Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is a monster of a game. It is a huge, sprawling thing that demands your time and effort. It wants your hours and your upkeep. At times, it feels like The Silmarillion in game form: an endless list of names, 90 percent of whom you either kill yourself or watch die. A grand landscape of places from Middle-Earth lore, where you'll have a bit of fun and kill a ton of orcs.
Right off the bat, if you're a hardcore, veteran fan of Middle-Earth, I don't know if this is for you. Shadow of Mordor bent the lore of Middle-Earth, and Shadow of War has stretched that lore out on a rack and broken it. The game begins right from the end of Shadow of Mordor, with Talion and his Wraith sidekick Celebrimbor actually forging a new Ring of Power.
Yeah, that's the starting point for a ride that includes a super-powered undying ranger at the head of an army orcs with Cockney accents. Talion gets visions from the lady version of giant god-spider Shelob. He gains a bit of help from Carnan, an ancient forest spirit who can create wood versions of drakes and graug. The Balrog? Remember in Lord of the Rings where they had a bit of trouble with that thing? You'll fight one here. Just divorce yourself from trying to fit this in-between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. This is an alternate timeline where Tolkien was part Michael Bay. Enjoy the ride. Let go.
The mechanical base here is everything you remember from the first Shadow of Mordor. Talion runs fast, jumps high, swings a mean sword, and shoots some deadly spirit arrows. One thing I enjoyed about the original was the sense of power it imparted to the player. In Shadow of Mordor, most of my deaths were either from absolute carelessness or simply being overwhelmed by too many enemies, not from a lack of tools. While most sequels would take Talion down a notch, Monolith does not play the game. Everything must be bigger!
Most of the abilities, once unlocked, have three different upgrades that can modify them, though you can only choose one at a time. Stealth kills? One ability lets you kill two enemies in succession. An upgrade offers multiple enemies as long as you have Focus meter to keep the streak going. You could previously poison grog barrels. Now that poison can be tweaked to make orcs explode, or attack other orcs, spreading the poison. Fire Arrow let you cause campfires to explode; the newer version has an upgrade that lets you can make campfires create spiders. How does that work? I have no clue, but it is awesome.
Talion could run real fast and fall from any height without taking damage. Now you can vault up towers and other structures like the Hulk. You could leap across wide expanses; now you can double-jump if you upgrade it. Riding a Graug is old hat. Now you can ride drakes. I have no clue how Monolith tops this if there's another sequel.
In Shadow of Mordor, Talion could dominate creatures: Uruk, caragor, graug. That's all still here, but the developer has blown it out into a full cornerstone of the game. You will eventually dominate entire armies, controlling whole regions of a vast map. And it all starts with the revamped Nemesis System.
The Nemesis System was the primary selling point of Shadow of Mordor, but the longer you played, the more you could see the edges of the illusion. That's still apparent here, but the combinations that go into creating an orc are much more varied. They still sport the strengths and weaknesses of the previous game, the stuff you need to watch out for and exploit to win. They now have Tribes though, various disparate groups of orcs that mill about in certain areas and impart new bonuses: Warmongers were heavy gauntlets that can trap your sword, while the Machine tribe uses vicious chains to stun you and prevent you from moving. Classifications from Shadow of Mordor return as well, with more options. Trackers hunt you down, Assassins will ambush you at the worst times, and Commanders are always surrounded by their troops.
All of this matters more in Shadow of War because not only are you fighting the Uruk, but you're collecting them as well. At a certain point in Shadow of Mordor, I stopped collecting Intel on specific orcs. It didn't matter. I'd find out when I met them on the battlefield; if they were too hard, I'd run. In Shadow of War, I gather Intel all the time. The game is all about setting up a solid crew in each region. Does that guy have fire axes? He's in. A poisoner with few weaknesses? That'll be useful in this area. They're ugly Pokemon.
Once they're under your thrall, you have options. You can send them to kill other orcs. You can set one as your bodyguard, allowing you to summon them to fight with you whenever you want. There are pit fights you can undertake to level them up. You can command them to join a Captain or Warchief and then betray them. Just make sure you stay stronger, because they can and will betray you if you're not.
Eventually, you'll form Siege teams with your best Uruk in a region, with your squad choices and subsequent upgrades determining your army composition. This is the "War" in the game's title. These sieges really do feel good, with your army attacking an intimidating fortress together. You have to fight towards and capture a few points before you can face off against the Overlord. If you win, you promote one of your Uruk to the position, bringing the region under your control. (Sieges actually fit into the game's online multiplayer, allowing you to lay siege to another player's fortress for loot and experience.)
