2014’s Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor (SoM) received favorable reviews from critics. With mechanics that felt like a combination of Assassin’s Creed and Batman: Arkham City, SoM introduced a system by which players could achieve a relatively unique experience in each playthrough. The game’s sequel, Middle-Earth: Shadow of War (SoW), reestablishes the Nemesis System’s innovative features and adds more depth. As with most video game sequels, SoW seeks to refine the first installment’s positive elements and rework its pitfalls. The game is largely similar to its predecessor, but the more in-depth Nemesis System and an evolving storyline make SoW an improvement over an already impressive title.
As a prequel to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, SoW’s story takes established characters and intertwines their stories with ones unique to the game. The crux of the plot revolves around Talion, a ranger from Gondor who was charged with guarding the Black Gate separating Gondor from Mordor. After his outpost was ravaged by Sauron’s forces in SoM, Talion is resurrected by a powerful wraith and former Elven lord, Celebrimbor, and they now share the same body. Through Celebrimbor, Talion is granted phantasmal powers, such as the ability to survive falls from devastating heights, the use of spectral arrows, the domination of enemies to gather information, and more. Together, Talion and Celebrimbor work to prevent Sauron’s return by fighting the Dark Lord’s forces in Mordor and beyond. Having forged a new Ring of Power, Celebrimbor gives the ring to Talion so the ranger may channel his apparitional abilities without the former Elven lord’s presence. However, Shelob, the giant spider from Tolkien’s The Two Towers and Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of Return of the King, is reinvented as a powerful goddess-like character who manipulates Talion into giving her Celebrimbor’s Ring of Power. Unfortunately for Shelob, after certain events unfold, she returns the ring to Talion, and the ranger and Celebrimbor embark on a journey to save Gondor from Sauron’s armies and the Ringwraiths.
SoW’s story walks a fine line between traditional Tolkien lore and modern storytelling devices. Fantasy tropes within the tale reveal character backgrounds, descriptions of new enemy archetypes, and tidbits regarding different locations (mostly cities), all woven into the fabric of a fable that feels at home in Middle-Earth. Moreover, descriptions are provided to players through dialogue that transpires while the player-character (PC) is still under the user’s control, thus allowing gamers to continue their adventures while simultaneously absorbing information. This mechanism is useful in that it makes the divulgence of backstory smoother and more immersive, unlike the frequent info-dumping prevalent in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books.
Part of most games’ stories is the quality of voice-acting. SoW’s voice-actors deliver an authentic experience, their different accents and vernacular associating well with Middle-Earth. The characters’ emotions and desires are evident in their dialogue, the subtext of conversations often more impactful than the actual discussion. The different orc voices all sound savage, but each differs depending on the respective Uruk’s reputation. For example, one orc may speak in rhymes while another might have a profound lisp. These different cadences add depth and individuality to minor characters, thus contributing to the game’s originality. The quality provided by the voice actors reinforces the well-crafted story, which, in and of itself, is ripe with plot twists; returning characters from the first game, such as Ratbag; and different spins on the Lord of the Rings universe. Through SoW’s enthralling tale, players utilize gripping gameplay mechanics to defeat their enemies and become an intimidating overseer of an epic army of orcs to rival that of Sauron.
The most striking of these mechanics is the improved Nemesis System. When Talion defeats an enemy captain, he may not kill them with his final blow, or the target may retreat and get away before players can finish them off. Captains who survive a killing blow can return later to fight the PC again, often with a new title or a different look altogether. For example, if Talion cuts off a captain’s arm, and the captain survives, the target may return to fight the ranger again with a metal-infused arm that the enemy basically smelted onto his body. If an enemy retreats, they will return appearing the same as before, but more determined to achieve victory against Talion. In the unfortunate event that the player is defeated by a captain, the enemy who defeated Talion will remember him after he resurrects and confronts the target again. However, the fight will be more difficult than before. When Talion loses, the orc who beat him increases in level, improving its combat capabilities. The Nemesis System keeps the game’s encounters fresh and ever-changing, constantly restoring Sauron’s forces over time as the player works tirelessly to whittle them down. In a game with an already-large map, enemies perpetually replenishing ensures gamers will never be short on activities at any given time.
