Three days ago, Middle-Earth: Shadow of War released worldwide and since then, players have had a chance to dive in the expanded Middle-Earth. It's not everyone's cup of tea and after hearing about the loot box controversy, you might be on the fence in regards to the game. So I wanted to offer a quick breakdown on Shadow of War. No deep treatise on its themes or mechanics, just a quick list of the hits and misses in Monolith's latest.
Four Things it Gets Right
You will never be starved for moves and abilities in Shadow of War. Apparently, the merging of ranger Talion and wraith Celebrimbor creates Middle-Earth's version of a superhero. Many games would depower their protagonist, kicking them back to square one for a sequel. Instead, Monolith decided to start from Talion's Shadow of Mordor abilities, kicking them up a notch.
Talion could run fast and survive a drop from any height before, but now he can leap to the top of tall spires with a few button presses and double-jump, changing his momentum in mid-air. You could freeze an enemy with a punch before; now you can freeze (or explode) whole groups. Talion's domination abilities worked on Uruk and Caragor before, but now you can have high-flying Drakes at your command. Shadow of War is a playground for Talion once you've put a few points into him. It almost feels like a playground of destruction; a fantasy version of Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction.
Your Orc Army and The Nemesis System
Sure, the Nemesis System is a bit of an illusion, creating random orcs out of a wide range of names, voices, abilities, strengths, and weaknesses. Even if you can see the edges of the illusion Monolith has created though, that doesn't change the fact that it's damned fun.
Some of the combinations are just hilarious or endearing. From my game, I saw the slow, sad decline of Tuka the Infested, as he kept coming back only to meet the same death over and over. The betrayal of Dugz Slave-Keeper, later Dugz the Avenger, after I killed his blood brother. My man Buth Tree-Killer (above), an orc with some badass armor, crazy eyes, and burning axes, who conquered every goddamn thing I threw at him.
You can go on forums or Reddit and find countless stories involving players and the orcs they ran into. Like this video about Flogg the Moaner. Or this one about Shaka the Singer. One player relates how he brought over his favorite orc from Shadow of Mordor, only to have that orc betray him and become invincible. Here's a series of images about Khrosh the Ancient One, who after a number of subsequent deaths just wanted to die. The orcs are where most of the fun in Shadow of War is, providing endless shareable stories.
Prior to the endgame, choosing which Warchiefs will form the backbone of your siege army is an important decision and it endears you to that crew. More importantly, Shadow of War actually pays off in the feeling of ransacking and pillaging a fortress with your orc army. The walls fall, things are burnings, and orcs are dying. And in the midst of this chaos, you have objectives to complete and an Overlord to kill. The war part feels just right in Shadow of War, which is good because it was one of the bigger selling points. (And it's in the title and all.)
The Supporting Cast
Leave behind to the heady lore of Middle-Earth itself. Sure, there's Sauron, the Witch-King, Shelob, and Gondor here, but let's put all of that over in a different pile. Where Shadow of War really works is in the supporting cast that helps Talion in his quest. Gollum takes a turn towards seeing Talion as a bit of a hero. Ratbag returns with a new friend in tow. And Bruz the Chopper is a helpful Olog-hai who is the first to join your army and walk you through some early organizational problems.
The banter between Bruz and Talion is just top-notch. Bruz voice actor Gideon Emery (Destiny 2's Devrim Kay, Halo Wars 2's Captain Cutter, World of Warcraft's Lor'themar Theron) puts in the work, creating a fun and memorable partner for much of the game. I don't think the best of Shadow of War's cast really fits into the Middle-Earth universe, but I'm frankly glad they're there.
Four Things it Gets Wrong
The Feel Of Middle-Earth
Let's be real here. J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings are seminal works of fantasy literature. Very few creations have influenced pop culture and entertainment today like Tolkien's Middle-Earth. You can trace whole books, shows, and films back to this epic about rangers, orcs, elves, dwarves, and hobbits. As such, it has a very specific feel to it. There's a bit of humor, but most of The Lord of the Rings what would be considered straight-up, dry fantasy these days.
Shadow of War is not that. In my review, I stated that the game feels like Tolkien's work as filtered through Michael Bay. I'm sticking to that. A lot of folks have talked about Shelob being a hot lady, but the supporting cast I mentioned above? They don't really fit with the universe, or how Tolkien portrayed the orcs. Bruz and others like him are very colloquial, whereas I can't remember the Uruk saying much at all in Tolkien's work.
It just doesn't feel quite right, causing me to mentally diverge Monolith's work from the natural Lord of the Rings timeline.
The flipside of Talion being a mighty dealer of death is many of the fights in Shadow of War are pretty easy. Once you've unlocked a few abilities, Talion is an absolute monster. My deaths were generally the rare occurrences when I wandered into the wrong area, or another orc entered a fight I was already having. Even then, given Talion's speed and gymnastics, it's pretty easy to dip out of a fight when it goes against you. After the first Act, you gain the ability to summon an orc bodyguard and dominate bigger beasts, which makes things even easier for you.
As I've written before, I don't find Shadow of War's loot boxes to be the worst, but they definitely rear their ugly head as you move towards the latter part of the game. They're not necessary to progress, but they definitely make a few things easier. Training Orders make it simple to level up your orc army, and you can add new abilities to your crew.
When it comes to collecting orcs, you can kill the worst candidates for your army and hope the random number generator is kind in the future, but picking up fresh, leveled orcs from War Chests is still easier. The orcs you get from Chests can also be moved to any region or army under your control, making them more flexible than the normal orcs.
It's not a horrible system, but the faults of it become apparent when you talk about...
The Shadow Wars
The Shadow Wars is Middle-Earth: Shadow of War's endgame. Once you polish off the main story campaign, the game turns everything on its head. While you were enjoying running sieges on Sauron's army, The Shadow Wars means that Sauron is attacking back. You need to defend your fortresses against Sauron's army in ten stages.
Here, it becomes very important to have a rock solid army at each of your fortresses. You could get through the base game with whatever the game threw your way, but later parts of Shadow Wars needs your best of the best. Part of that is Talion: your orcs can't be higher level than you, so your level needs to match your opponent, putting your orcs on equal footing. The rest is just hoping you get good orcs. One high-level orc on the opposing side can easily clean up half of your army. And that's before you get to matching strengths and weaknesses to ensure your army triumphs.
Shadow Wars feels like Monolith Productions' response to complaints about Shadow of Mordor: players wanted the ability to keep fighting with their orcs. The problem is Shadow Wars is tuned a bit too grindy to be really enjoyable. I think there's a version of this mode that works, but this one isn't it.