Loot boxes are infesting everything now. Where once you just played a game, now you play to buy a random mystery box full of stuff. Sometimes the items are simply cosmetic, other times they impart a bonus in gameplay. This week alone, I've played or written about two other major titles that use loot boxes, Forza Motorsport 7 and Star Wars: Battlefront 2, each with their own issues. The latest release with the mechanic is Middle-Earth: Shadow of War. So how are the loot boxes that you see in Shadow of War?
Here, they're called Loot Chests or War Chests. Loot Chests offer new gear for Talion, around the specific level listed on the chest. War Chests offer Talion new followers for his sprawling orc army. You can buy the lowest level of each Chest type (Silver) with Mirian, the in-game currency. Gold and Mithril Chests cost Gold, a currency you can only acquire with real money. The better the chests, the better the loot and followers received: Gold and Silver War Chests give you a guaranteed shot at Legendary and Epic orcs.
On the subject of Chests, Shadow of War design director Bob Roberts said the game was designed and balanced with the expectation that players wouldn't need to use the Chests. In his explanation, he called the Chests an alternate method of progression, one that wouldn't ruin a natural playthrough. If you ignored them, you wouldn't notice it in-game at all.
"We're working our tails off to make this massive game and as a designer - the design director - I focus on balancing it," Roberts explained prior to the publishing of reviews. "We do a ton of playtesting and make sure it is tuned to a setting where people can enjoy it. We kept all of the loot boxes and the economy of real world money turned off in playtesting so we know we are balancing around an experience which is rewarding without any of that stuff. We have tuned our game so it works without those things and that including them does not distract from the rest of it."
This is roughly true for my time in Shadow of War, especially in the early and middle sections. I played through much of the game without using them. Loot Chests never held any allure for me, because most of the loot gained from killing orcs was good enough. I also ignored War Chests for most of my playtime, but as I got closer to the latter part of the game, the pull became stronger.
The simple way forward in Shadow of War is to dominate every orc you come across, turning every single one into your thrall. That seems to be what the folks over at Eurogamer did, judging by their review and this accompanying video they released.
"Given how freely the game gives you skill points, gear and orcs to turn into loyal soldiers, however, these chests are wholly unnecessary. If you need them in order to get by in Shadow of War, in fact, you are almost certainly playing on the wrong difficulty setting," writes Eurogamer reviewer Johnny Chiodini.
I tended to be more focused with my overall orc army. In each of the game's regions, I killed any orc that had too many common weaknesses or simply looked like a bad pull. I looked for useful members of my army and made sure to promote the best ones as my Siege crew, my Warchiefs, and my Overlords. I called my orcs "ugly Pokemon" in my review and treated them as such.
Especially in the latter part of Shadow of War, this is one of the things that makes the game stretch out into a grind. Hell, even just dominating every orc that the game throws at you starts to become a bit rote.
My method becomes more useful in Shadow of War's final act though. In the previous acts, once you controlled a region its fortress was yours to keep. Consequently, there was no real reason to upgrade your army, as Eurogamer noted above. In the final act though, the tables are turned and you're the one being invaded. If your army isn't up to snuff, you'll get stomped off. Worse, the invading forces level up each time.
"In the game's actual final act, you cycle through the four fortresses you explored previously for a total of 20 more defending siege battles. If you haven't upgraded the Orcs you met early in the game--and up until this point, there was no reason to--you have to replace and upgrade your entire retinue of Orcs to match this more powerful invading force," notes GameSpot reviewer Justin Haywald. "This Sisyphean quest has no corresponding significant characters to keep you company or explain why it's important to tackle the defense missions in the order you do."
Despite that, Hayward still found the Chests to be little more than a distraction. He points out that Shadow of War's random number generator can smile upon you, creating a Legendary orc. Alternatively, an orc can return from the dead with a subsequent upgrade in status.
"Although loot boxes that are purchased with in-game currency only go up to Epic tier rewards, instead of the paid currency's Legendaries, the difference in quality between the two, in practice, isn't substantially different," he says. "It's also possible for Legendary items and Orcs to appear randomly in-game, so paying real money only serves as a guaranteed way to get one. Like so many of the other game's systems, the storefront feels less predatory and more like a cluelessly unnecessary addition."
Polygon's Phil Kollar was harsher with his feelings on Shadow Wars, the endgame siege mode's in-game name. Shadow of War offers one ending prior to Shadow Wars, wrapping up most of the game's plot. If you want the "true" ending though, you need to complete the whole thing.
"Technically, you can jump into the marketplace and purchase loot chests earlier in the game, but there's really no pull to do so during the main campaign," says Kollar in Polygon's review. "In Shadow Wars, however, things get more complicated. Finding powerful orcs becomes the be-all, end-all focus of the game, and the easiest way to find powerful orcs is, cynically, to purchase them. The cheapest chest on the marketplace (which offers the barest guarantees on the quality of allies you unlock) can be purchased using the in-game money Talion picks up. That money also buys upgrades to your fortresses, though, and between the two I spent all 60,000 or 70,000 coins I had gathered over the course of the campaign in a few hours."
"When you run out of in-game money, you have two choices: Make a huge time investment by hunting down orcs in your game world and earning chests via vendetta missions, or spend some real money to get the more powerful orcs you need now," Kollar offers to readers.
The time investment is what I was pointing towards in my review and it's true that Shadow of War becomes an immense slog at that point. You're upgrading your followers and culling your forces to find the best of the best. It also helps that War Chest orcs go into your Garrison, meaning you can use them on any of your controlled regions. Other orcs are trapped in the region they spawn in.
Which brings us back to the original question: how bad are the loot boxes in Middle-Earth: Shadow of War? If you're just looking at finishing the third act and the main part of Shadow of War's story, you can live without the War Chests. While the Market constantly makes itself known every time you pause the game, it's not hard to ignore. Once you start to take on the endgame though, the War Chests become far more useful a tool. At that point, your choice is to either spend way more hours building up your army, or just conscript a better one with some War Chests and real money. It's all a matter of how much of Middle-Earth: Shadow of War you're looking to play.
I find myself opposing them more in abstract and principle, rather than having a large personal problem with them. In Forza Motorsport 7, there are cars completely locked behind the mechanic, which feels worse. In Middle-Earth: Shadow of War, though the time sink is considerable, you can survive without the paid War Chests. If anything, the issue is the endgame itself is a long grind. How much did War Chests contribute to this design? I'm unsure. In the end, I find Shadow of War's loot boxes not the worst they could be, but certainly not as benign as the cosmetic-only versions available in Overwatch or Quake Champions.