Middle-Earth: Shadow of War Review

By Blair Nokes on October 23, 2017

Monolith Productions surprised us all with the release of Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor back in 2014. Borrowing aesthetical designs from Peter Jackson’s vision of Middle Earth, the game was set well between the events of the Hobbit and the Fellowship of the Ring, and told the story of fallen Ranger, who eventually cheats death by being infused with the spirit of Celebrimbor – who is most remembered for the forging of the nineteen Rings of Power. Shadow of Mordor took the best elements of the Assassin’s Creed and Batman Arkham franchises and used them as the basis of its core mechanics. Talion would scale large structures to get a better sense of the map, and could continue to chain combos with perfectly timed counters.

But what was most memorable about Shadow of Mordor was the remarkable Nemesis system. It was a way for players to truly experience their own unique playthroughs, with randomly generated Orc Captains and Warchiefs that changed depending on your level of interaction with them. If you happened to be killed by one, their power level would increase, and some may even rise in the ranks of their army. It was a wonderful way to eliminate a break of immersion when a player dies in game. Monolith’s incredible artificial intelligence would remember who you are, and the specific moment they encountered you.

Three years later, Monolith returns with the sequel to what became an instant classic with Middle-Earth: Shadow of War. The game serves to take place immediately after the events of the first game, and offers some truly innovative improvements on their already extraordinarily unique foundation.

Towards the end of Shadow of Mordor, Talion and Celebrimbor travel into the heart of Mount Doom, where they decide to forge a new Ring of Power; one that is presumably free of Sauron’s corruption. Upon completion, Shelob intercepted and took Celebrimbor hostage, forcing Talion to give up the ring in exchange for his companion. Now with the new Ring, Shelob has the ability to peer into the future, and warns Talion that Minas Ithil - the last Gondorian stronghold – is under siege. While Talion wishes to help his fellow Gondorians, Celebrimbor is more interested in ensuring the safety of the legendary Palantir – currently in Minas Ithil's possession. Despite their efforts in taking down a few Overlords and putting a dent in Sauron’s forces, Minas Ithil is eventually overrun, with the Witch King reigning over the fortress and renaming it Minas Mogul.

I won’t go too much more into the story’s finer details, but the overall plot for Shadow of War was very well done. Expect some predictable plot twists peppered about, but everything is made to fit within the realm of Jackson’s envisioning of Middle Earth, and on that front Monolith have done a fine job. For all intents and purposes, I would consider the Shadow series to be an ‘elseworld’ rendition of sorts rather than being canonical. An example of this was the decision to have Shelob – a Giant Spider - take on the form of a woman throughout the majority of the campaign. There’s no real reference as to how or why this needed to happen, outside of a loose connection to Shelob’s mother, Ungoliant. Somewhere is a reference to the fact that Ungoliant takes on the form of a spider, which is interpreted as Ungoliant doing so by her own choice. This premise was then taken and applied it to Shelob under the presumption that she has only taken the form of a Giant Spider because she chooses to. To be fair, the origin and back story of Shelob are next to non-existent in Peter Jackson’s films; since the games have more in common with the film than it does the literature, it seems like it’s free game to tackle different interpretations of beings that make small appearances or are briefly mentioned.

The biggest features and highlights of Shadow of Mordor was its sensible growth into this large sandbox-styled game, and the ever-changing Nemesis system with enemy Orcs. Both have been elevated to an order of magnitude larger with Shadow of War. The game is separated into 5 regions, each with their own unique colour palette and geography. The first city of Minas Ithil is packed with quests to take on. There are static quests like the main storyline, and side quests that may have a time limit or will change according to your actions. Warchiefs or Captains you kill will remove any associated quests tied to them, for example. Some Uruk-Hai or Olag-Hai Warchiefs develop relationships with one another, and will either ally themselves to form a power struggle, or compete with one another.

