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Middle-earth: Shadow of War (PC) artwork

Middle-earth: Shadow of War (PC) review

"Expands on every mechanic Mordor had, which is exactly what a sequel should do."

Shadow of Mordor was a great game corrupted by it’s incredible lack of replayability. I have about forty hours on which comprises a full playthrough and maybe some extra on two others. All collectibles on both sections of the map and everything. The problem is, once you figured out orc detection ranges, you could clear an entire camp without them the wiser. The captains also become a bit clear-cut once you figure out how to best kill them which usually amounted to two ways; Stealth stabbing or headshotting. If they happened to be immune to both then, and only then, were you in for an actual fight. However I cleared most of the game stealthing through it and after the initial early game difficulty by not having any skills or stats, it became a breeze and I became unkillable.

We return to him in what is presumably just a few days or weeks after the end of the last game, and he immediately has his ring blackmailed away from him from the spider Shelob, often taking a human form here. For some reason. The majority of the first act is trying to manuever between visions she gives Talion, and saving a Gondorian stronghold from a new assault from the orcs. From there, my first dozen or so hours are largely dedicated to leveling up through the new system and getting geared so that I can handle some of the higher level captains that are running around.

I’m happy to report that the sequel, Shadow of War, has added a lot of nuance to the whole Nemesis mechanic as well as making sure Talion can’t take a damn hit in the early game. Very quickly I already acquired a proper nemesis named Grisha, who originally looked like a fairly normal gentleman but after cleaving him in half, he was put back together and was one of the highest level orcs I’ve faced as of this writing, eventually earning himself up to twenty before cleaving him in half yet again.

That’s a pretty tall order for early game, as he had a ton more health than any other orc I’ve faced.

I mentioned nuance earlier, and there’s a lot more to the Strength/Weakness system than last time around. In SoM, it mostly amounted to a random shuffle of a dozen things. Here, they have eight different categories between them from hates, fears, vulnerabilities, traits, bonuses and more. You have to properly plan around each captain encounter and the game emphasizes the summoning of spiders, Ghuls, and beasts to come to your advantage a lot more than they did before.

In addition to that, captains are a constantly flowing force. In SoM you could clear an entire war map for the zone and it only refills if you die or purposefully pass the time through fast travel towers. In SoW, every encounter and power struggle has a “turn” mechanic, each starting with three. Once you do three of them, new struggles pop up as do new captains. I find this to be a mixed blessing, as sometimes I like to clear the map just so that I have less captains to deal with in random world roaming, but instead I hunt down one captain only to find an ambusher popping up on a ledge above or the blood-brother of a previously killed orc assaulting me, bringing a bit of complexity to my usually clear-cut goals.

In yet another addition, enemy captains will consistently evolve to your tactics if it’s take a while to bring them down. Grisha above evolved against two things between four different fights with him; I vaulted over him a lot in the beginning and he earned the Vault-breaker trait. When they stopped working, during the final (or latest) fight against him he evolved against my wraith-stun attack so eventually I just had to slowly earn my fury in order to do a proper execution.

It’s a lot more exciting than before, and it’s a much welcome level of complexity from SoM’s late-game ease.

I don’t recall too much of the domination mechanic from the first game. I remember it being a late-game perk in the final act, which by then I was maxed out on every weapon and skill stat I had my hands on, so I rolled through the story missions very easily by doing the bare minimum. As a result, I cannot recall how complex it really was, I do remember you can attach your controlled minions to warchiefs and the like and have them betray your quarry. Well, that’s still there and much more. You recruit an Olog war troll to this end, whom I assume is fully scripted because it wouldn’t let me use intel to “discover” him earlier, and he has a ton of voiced lines that tutorialize how to recruit captains, use them as bodyguards, and order them around to do different things.

I was hunting a boss and attached not one, but two of my own minions against him. One of my mates axed him and took him down to what was essentially 1% health, “Breaking” him and making him able to be controlled. It was then I found out I cannot recruit orcs that are a higher level than me (I was 20, he was 22) but I did have the option to “shame” him which tanks their levels. If there’s a guy you want to grab because of his epic or legendary status, that is the way to do it as he flees and shows up in another confrontation event, where you can control him as per your level and then level him up through the whole army mechanic in the future.

It’s all rather well done and not at all difficult to do. The ends to these means are the siege battles, which are actual raids against major strongholds. They can be easy or hard depending on what you do, like I discovered that the fortress had some kind of fire pitch they’d use to pour on my siegebreakers but that didn’t happen when I disabled both of the underbosses protecting the stronghold’s Overlord.

I had some fun upgrading my mates, as some of the missions you’re not allowed to intervene (or they’d reveal themselves to be a traitor, rendering your goal pointless) but instead you’re treated to a studio-cam and watch your buddy battle it out with others in a pokemon-esque arena. One of my guys severely overleveled the other but kept getting stunlocked, but it worked out in the end.

