Middle-earth: Shadow of War Review
It takes a lot for a game to consume me in the same way that Middle-earth: Shadow of War has. I went to bed seeing parry and dodge prompts, I heard the voices of enemy Orcs and Olog-Hais in my head whilst stood in the queue at the shops, and I’m sure I saw the Bright Lord in an episode of the Great British Bake Off. Point is, this game has bled into my reality due to the amount of time I’ve spent with it, fighting Sauron and the Nazgûl, destroying armies of Orcs and forging my own, riding Drakes and Caragors, dominating Uruks, and simply existing in Monolith’s glorious vision of Middle-earth.
Shadow of War is hands down the best game I’ve played all year, for a multitude of reasons. The combat and movement is excellent, the upgraded Nemesis System is so intricate and superbly devised, the visuals and the score are sublime, and the story can easily rival the masterpiece that is The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I became addicted to fighting Orcs, hunting them down, confronting those that betrayed me or killed my Captains. I fell in love with the different regions and their landscapes, and I formed a bond with Talion through his morals and belief in a better world – a better Mordor.
The story takes place straight after the events of Shadow of Mordor, where Celebrimbor and Talion have forged a new ring of power to fight Sauron, and free Middle-earth of his darkness. It is such a vast tale filled with familiarity, but also wonder. You’re going to see people you’re familiar with, but also plenty of new characters too, and you’re also going to notice places that will be known if you’re a fan of Tolkien’s work. It’s devised in such a way that it’s not as simple as one sole story, but a combination of many constructed into one epic narrative. The different quests see you fulfilling many story points that ultimately bring about massive repercussions for Middle-earth, but you can find out those for yourself.
You’ll do missions set around Gondor, learning about how Minas Ithil has been attacked by Sauron’s army and the Nazgûl (the holders of the nine rings of power). You meet up with a woman called Elitariel who you’ll work with quite a lot before the story is over, as well as fighting the tormented Nazgûl including the Witch-King. There are missions you’ll complete for Shelob, the Olog-Hai called Bruz, Carnan, and loads more. They all play a role in the story of Talion and the fate of Middle-earth in one way or another, and there’s never a mission that feels like filler. Each one is crafted excellently, serving a major purpose for the story, and to give you a fantastic experience.
Playing Shadow of War is immense, and the upgraded combat and movement system is varied and fun. It’s also incredibly versatile, allowing you to personalize your own style to the letter by unlocking a wealth of new abilities across the massive skill trees. You can focus on a multitude of branches such as Wraith and Combat which really open up gameplay the further you get. For example, the Bird of Prey ability allows you to freeze in the air when using Focus and aim your Elf-shot at any surrounding Orcs.
Shadow Strike is by far the best upgrade, and while it may not be available at the start, you become much better off for having it. You can instantly move to an Orcs location via teleportation, or now you can bring them to you by holding in the same button. It means that size providing (and if they’re not resistant) you can bring Orc Captains and Warchiefs to you. There’s so much scope for variety when tackling an outpost or a fortress that you’ll be overwhelmed at first, but when you start to incorporate everything you’ve learned and everything you’ve unlocked, it’s among the best experiences you’ll have.
Moving about is liberating, such as having Elven Agility to run extra fast or having the Shadow Strider ability to double jump up buildings and through the air, making it much easy to stay on rooftops and get away from huge Orc onslaughts. You can also barge into Orcs, slide across the ground, use stealth to kill in silence, or ride around on a multitude of beasts through the Shadow Mount ability, letting you dominate a broken Caragor or Graug to ride on and use to fight in your honour.
I became hooked trying to get better gear and weaponry in Shadow of War, and the way it does this certainly isn’t revolutionary, but it becomes addictive. Certain Orcs will drop gear, and beating Epic and Legendary enemies will drop special items that form sets, and by completing challenges will let you upgrade them even further. Gems can also be tagged onto gear giving you small buffs to increase the damage a certain weapon does, or giving you more health.
There is an online market where you can buy loot boxes, but they aren’t essential. You find plenty of decent gear littered around Mordor, so there’s no need to look to the market if you’re struggling. You can also purchase Orcs for your army on the market, but again, this isn’t a necessity because you’ll encounter so many opportunities to dominate them on your journey.
