Given the surprise success of Monolith’s Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor it was inevitable that Warner Bros were going to follow it up, and in a decent twist, they kept it under wraps for quite a while. Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is now here and as with any good sequel it ups the scale, scope and spectacle for an entirely original story set in Tolkien’s universe. Bigger is not always better though, so does it manage to offer variety and a unique experience without retreading the old material?
A quick recap (and potential spoilers if you’ve not played the first game, so move on past this part): Talion, a Gondorian Ranger, has been killed by Sauron’s minions, but he’s not dead. Bound to the spirit of Celebrimbor through a shared loss of their loved ones, they both set out on a mission to disassemble the Dark Lord’s army one Orc at a time. With the ability to target and control captains and warlords, Talion and Celebrimbor takeover the lands of Mordor and ultimately face and defeat the Black Hand, as well as destroying Sauron’s physical form. We left them heading out to Mount Doom to forge a new ring to wipe the threat of darkness from the land forever, which is where Shadow of War picks up. You’ll guess though that things don’t go well otherwise it’d be a pretty short game. The ring is stolen by Shelob and you’re beholden to her visions as Talion heads out into the world to try and alter the fates of those he’s been shown. It’s very Tolkien-esque despite being written in the last couple of years, and it should be seeing as they had an expert on the staff, and if you’re looking for that kind of fantasy setting then you’re in for a treat. If you’re a serious literature aficionado though you might not get on with the muddying of timelines and characters.
That all said, Shadow of Mordor isn’t necessarily about the story. Sure, it drives things along, but the game is all about the Nemesis system – it’s the star of the show. Comparisons can still be made to Assassin’s Creed; Talion spends a lot of time sneaking around the world taking out targets, uncovering the mysteries of the visions he’s been shown and revealing secrets in the world by climbing towers. However, the encounters with Orcs shape how your adventure will progress; whether you’ll have it easy, or have to fight tooth and claw for every victory. With the world split up into five distinct areas, each has a hierarchy of captains and warchiefs to track and subvert or kill, and each can be recruited into your army and even given specific roles to play like infiltrating the higher ranks in the region, or acting as your bodyguard. It’s a system that’s both blatant and subtle. On the one hand it offers up unique encounters against Uruks that have a personality and skill set, and come across as distinct characters that you can fight and destroy or dominate. On the other, it manages the flow of the game and determines how the larger scale battles will play out later on. Take a captain out and the gap will be filled by another less skilled commander, though lose to one and he’ll grow in strength and stature as well as remembering your defeat.
Nemesis also drives the online functionality of Middle-Earth: Shadow of War. If a player gets struck down during gameplay they can be avenged by another through a Vendetta mission that pops up in the map. Accepting it will load a specific challenge that gives you the chance to earn loot and bonuses for use in your game as well as giving something back to the deceased player. There’s an RPG-lite element to the weapons and armour that you’ll collect, each can be upgraded once you’ve met a condition (like killing a number of enemies in a particular way), and every piece affords a different stat boost which can be augmented by adding powered gems. The gems themselves can be upgraded to boost stats further. Then there’s the skill system that gets fed by the XP gained in the missions, of which you can get multipliers that last a particular amount of time. On top of this there’s cash collected to buy bonus loot boxes, and gold that’s bought with real world currency to shortcut and get some of the more powerful items faster. It’s all a bit hectic to be honest and about half of it can be completely ignored. Don’t bother with the paid for loot boxes, you can get the contents from the main game eventually, though you might not even need them. Skills and gear are the two major points of focus because they turn Talion into a real badass, and it’s needed quickly because the semi-open world can have you up against high level enemies earlier than you might expect.
One of the more interesting additions in this follow up adventure is the need to capture and hold enemy fortifications. Acting as a base of operations for the local warchief, you can assemble your band of dominated captains and head off to attack and capture the location, and even decide who to leave in charge of the region. Be prepared though, you’ll have to defend it from counterattack. It’s a nice mechanic borrowed from other games, yet manages to give quite a thrill as you charge the main gates of a fort accompanied by a horde of Orcs. There’s a great feeling of really being part of the Lords of the Rings universe when these elements come together and the chaos of a pitched battle ensues. Then you can chuck in a caragor, graug or drake to really add to the mayhem. Rideable creatures are back and though it’s a while before the ability unlocks they quickly come into their own. Caragors and graugs are familiar as ground assault animals, drakes meanwhile add an element of airborne combat to the mix… as well as terrifying green fiery death. They also work as traversal to get around the expanded environments with the caragors stealth coming in exceptionally handy.
There’s a whole host of other tweaks and upgrades to the mechanisms in play in Shadow of War, and of course you can expect an expansion of collectibles and puzzles. Seeking out Elven words of poems and then completing the stanzas to open up sealed doors is a pretty neat idea and unexpected in what is seen as purely a third person action game; discovering the secrets behind Shelob and Sauron’s relationship is a bonus, even if it is completely fabricated for this game; or delving further into Celebrimbor’s past triumphs. They give you reason to explore each of the different map areas, from the under siege city of Minas Ithil through to the forests of Nurnen. With a deeper colour palette than the first game (everything is not just a shade of brown this time), and the graphical upgrades that come with several years of generational development under the belt, this is a very good looking game, even without 4k texture packs available on console (don’t forget to grab the 4k cutscenes dlc though if you’ve got the right hardware). The world is vibrant and full of life and character, and much better laid out than its predecessor with less chance of you thinking that it all just looks the same. The photo mode makes a return and if you’re a sucker for a bit of nice scenery bathed in morning sunlight then you’ll be using it a lot.
Combat is pretty much unchanged with attack and counter getting dedicated controls, and special attacks being combinations of the face buttons. It’s familiar, easy to use and doesn’t need you to understand the intricacies of framerates, and the enemies telegraph their moves pretty clearly. Knowing what’s coming is essential because some hits do an insane amount of damage, but at least there’s a second chance ability in play so that Talion can get back up and try to survive. Dying isn’t the end, and with enough vigilance it’s possible to stay alive comfortably roaming the lands of Mordor. It’s much easier to be struck down in the wave based arena challenges that pop up, but at least the checkpointing there is generous enough to make sure you don’t lose too much progress. Mixing up ranged attacks, power moves, specials, counters and dodging makes Talion a formidable fighter, much more reminiscent of the Dark Knight in the Arkham games than he was in Shadow of Mordor. That free-flowing approach coupled with some nice wide open spaces lets you go to town separating Orcs limbs from their bodies. It’s extremely satisfying.
What Middle-Earth: Shadow of War does is iterate in the right areas, expand on the play space and add a couple of neat twists on the exploration elements. It doesn’t try to redefine what it was, nor try to be anything else, and for that alone it makes it easy to recommend if you’ve played the first one. Story-wise it’s entirely possible to skip it and just enjoy the action, giving this a lease of life to those who aren’t Tolkien fans too. It’s solidly presented, great to look at and oozes high production values. Ignore the vitriolic cash grab comments telling you to boycott it from those who don’t like the loot box inclusion (just like you’ll ignore those in the game), you’ll just end up missing out on something pretty special. We don’t get enough completely single player focussed narratives in AAA gaming any more, savour the ones that are done well.
A PS4 review copy of Middle-Earth: Shadow of War was provided by the Warner Bros PR team, and the game is out now for PC, PS4 and Xbox One. It’s also enhanced for the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X.