Tackling the title’s multitudinous facets makes bulldozing through the main missions simpler and more efficient. One feature that gives SoW more depth than the first title and provides the player with tactical stimulation is the ability to dominate enemy captains and add them to Talion’s army. Dominating captains is relatively straightforward: the PC damages the target until they ‘break,’ where the captain essentially becomes grabbable and can then be dominated and added to the player’s forces. However, enemies that Talion forces into his service can betray him, often ambushing Talion while he is fighting an enemy officer. The chance of betrayal is increased if the PC killed the traitorous captain’s blood brother. Giving allied captains assignments keeps them occupied, decreasing, but not nullifying, their chances of backstabbing Talion. Additionally, captains the player indoctrinates can be used as assault leaders when taking over enemy fortresses. Each assault leader can utilize one of three perks within their tree. For example, one assault leader can provide Talion’s offense with one of three types of siege beasts, each with their own effects. Another assault leader can provide missile, shock, or shielded troops. Diversifying the ranger’s army gives players an advantage when expanding their territory, and these mechanics work similarly when assigning war chiefs and overlords to a conquered garrison. With more for the player to manage, Shadow of War makes the gamer feel more involved with the world, helping the title outshine Shadow of Mordor while also paying homage to its predecessor.
Combat and movement in SoW are nearly identical to SoM’s. The two areas combined form an experience that is derivative of the Arkham and Assassin’s Creed series. Combat feels like a direct clone of the Arkham games in that players mash the attack button to zip between hordes of surrounding enemies, occasionally tapping Y (Xbox One) or Triangle (PlayStation 4) to perform a counterattack or pressing A (Xbox One) or X (PlayStation 4) to dodge opponents who cannot be countered. The fourth face button (B or Circle, respectively) allows users to perform a stun attack that opens the engaged enemy up for a rapid combo that builds up Talion’s combo meter until he can unleash one of a number of special moves, such as an execution or an instant domination that heals him. Navigating over obstacles, climbing buildings and cliffs, and falling from heights that should shatter every bone in a person’s body are all similar mechanics featured heavily in Shadow of War, and this parkour element is indicative of Assassin’s Creed’s influence. While combat and movement are smooth, with offensive strikes flowing seamlessly into counterattacks and dodges, the relative lack of originality is disappointing, making the gamer long to play one of the influencing titles rather than SoW. Fortunately, this drawback is not game breaking and is offset by the aforementioned features as well as a picturesque Middle-Earth.
Modern AAA titles rarely have issues regarding graphics quality, and Shadow of War is no exception. Constructs both natural and otherwise appear as sharp, chiseled marvels that make Middle-Earth both a majestic and macabre world. The terrain is detailed, with forests reflecting beautiful sanctuaries protected by powerful predators and simultaneously depicting hazardous landscapes on which not even arrogant Uruks dare to trespass. Intelligent and base creatures alike are pristine representations of Tolkien’s creations, whether immaculate in their attire or disgusting in their savagery. Monolith spared no expense to make SoW a visually superior endeavor. These intense graphics are further enhanced by audio that feels at home in the Lord of the Rings universe.
An inspiring and ominous soundtrack, swords clanging and shields splintering, drakes screeching, orcs growling, and explosions roaring all immerse the player in a fantastical realm. Even the wind blowing and Talion’s shifting between the real and spectral planes cause a stir within the user’s gut. Nevertheless, as with the visuals, the audio quality is unsurprising given the product in question, the success of the first game, and the universe in which the title is set.
With the video game market saturated in high-quality titles, a company developing a game that stands out on its own is a nigh-impossible task. Shadow of War is a testament to how far games have come since their inception in 1958, but it does not raise the bar. Astounding graphics, superb audio, decent gameplay, and riveting storytelling are all par for the course with most modern AAA titles. Regardless, SoW meets the standard with ease, and this sequel title has more than enough features available to keep players involved for long hours.
Reviewed on PC.