The Nemesis system has flourished and grown from simply affecting randomly generated Orcs to affecting sectional ecosystems within each region. There are fortresses within the regions that are ruled over by a Tribe. Sauron’s forces have approximately seven tribes, and each have their own distinct relationship within the game’s world. For instance, the Feral Tribe will not only have more beasts about them, but you may find structures and walls adorned with large bones of beasts. Any fortress taken over by the Dark Tribe will have a permanent overcast over that area. Most importantly, should a Tribal Overlord fall to another, you will witness the dynamic shift in tone and atmosphere according to the new Tribal leader.

Shadow of Mordor introduced a nifty mechanic in which you can briefly manipulate an enemy Orc to fight alongside you. With Shadow of War, you can actually recruit followers to build an army. Going back to the Tribes in each fortress, you can also have one of your followers infiltrate the enemy ranks and eventually have them become the new Overlord.

Everything else about the Nemesis system remains largely the same, albeit you will encounter far more variety in terms of species, and playstyles. Interrogating “Worms” in the ranks will reveal crucial intel with regards to vulnerable weaknesses each Captain and Warchief has, and also what they are vigilant against. Some get squeamish by the sight of an execution, and will try and flee. Others may be impervious to arrows. One of the greatest moments was fighting against an Uruk-Hai who ambushed Talion. He was equipped with a large shield, so naturally the strategy would be to vault over and attack from behind. This worked initially, until I was notified that this Captain had developed ‘adaptive’ behaviour, so they’ve memorized my attack pattern and now counter it each time I try at it, forcing me to change strategies on the fly. This is one of the myriad of ways in which the Nemesis system is so profoundly advanced, and part of the reason why the Shadow games are so wonderful to play.

Shadow of Mordor felt it had more of a hack-and-slash component at its core. With Shadow of War, the design focus has changed into more of an Action-RPG where experience is gained and each level awards you with Skill points that can be used to unlock unique abilities from the new skill tree system. There are six categories: Combat, Predator, Ranged, Wraith, Mounted, and Story, with the latter obviously tied to particular events at different stages. Unlocking combat executions is a staple and probably the best one to start you out; as you chain your combos together you subsequently build a meter. When it is full, you can press the triangle and circle buttons simultaneously to unleash an instant kill. This slows down time and allows you to think about which enemy you want to focus on next. Other more advanced iterations of this will have you doing a freeze enemies in a certain area of effect, and even faster ways at draining enemies mid combo so that you can replenish your health.

Treasure Hunter is perhaps one of the most useful abilities that probably should have been implemented at the core design level. Whenever you beat an enemy, Captain or Warchief, they will drop Runes or Gear. Runes can be used to enhance certain attributes, like experience boosts, damage and maximum health. Gear is pretty self-explanatory, and is ranked based on rarity. Rarity is colour-coded as well, with orange representing Epic gear and purple as Legendary. To collect these rewards, players would originally have to stand and hold the top-right shoulder button. This was rather clunky as it kept you open to enemy attacks. This ability seems almost seems like it was a patch to a poorer design choice, as now you can just walk over the item and it automatically collects it for you.

Online Vendettas are a neat incorporation of the game’s online playability. In essence, it allows you to interact with another player’s world and take revenge on the enemy that defeated that player. You are rewarded with Loot Chests that always drop rare items. The items themselves are incredibly varied, and all change Talion's cosmetic appearance, furthering the uniqueness approach to each player’s experience. Unused gear can be broken down into one of the game’s forms of currency – Mirian, which can be spent at the Market.

The Market is the game’s Microtransaction hub. Mirian eared in the game can be spent on the lower-tier Loot Chest and War Chests; Loot grants you gear ranging in rarity, and War chests give you followers for your army. Each of these will have at least one rare item. The second form of currency is Gold. Gold is primarily earned by spending money via DLC on the various gold packs. After working it out, the conversion rate for 1 Gold coin is approximately $0.01 US Dollars, but packs will give you bonus Gold regardless. You exclusively need Gold to purchase the higher end chests that will guarantee rare items and followers.