I like some of the story beats a bit more than I did the first game. By comparison, SoM felt a bit more narrow-minded in its style of quests and missions. It had the occasional great moment, usually the boss battles that ended each Act and I had great fun fighting the Tower. SoW has those moments as well but there some of the in-between bits I enjoy more than I did before. One mission had me facing off against the Witch-King’s champions in a literal arena battle with a flow of Captains, each harder than the last which culminated in a rather intense melee with barrier orcs stabbing my back at every moment. That whole arc eventually led to a real standoff against the Ringwraiths, an intense boss battle that killed me three times before getting it right, reminding me of more oldschool games rather than my horde of games roster where “boss” just means “twice the health maybe”.

Yet even in that whole sequence I feel the game was copping out on its lore. It’s embraced its alternate universe nature at this point, but the Witch-King and wraiths were all slightly transparent, giving me the vague idea that they were never really there in person which means Talion isn’t quite as important as they all claim despite having crafted a ring to rival Sauron’s own. Nothing like that ever happened in the movies.

The game (franchise, now?) has always been compared to that of “Assassin’s Creed meets Arkham” and that does continue, with all the problems that may imply. With all of the skills and abilities you get, there’s buttons for everything and it’s easy to forget which of the hundred different skills you have might be best suited for a situation. However the biggest problem continues to be the movement (something even the AC franchise has yet to master). Several times now I would be stuck on some ramparts that were perfectly mountable but instead Talion decided to just dodgeroll into them a few times before finally figuring out how to step on it. I was once stuck on a bench somehow, in combat, and took a few hits before he realized he could jump on that building it was flanking. I was trying to do that the entire time but he was just stuck in an invisible wall surrounding the bench and I just happened to get lucky right as I was letting the orcs beat me to death just so it would get me out of there.

Another complaint is the Shelob issue. Funny enough I don’t much care about her taking a human form, as I don’t know all that much lore outside outside of the movies and maybe the first few chapters of the first book. However the movies are considered wildly accurate save for a few things (Tom Bombadil, while a fun character, I hear he was a literary “big lipped alligator moment”) and from what I remember, Shelob was just your basic spider that didn’t have any more intelligence than any other spider except it was older and bigger. Now this game just decided she has all the magic, steals our ring, and has prophetic visions. I found it irritating how quickly and tightly Talion latched onto her as a character and for once, I was kind of on Celebrimbor’s side (and he’s kind of an asshole) as every scene he’s in with Shelob is some variant of “Shut the hell up and give me back my ring”.

On a more minor nitpick, Warner Bros seem to have brought back the slight annoyance that their Mad Max game had with their towers. Once you control (or “purify” in the game’s narrative) a tower, you have to weave around the area like some kind of security camera and find the areas collectibles, unlike the first game where you control a tower and wham, the minimap is revealed. It’s a minor inconvenience and mostly just serves to pad time, but it’s a bit of a flow breaker when just getting up that tower with ten archers shooting at me.

As for a final point of contention that has haunted and bombed the steam review rollout is the microtransactions. Honestly they’re barely worth mentioning. There’s some you can buy with the ingame Mirian (sp?) which the game drowns you with. After you get a relatively decent set of epic and legendary gear, you’ll still be drowning in loot from killed captains which you can break down for their money. Instead of Mirian you can buy “gold” which offers a lot more in terms of loot and guaranteed legendary orcs and gear, which lead to sets that had decent bonuses that cater to a variety of playstyles and to exploit captain weaknesses. (There are sets based around poison and fire damage, for example). It is of course optional, though some personalities across the web still claim that there mere practice is scummy and shady. I don’t necessarily disagree but I’ve yet to be tempted to buy orcs as the few I recruited did the job nicely during my first siege. Surely strongholds will get more difficult and the temptation to outright buy legendary allies may rear its ugly head but until then, the game hardly bashes me over the head with it. Most of my gameplay consists of hunting captains down.

In conclusion, I highly enjoy it. It’s as you’ve probably read from other sources. It’s Shadow of Mordor but more, every mechanic it had is expanded on in some capacity which is exactly what a sequel should be doing.


Zydrate's avatar
Community review by Zydrate (October 12, 2017)

Zydrate is most active on Steam and Tumblr.

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EmP posted October 20, 2017:

Zydrate’s opening few paragraphs befuddles me. Mainly the second one, which launches into a catch up of someone – I have no initial idea who – I assume is from the original game? Which I have not played. It’s dangerous to assume that your reader has the same base knowledge as you. Besides, if they did, they wouldn’t often need the review you’re writing.

You could probably get away with it, though, if you made your intentions clearer. I’d suggest restructuring the transition between the first and second paragraph to make it the direction you’re leading the discussion into more obvious. You do this well later in you review with some good example work. For example, talking about the towers in such a way to be familiar with returning players but still making sense to people like me who have yet to play any of the series. A lot of the examples you run through are well chosen and well explained. Good, strong ending line, too – good job.

Really, I’m just pleased you sorted the screens out yourself. All centred and everything…
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Zydrate posted October 20, 2017:

Thought "him" was obvious to "protagonist", Talion is the PC in both games.

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