill the orc captain, he can instead “shame” the orc captain that lowers his level by 5 and gives him a chance to dominate him again later.

The game shines the brightest when the player faces evenly matched (leveled) enemies, and it makes me wonder if the game works best at these points, why isn’t the game more focused towards giving the enemies similar levels to the player, or even better, getting rid of the numbers and just letting the player battle similar enemies at all times. Both the gear and the level system don’t feel like they work as intended, whatever that intention was.

The combat in Shadow of War is familiar, and part of that is that this is the same combat system that was in Shadow of Mordor. It’s known as free-flowing combat, but it’s been in so many games recently, including the Batman series, Assassin’s Creed, Mad Max, and Ryse. It works, it’s just stuff we’ve seen quite a few times already. You block with the Y button, you dodge with the A button, and attack with the X button.

There are a few new tricks, of course, the biggest one is the ability to slow time while leaping (or double jumping) off a building, which does change up a little bit of the fighting and gives the archery a little more usefulness but it’s also a trick, not the core of the fighting.

The combat does look amazing. I believe I jumped on top of this guy to beat him bloody, fist meet face.

The other major change to the game’s combat is less healing is possible. There are no herbs around the world, so to heal the player the main method will be to drain, or dominate random enemies, however in a major fight, or when archers are around, the player rarely gets a moment to do so. They can use their execution gauge to do so after unlocking a skill, but that gauge tends to have other more important purposes. It changes the game from the ability to take on a massive army, to a game where the player constantly is being taught to avoid the large-scale battles, which is a shame because those large battles are fun to wade into and fight through.

The big moments of the game are all siege related. There’s a number of fortresses in the game and Talion will try to capture all of them. The siege that occurs to take over a fortress is the big moment in the game. It’s when Talion and the host of orcs he has already dominated will combine and attack the defending orcs. It amounts to a massively sized melee, where those characters you have gathered, or left standing collide in a glorious battle, and it definitely improves the game’s experience once you’ve reached one. They first appear after about twenty hours though but they are the bigger moments and definitely worth checking out.

Though again the repetition for getting to the siege is up to the player, though most players will probably be served better by spending the extra time to weaken the defending forces, by eliminating all the warchiefs, and that comes at a trade-off with time. It’s rather easy to eliminate most warchiefs, it just becomes a question of how much time will you spend with the Nemesis System, because ultimately all the Siege battles are again built on the Nemesis System, and the random captains.

A unique enemy does appear in the game, the Nazgul. Famed wraiths of Mordor, the nine wraiths that walk the earth beholden to Sauron. These enemies have inspired a lot of fear in the books, as well as the movie versions of Lord of the Rings, and they do well here at first. The first time the player fights a large group of Nazguls they are a challenge and demoralizing fight. But similar to much of the game, Shadow of War returns to that well too often, and what is originally a rather solid boss fight, becomes a generic boss fight by the end of the game, after what feels like five or six encounters. It doesn’t help that they become a skill test for the free-flowing combat system more than an interesting fight.

Really that’s what I keep coming back to with this game. Shadow of War has good concepts, like the Nazgul, the siege mode, and the Nemesis System, but the game returns too many times to all these concepts until the point that the gameplay feels like a series of chores. Shadow of War has four acts, though the third act is a single mission and the fourth act is the post-game content. In the fourth act, Shadow of War throws a series of more challenging sieges missions at the player causing them to grind to beat them. Again, it’s hard not to think about how the microtransaction system was made to work with this repetition.

But it also made me wonder about who really made this game. Of course, the driving idea behind Shadow of War was to make a sequel to Shadow of Mordor. Shadow of Mordor was very popular and sold well from what I’ve heard, so a sequel was likely. However where Shadow of Mordor seemed to try very hard at delivering a great story, with a weaker Nemesis System tacked on, Shadow of War seems to go through the motions of making a game, having to have story, missions, and a certain number of hours of gameplay, and yet the Nemesis System seems to be the shining child where much of the desire and passion of the developers was invested.

The fact I have so many pictures of the random enemies shows what really spoke to me.

The Nemesis System does shine, but it’s a complex and perfected beating heart in a large lumbering husk. It shines but everything around it dulls its brightness, and the Nemesis System alone isn’t enough to make me a fan of this game. At the end of the day, it feels like someone wanted to showcase the Nemesis System 2.0, and didn’t have the desire to really develop the game around it. It’s the opposite problem that Shadow of Mordor seemed to have.

One last issue did come up with the game, on PC the game is extremely large currently taking up 96 gigs of space on my hard drive. To put that in perspective, every game I used in my award video that I released at the end of 2018, only took about 50 gigs of space. 96 gigs file size is just enormous and for what this game ends up doing, I’m not sure if I can make the case it’s worth the rather massive install size. Consoles will require less space, around 36 gigs, but the PC size is rather brutal and required me to delete quite a few games and programs to find the storage space for it.

Ultimately, if I stopped the game when I wanted to around the end of Act One, I wouldn’t be able to recommend this game. However, as mentioned there are bright moments here, even if the majority of the game is more like a buffet than a fine dining experience. Much of the game is the filler from a buffet, and while you might be getting crab legs or sushi, you’re also getting a pile of rice, and fried chicken. Buffets work on the idea of Quantity over Quality and that’s what Shadow of War ends up banking on. It’s a long game, with a lot of stuff to do, but I think there area lot better games out there, and while I can recommend this game, it’s close to the borderline for that.

I give Middle-Earth: Shadow of War a


Final Thoughts: It’s a long game, but filled with repetition. If you want the most hours for your dollars, this might be a good place, but the time I spent here was only mediocre, and I could have found better.

Stats: 60 hours, 49/72 achievements earned (All DLC owned and played)