Thankfully, Warner Bros. and Monolith have thought about those who don’t wish to break the bank, and have offered in game challenges for players to earn small amounts of Gold. Naturally, the incentive is to make earning Gold organically more burdensome so that you take the easy route and purchase preset packages. I am at least thankful that they chose to give players the option of earning Gold normally, and I think it needs to be stressed that Gold and the concept of these Chests in general are not a paywall by any means. To reiterate, you don’t need to access a single chest, be it through Gold or Mirian to beat Shadow of War, or get the “full game experience.” One thing I would suggest is that somewhere down the line, the game seeks to offer some sort of Mirian to Gold converter.

As far as earning rare gear is concerned, there are side quests throughout the campaign that allow you to collect fragments of the Ithildin Door poem. Each region contains six poem fragments. When you obtain all for any given region, you head to the Ithildin gate, recite the poem and obtain a piece of the Legendary Bright Lord Armour Set. I appreciate that it requires you to arrange each fragment in its proper order, which makes you feel like you’ve unlocked an ancient secret when you do it correctly.

Shadow of War can be visually remarkable at times. As mentioned earlier, the game is quite large in scale and size, with each region looking totally unique. On top of that there is a dynamic weather and daylight system incorporated, which ultimately affect who you face in each region at any given time. The Nemesis system comes with a wonderful array of creatively designed Uruk-Hai and Olag-Hai Captains, Warchiefs and Overlords. No two will look the same and all are randomly generated so that no two players will tend to encounter the same Captain with the same strengths and weaknesses.

Some of the detail in the higher ranking Uruk-Hai and Olag-Hai is great; their faces, texturework and movements all have far more care put into them than just the lowly horde-like grunts you face. However, each first encounter is met with an introductory speech by that particular Nemesis. Some are brief but others can be quite lengthy; some ramble on and others just speak flat out gibberish. I wouldn’t harp on this as much if there were any way to skip these. Where this novelty wears itself out are instances when you chase after one Captain, and are ambushed by two others; you now have three unskippable introductions you need to sit through.

Talion has some impressive movement choreography about him; the way he climbs structures, pounces on enemies, and the effects used as he teleports distances with Celebrimbor’s abilities look fantastic. There are brief instances of framerate dips, given the sheer size of the world, and I did notice some texture pop-in, most noticeable in the shadow textures for larger objects.

Final Thoughts

Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is an exceptional game by its own merits; as a sequel it surpasses where many sequels fall short, in that it builds upon its predecessor’s core foundation and offers a true innovation that not only makes sense within the game’s world, but offers even more to coincide with Monolith’s philosophies in giving players truly unique gameplay experiences. The new Nemesis system is absolutely that winning factor. Shifting from just affecting characters, to affecting them and mini societies within each region seems like a huge leap forward from a design perspective. Watching enemy fortresses crumble at the hands of one of your Followers is very satisfying as is exploiting a Warchief’s weakness thanks to the intel you gather. There’s a lot of thought and care that went into the building of the game’s artificial intelligence, and it shows. Despite some grievances with regards to the lore’s continuity, and some concerns with regards to the methods of obtaining Gold, Shadow of War is very highly recommended.

Middle-Earth: Shadow of War was reviewed using a PS4 Physical Copy provided by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment. You can find additional information about Gaming Union's ethics policy here.
The Nemesis System received monumental innovations that now have player choices and character interactions affecting the ecosystems within each region.
I appreciate the slight shift from Action Hack-and-slash to more of an Action-RPG, with loads of options for Talion's gear, and a terrific skill tree.
The core hack-and-slash gameplay remains largely the same, and looks as smooth as it feels. Some of the upgrades with the skill tree are almost essential to excelling at the game.
The new Follower mechanic is a great evolution of Shadow of Mordor's brief mind-control ability, and lets you recruit an army to combat Sauron's forces, or have them infiltrate fortresses from within.
The Treasure Hunter ability really should have just been the default way to obtain fallen rewards, rather than the clunky button interaction you're given to start with.
The currency should have a method for converting Mirian to Gold, on top of offering in-game challenges that earn players Gold outside of spending money on the Gold packages.
Some framerate dips and texture pop-ins are infrequent and tend to be forgiven since it's a large open world, but they're noticeable nonetheless.
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