Over the last few months, I can’t think of another game that has had so much negative air around it than Middle-earth: Shadow of War from Monolith Productions and Warner Brothers. There have been countless articles about microtransactions and more resulting in a ton of controversy. Thankfully having played it, Shadow of War is a really great experience and one that fans of the first will feel right at home with. It is bigger in every way and It only falters when it comes to some story segments.
Narratively, Shadow of War picks up right from the latter moments of Shadow of Mordor. You play as Talion who has Celebrimbor’s spirit infused within and are on a quest for revenge. You soon run into Shelob who takes the form of a Hollywood movie poster girl for superhero movie for some reason. I get the fact that this isn’t canon allows for creative liberties but this felt a bit too off for my liking. Shelob plays an important part because you end up giving up the ring of power to her to get Celebrimbor back. The story that continues isn’t mind blowing and gets pretty weak at times but the Orc personalities and core game loop more than make up for it. There are a few returning characters from the LOTR universe like Gollum but I’d recommend treating this as a separate entity to get the most out of it.
One of Shadow of Mordor’s highlights for many was the Nemesis system. This is expanded upon here. When I said things were bigger and better here, this extends to the combat as well. The combat is sublime with abilities that unlock as you play and each sandbox like location here is a joy to conquer. Combat animations are slick and the actual combat is quite forgiving early on as you are getting the grip of things. The loot system is a nice touch.
Your aim to conquer fortresses begins at the bottom with the use of your Nemesis System and Celebrimbor’s powers that let you slowly enlist Orcs into your ranks and defeat many others. Encounters with Orcs are memorable through their class differences and personalities. There’s one that will play a song for you as you die. The lively nature of Orcs and how they interact with others and with you and remember things makes the experience more dynamic than expected. There’s a randomness element at play that will make for a unique experience and adds a bit of replay value. At one point the overarching plot feels unnecessary when you’re having so much fun building up your own army, meeting new Orcs, shaming them, killing others, and more.
At first, Shadow of War feels pretty standard in scale but once you reach the second act, things open up revealing what feels like a game that maybe too massive for its own good. Entering a new location for the first time is jaw-droppingly gorgeous in most cases. Get ready to take a ton of screenshots. The attention to detail with enemy designs is also excellent. The only real downside to the visuals is how some of the textures look a bit low resolution for a game with these production values.
While there are a lot of gorgeous vistas through the multiple locations you explore here, Monolith Productions nailed the voice acting and the music. When you just boot up the game, the main menu theme is good enough to fit into any of the LOTR movie soundtracks. It is a small thing but the score and voice acting are top notch.
There are unfortunately some things that sour the overall experience. Shadow of War is still a very good game but it doesn’t do itself any favours with elements of grinding. There are situations where you have to redo a specific battle depending on your choice which just feel like padding. The microtransactions are obviously the elephant in the room and while I am against single player focussed games having microtransactions, they aren’t necessary here. Being shown them in the menu however is not cool. It reminds me of Microsoft with ads across the Xbox dashboard.
If you’ve wanted a game in the LOTR universe that feels epic in scale and has great gameplay, look no further. It isn’t close to being perfect but Shadow of War is a blast to play and your experience will be unique and memorable thanks to the varied personalities for Orcs, addictive gameplay loop, and combat.