Review – Middle Earth: Shadow of War
Middle Earth: Shadow of War is nearly everything a video game sequel should be. It’s bigger, more fun, and more challenging than the original, but retains and expands on everything people loved about the first game in the franchise. And yet, while Shadow of War is a good, even great, game it has some major areas that can be fairly criticized.
Right off the bat, the nemesis system is utterly fantastic. It was good in the first game, but Shadow of War expanded it dramatically. There’s no longer a level 20 cap to enemy captains, which means that the captains can get very difficult. But more importantly, there’s purpose behind the orc hierarchy. In the first game, you killed warchiefs because it was kind of fun. In this game, killing the higher ups gives you an edge when laying siege to enemy fortresses. And dominating enemies is actually really useful as well, since they fight alongside you frequently in sieges and your victory may depend on how powerful the orc next to you is.
Speaking of sieges and fortresses, this is where the game goes fantastically right and horribly wrong at the same time. In the first game there wasn’t much to do after the story was complete, and the story missions were pretty lackluster. In hindsight, it was almost like a really fleshed out beta. But in Shadow of War, sieges play a huge part in the game, providing a lot more fun than just hunting down random orcs and their events to try and kill or dominate them. Sieges give you skill points, loot, and the opportunity to go up against some powerful orcs that you may want on your side or may just want to kill for the good gear you’ll get off them. Plus you can lay siege to random people online and get plenty of loot for that.
Where sieges go wrong is that there’s a lot of them. A lot. And not much variety around them. Sure, it’s cool to attack in some scenarios and defend in others, but regardless of what side of the wall you’re on it gets repetitive after a while. And that’s really all the endgame is. After the story is complete, the various fortresses under your control come under attack and you need to defend them. Again and again and again and again. It becomes a grind too when the offensive team has level 50 orcs and you only have orcs in the 30s, so you need to set up events and arena matches (we’ll touch on that later) to level up your orcs so they’re ready to defend your castle. Or you could just buy lootboxes to get really high leveled orcs faster (this is where most of the micro transaction controversy has come from). But if you choose not to get any lootboxes then preparing for a siege can take you anywhere between half an hour to two hours.
While sieges are both a blessing and curse, what the game definitely gets right is a better balance of power. The largest complaint against Shadow of Mordor (the first game) was that partway through, you unlock so many abilities that you become overpowered. Shadow of War does a better job of balancing out abilities by giving you a ton, but only allowing you to activate so many at a time. For example, you can choose to have the ability to dominate regular orcs and bring them to your side in combat or the ability to drain them and boost your health, but you can’t have both these abilities activated at the same time. Plus, orcs are able to get much more powerful than before and in sieges swarms of them come at you, meaning that no matter how powerful you are, it’s still difficult to stay alive sometimes.
The combat and gameplay are as good as ever. It’s basically a reskin of the Batman Arkham games’ combat system, but that’s not a bad thing at all. It plays beautifully and looks gorgeous as you flow through orcs like a ranger possessed by an elven wraith . . . which you are. Moving around the larger world is also made easier by some additions that allow you to jump farther and higher when traversing rooftops. Plus the ability to sprint quickly at the cost of “focus” definitely helps get around the world more quickly. Not to mention that the caragor controls were completely redesigned, making them much more responsive and fun to use in combat.
But there are some additions to the gameplay that are questionable. Most notably the arenas I mentioned before. Essentially, each region has an arena where you can pit your orcs against enemy orcs in order to increase their power and get some ingame currency or skill points. The problem is that you don’t actually play, you just . . . watch. It’s like setting all the fighters in a Super Smash Bros game to CPU and then watching them duke it out to see who wins. It’s just not fun after a couple times watching. In fact it’s actually frustrating at certain points. Also, when you confront captains they still rant at you like in the first game. It gets super tedious listening to their puffed up boasts and the fact that there’s no skip button makes it worse.
The graphics in Shadow of War are also questionable. They’re not . . . bad. In fact, the world design is actually quite pretty and the different regions give a variety of landscapes to play around in. The framerate is steady too. But the character designs in particular look, dare I say it, worse than the first game. And this was my apprehension all along while watching demos of Shadow of War. The downgrade doesn’t make the game unplayable by any means, but it’s the one area where the game is actually worse than its predecessor. And this shouldn’t be the case.
The sound design in the game is definitely solid. Troy Baker offers as good a performance as he can with the script he was given, the sound effects are nice, and the orcs sound good as well. The music isn’t Howard Shore’s, but it’s definitely serviceable for a Lord of the Rings game and fits well enough that you’re still drawn in. There’s no complaints here.
The story, on the other hand, doesn’t draw you in nearly as much as the music. The Middle Earth: Shadow franchise has never been about stellar story, or canonical accuracy for that matter, but there’s so much more that could’ve been done with a character like Talion and an actor like Troy Baker. At the very least some effort could’ve been put in to make the game more emotional or interesting. I didn’t expect anything great, but this game doesn’t even offer anything particularly good in terms of story. At best it’s okay. Thankfully it’s easy to overlook this problem due to the fact that the game is, at its core, just fun.
Accessories, however, have made me come back to the game more than anything else. The different armor and weaponry is interesting and cool to look at, and you’ll be swapping out different capes and swords frequently throughout the course of the game as you come across tougher and tougher orcs. Beyond that, the replay value in this game isn’t really there. Shadow of War improved so much, but in improving upon the first game it created entirely new problems as well. Monolith Productions put themselves in a tricky situation by trying to so dramatically improve on the first game. Lucky for them it pays off, for the most part.
Ultimately, Middle Earth: Shadow of War is an incredibly fun game and, if you liked the first and can overlook that this is basically Lord of the Rings fanfiction, you’ll absolutely love this one. It truly is a worthy sequel in nearly every way. But don’t expect to come back to the game a whole lot after you’ve tired of sieges. When you grow bored of those then there’s very little else to do. Unless you’re a completionist, in which case more power to you.
Reviewed on PS4.
Also available on: PC, Xbox One