Monolith’s sequel to 2014’s award-winning Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is known in the gaming industry as an idealistic image of how not to implement micro transactions into games. When fans realized that both loot boxes and paid loot boxes were to be a feature in Shadow of War, they declared that they didn’t want anything to do with it. However, just this past Tuesday, an official update from Monolith was released, an update which entirely removed both the loot boxes and micro transactions from the game. As a result, we can properly judge the game now on its own merits rather than the greedy qualities of a financial company in the gaming industry. While it may take strong liberties with the established lore of Tolkien, Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is a riveting game that builds on the legacy of Rocksteady’s Arkham franchise and creates a revolutionary and interactive fantasy experience that rivals and even tops its superb predecessor.
As mentioned before, Shadow of War takes multiple significant deviations from the original Tolkien lore, lore that has been built up through countless books that thoroughly detail the history of Middle-Earth. However, while some Tolkien scholars may criticize the game for practically being ignorant of the established mythology, I personally found the changes refreshing, similar to how the story of the recent mobile RPG, Hogwarts Mystery impacted me. It is a fresh take on a fantasy world and adds interesting concepts in order to make the game feel more interactive. However, while there are some interesting concepts on display, the actual execution of the story is somewhat muddled at times. For instance, during the second act of the game, when the player is given a wide variety of missions to complete, I found the pacing to be somewhat slow and lead to a rather dull experience in terms of storytelling. It features multiple storylines that never weave into the actual plot. The inclusion of such missions are most likely to boost the game’s length but leads to multiple instances where there is satisfying narrative reward for spending an hour or two of gameplay in these said missions. As an open world game, the story never takes the forefront of the experience but additional supplementary narrative material such as an extra character or plot twist could have emboldened the story of the game.
But while the story itself may leave some things to be desired, Middle-Earth: Shadow of War relies on a more practical approach to its storytelling, similar to that of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. What that means is that the game gives all the tools necessary to the player to create their own, personalized adventures. This is mainly due to the revolutionary Nemesis system. Improved from the predecessor, the system takes a stronger focus on the allies of the player, creating multiple dynamic cut scenes involving the player’s Orc followers when they betray, come back from the dead, or even come to fight at your side. While it may never live up to the expectations that its initial gameplay demo prompted, the system is still an iconic feature of the game and is possibly worth the entire price of the game.
In addition to the Nemesis system, there are clear inspirations from the Arkham franchise in terms of actual gameplay, namely combat and stealth. Combat flows in a three-dimensional form with a fixed camera and a free-flow system. The enemies faced in Shadow of War are miles ahead that of the Arkham franchise, in terms of difficulty. Many deaths, especially when played on the higher difficulties, will occur, leading to the iconic moment when the player’s death causes in-game consequences such as an Orc being promoted to a captain, or Warchief. As for its stealth, it is most likely the weakest gameplay aspect of the entire experience. It is often too forgiving with the AI of the enemies feeling wonky and almost stupid. After spending a few hours in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, I was jolted to come back to the shallow stealth sequences involving even shallower AI that is seen in most open-world action games today. However, most of the gameplay in Shadow of War will be its superb combat so the major hiccups seen in the stealth mechanics are mostly forgivable.
As for replay value, Shadow of War offers immense options, even if some are a little unnecessary. There are multiple “Shelob Memories” that are littered throughout the dense and large map. Upon finding these memories, a short cut scene is prompted, exploring the history of one of the game’s central characters. These add some of the narrative material needed and easily hooked my interest enough as to where I was able to obtain all of them in my first few hours of gameplay. However, from there, the collectibles or additional content offered feels lackluster to say the least. There are multiple artifacts littered throughout the game, but they have no practical purpose and really feel like a pointless addition. And while the Nemesis system is revolutionary, its wondrous effects often wear out, particularly in the draped and overbearing fourth act.
Overall, Shadow of War proves to be a memorable ride and makes it seem like a true shame that the financial tricks were implemented into what is otherwise a great game. Featuring stellar gameplay mechanics and a system that reinvigorates the genre’s slightly sluggish tone to storytelling, Shadow of War is an impressive feat of superb development, art direction and designers. It’s an experience worthy to be enjoyed by action fans, Arkham fans, and even Tolkien fans if they can ignore blatant inconsistencies the game has with its source material. If you’re still not sure about Shadow of War, be sure to check out our gameplay listed above and download the demo which is available from both the Xbox Marketplace and the PlayStation Store.
Score: 8.3 out of 10
In the epic sequel to the award-winning Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, go behind enemy lines to forge an army, conquer Fortresses and dominate Mordor from within. Experience how the award winning Nemesis System creates unique personal stories with every enemy and follower, and confront the full power of the Dark Lord Sauron and his Ringwraiths in this epic new story of Middle-earth.