One of the greatest features of the original was the Nemesis System mechanic, meaning Orcs would remember who you were, get promoted through their ranks and increase their level, all in real time as your story progressed. It returns here, but on a much grander scale. There are lots of different classes of Orcs, such as the Archers, Savages, and Olog-Hais. Assassins, Berserkers, and Marksmen are more advanced and are associated with the Captains and above. Each class has a weak point, but also a strength so knowing them becomes commonplace.
It’s essential to learn how each one works, and find ways to exploit them. Berserkers, for example, are brutal and relentless when attacking, but blocking and freezing allows you to attack without any quarrel. Olog-Hais are big bastards, but you can stun them and climb on their backs, stabbing them to wear them down. There are loads of ways to bring down the Captains and Warchiefs, not just through the types of class they are. Grog barrels are littered around which can be poisoned and blown up, as are the huge sacks of meat for attracting Caragors, so if they have a fear of these beasts, or are instantly dazed or heavily damaged by poison, this is the way to go. You can interrogate Orcs for intel like before, and doing so will make these battles much easier than going in blind.
The real genius of the Nemesis System is how you can exploit it. You can dominate a whole host of Orcs to recruit to your army, send them to kill rival army Captains, infiltrate rival Warchiefs and gain their trust a-la Donnie Brasco, and assign them to be bodyguards to your own Warchiefs or even yourself. This led to many amazing moments where my Captains would stab a Warchief right in the back, destabilizing him and helping to turn the tides of battle in a heartbeat. It also had its downfalls, as members of my army might turn on me when I needed them most, or ambush me when I was already overrun. It’s magnificent because encounters, betrayals, and ambushes can happen at any time, but this feels more realistic and makes everything you do seem important.
There are plenty of Nemesis Missions and Vendetta Missions you can do to kill those that defeated or humiliated you, and they’re only available for a limited amount of time due to death and revenge being a part of every Orc’s life, not just yours. They’ll want revenge as well, and boy, they come in droves. One of the Warchiefs I destroyed hunted me down hours later and faced me on the plains of Gongoroth, where we fought to the death in a long and arduous battle. These kinds of fights happen all the time, and you’ll even encounter certain enemies tens of hours later, in ways you never thought you would. It’s a system that bleeds in the Fortress Sieges as well, because a massive part of Shadow of War is the war side of it.
The game is set in acts, and after Act I, you begin to build an army to take down the first fortress, ran by an Overlord – the most powerful Orc in the region. You must dominate Captains to join your ranks, level them up by training and sending them off on missions, culminating in taking down these fortresses in the most epic kind of fantasy war ever seen in a game. Once you’ve selected the Warchiefs you’re going to take into battle, you must give them an Upgrade, such as an army of axe-wielding Orcs or Caragors. Having settled on an army, you’ll be given a level based on the ranking of your army and how many Warchiefs have been selected.
The opposing army also has a level, so it’s important to match or exceed it for a better chance of victory. I found that the best way to do this was through hunting down their Warchiefs individually and killing them before attempting a siege. This rapidly decreases the fortress level, and makes capturing the victory points within the fortress much easier as the Warchiefs aren’t around. It can take time to get a fortress level down, but the satisfaction of taking them down far outweighs the journey there. There gets to a point within the game where you must defend them too, and this changes the dynamic. You will need to bolster defences such as your walls and your lines of defences atop the walls with Siege Beasts (Graugs trained by the military).
There is so much to do in Shadow of War that at first, it’ll overwhelm you, but the best thing to do is just enjoy it. If a mission presents itself, do it. Soak it in and enjoy every little thing, from the collecting of Gondorian artifacts, learning about Shelob and Celebrimbor’s pasts, to the main intertwining missions. The depth of combat is insane, and you’re constantly finding new ways to approach the enemy, and moving around has never felt as free or as efficient. I’ve haven’t even mentioned fighting a Balrog, or burning a herd of Caragors as I swooped down on my Drake in the same way as that episode in last year’s Game of Thrones.
I was in awe of the visuals, as every region looked glorious no matter where you were. Heading into a siege or just admiring the skyline in the momentarily peaceful seconds of entering a new region is stunning. The music is equally incredible, and having the music react to when you strike your sword against an enemy is dynamic and unique. Everything about this game ticks every box in what makes a game enjoyable. Between the robust skill trees, advanced nemesis system, and epic story, Shadow of War will be the foundation for many games to come.
Expanded Nemesis system
Intricate and versatile skill tree
Glorious combat and movement
Siege battles are excellent
Epic story and interesting characters
Massive scale may overwhelm at first