Shadow of War's biggest problem is really the sheer size of it. There's so much to do. Just focusing on the stuff illustrated above, the actual act of managing your army and taking territory? It takes time. You'll find Intel, kill or dominate a couple of Captains, send your new crew around the region, weaken the Overlord by taking out his Warchiefs, and then finally take down the Overlord. I boiled that down to a sentence, but it's a long process. It takes a lot of effort. By time you do it the third time, it feels like a bit of a slog. And that's not counting the story missions, challenges, or the collectibles, like Shelob memories or Gondor artifacts.
There's so much here that the Uruk army, which is thing that is being sold as the main part of Shadow of War, isn't even available until the game's second act. That's a few hours and one whole region into the game proper. And the thing is, I don't really disagree with that decision, because Monolith needs time to ease you into everything in Shadow of War. Shadow of Mordor was a 15-25 hour game. Shadow of War feels at least double that. When Shadow of War is at its best–you're flying across the battlefield freezing enemies, setting them on fire, and destroying whole armies with your Uruk crew–it's awesome. The problem is it doesn't quite sustain that satisfaction and momentum throughout the entire game.
There's also the looming addition of Chests, Shadow of War's version of the ever-present Loot Boxes. I gained a few Loot Chests by avenging other players in Online Vendettas, a returning version of the mode where you'd kill Uruk that had killed other players. Warner Bros and Monolith have insisted that the game was balanced without Chests, so I purposefully didn't open them. Loot Chests contain gear–Talion acquires weapons and armor this time around, instead of upgrading his set with runes alone–and experience boosts, but I found I didn't need any more than what I acquired naturally by killing orcs.
On the other hand, there are War Chests. War Chests include Orc Followers and training orders to level up and change your existing orcs. When you start really knuckling down and building your army, you can get by without using War Chests, but eventually, you'll want to use them to fill out the empty spots in your ranks. Orcs from War Chests go to your Garrison, meaning you can move them to any region, instead of waiting for it to naturally replenish. (With enemy orcs you'll have to hunt and dominate.)
So you head to the Market. All you can purchase with Mirian, Shadow of War's basic currency, are the lowest level of Loot and War Chests. A Silver War Chest, which costs Mirian, will net you 2 orcs (at least 1 Epic) and either a training order or boost. Everything above that has to be bought with Gold, which you can only get via a real money transaction. (I didn't do that for review, as the Gold isn't on the PlayStation Store.) A Gold War Chest gets you 3 orcs, 1 Legendary and 2 Epic. The top level offers three Mithril Chests for only three times as much Gold as a Gold Chest. Those Mithril Chests will each give you 4 Legendary orcs and 1 Legendary training order.
So in the end, you just put your Mirian towards the basic Silver chests, spend money for Gold, or do it the old fashioned way, hoping time and the random number god smile upon you. It's a less than enjoyable experience, adding to something that feels like a grind at times.
It's a shame, because on a moment-to-moment basis, I really enjoy Shadow of War. The game delivers those types of stories that you want to share with people. That time I thought I was dead, only for a Gondorian soldier to save me. (Later, I was saved by the Orc Slayer himself!) The one fight where I was hunting one orc, only to run into another, started fighting him, had the first orc join in, and then got ambushed by a third. Or the time one of my crew betrayed a Warchief and the opening backstab nearly one shot them. So sweet.
These are fun moments. The Nemesis System is an illusion, but it's one I still enjoy. I legitimately enjoyed building my own orc army and stomping over someone else's fortress. I went for revenge whenever I died, because I hate their backtalk and sneering faces. I like when orcs reference stuff that's happened in the past. (The Shadow of Mordor issue where certain orcs never truly die is still here, but at least they don't become invincible gods anymore.) I even enjoy the odd supporting cast surrounding the grim and gritty duo of Talion and Celebrimbor.
Despite all that, Shadow of War does stumble into a bit of a grind in the latter part of the game and the Chests system could be tuned much better. As it stands now, it's transparent in wanting you to open your wallet and buy a bit of Gold. Those issues are what keep Shadow of War from being an absolutely amazing game, instead of just a great one.
This is a beautiful game, in that it throws so many ugly faces your way. Oh, also the environmental artists did a bang up job this time around, giving each region more of a sense of place.
Shadow of War is much bigger than its predecessor, offering more orcs, more gear, more to conquer, and your very own orc army. It's a massive game with so much to do that it can feel like a bit of a grind later in the game. Likewise, the loot box mechanic interfaces with army upkeep in a way that feels less than satisfying. Shadow of War is still a great game, but there's a linger corruption that keeps it from perfection.