Middle-earth: Shadow of War Review
The best part of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor gets even better in the sequel, Shadow of War. The first game's dynamic "Nemesis" AI system had you fighting against an endless succession of named enemies who taunted you, remembered your exploits, and grew stronger on the backs of their victories over you. What would have been a competent but forgettable game in the open-world mold suddenly became a vehicle for an endless string of personalized run-ins with a bunch of grumpy orcs who seemed to hate you more every time they fought you, and never ran out of venomous new ways to let you know it. In Shadow of War, the Nemesis framework has been so thoroughly expanded that new twists on orc tactics, behaviors, and attitudes were still surprising me after dozens of hours, and the new game gives you even more exciting, hilarious, fun stories about your wild experiences to swap with other players than the first one. It took me half a dozen hours just to move on from the prologue area; I couldn't stop hunting down particular orcs who had wronged me, or just butting into the business they were conducting on their own.
Sadly that luster slowly fades over what ends up being a very long game, and Shadow of War never quite figures out how to build a focused, consistently engaging game around all the energy and dynamism of its elaborate AI machinery. There are so many different quests, challenges, menus, and details to keep track of that the whole thing frequently feels overwhelming, and some parts of the game are a lot more interesting than others. The main story missions are mostly simplistic and repetitive, and most of them fail to make use of what's unique about Shadow of War. In contrast to the dull story quests, Monolith has built a complex conquest and territory-control layer on top of the the Nemesis system that has you customizing teams of orcs, and investing in all kinds of army upgrades in order to take over and then defend several fortresses throughout Mordor. These conquests initially form the deepest and most exciting part of Shadow of War, but the game doesn't know when to quit making you conquer, and you'll likely get very tired of tediously leveling up your captains and defending the same strongholds from yet more randomly generated orcs long before you've seen the ending. (I know I did.) And that's assuming you don't decide to pay the publisher to just fast track better orcs into your game.
Shadow of War picks up right where the last game left off, with the undead ranger Talion and his angry elf-wraith head-mate Celebrimbor forging a brand spanking new ring of power so they can maraud across Mordor, murdering and enslaving orcs in an attempt to, uh, defend the good peoples of Middle-earth. Or maybe they're more interested in vengeance and power for its own sake? The game flirts with that topic but doesn't fully address it, instead acting as a Lord of the Rings clearinghouse for mostly ridiculous cameos and outlandish, fiction-defying scenarios. Shelob, the giant spider, takes the form of a sensuous lady in a slinky evening dress, because it's a video game. Gollum shows up randomly for a mission or two. Historical events and the roles of supporting characters from the timeline of Middle-earth are moved around and recast in contrived ways. Even the idea of casually popping out a new ring with which to be badass feels like power-fantasy absurdity, in a world where these rings are treated as distant, dangerous, and largely unknowable.
It's not all bad; there's some decent tension between Talion and Celebrimbor at a few points, and I like the weird line delivery of the earth spirit you ally yourself with. But in general I found myself rolling my eyes more often than not. The outlandish comic-book action of these games has always struck me as an odd fit for the melancholy, reserved work of Tolkien, though if you don't care one whit about the work of Tolkien in the first place then you also won't care that all of this is more than a little dumb. I still think attaching these games to a more freewheeling and juvenile fantasy setting like Dungeons & Dragons, or just inventing one out of whole cloth, would have freed them of this baggage and let them gleefully be as ridiculous as they obviously want to be.
As before, the real stars of this game are the orcs, and it remains a mystery how Monolith wrote and recorded enough lines of dialogue to generate dozens of them throughout your time with the game, having them show up and comment on an enormous range of scenarios, and still almost never repeat themselves. They have just as much personality as they did in the first game, and they now arrive in vastly greater permutations, with more and more outlandish getups and personality quirks as the game goes on. Want an orc who talks lovingly about the maggots that crawl over and through him, or one who bellows a tune while discordantly strumming a lute, or a giant troll covered in fur? Shadow of War has those and dozens more archetypes, and each orc now has both a character class and a tribe, which makes for a ton of variety in their behaviors. Each captain has a wide range of strengths, weaknesses, immunities, and fears that makes each fight unique, and they also have a seemingly bottomless bag of tricks to play on you, whether it's seizing your best weapon when they kill you, or showing up to avenge their blood brother when you attack them, or tracking you down, to save you the trouble, when you mark them in your menu as a target.
Monolith takes this expanded Nemesis system and stretches it across several different small open-world maps, each one with a fortress housing that area's most powerful orcs. In between story missions, your task is to explore each area and dominate as many orcs as you can, commanding them to carry out missions against other orcs, act as your bodyguard, and so forth on your way to building a strong enough assault force to finally take over the fortress itself. The fortress conquests are the coolest thing in this game, bar none. Each one has you capturing a series of control points on your way to breaching the inner keep and taking on the overlord who runs the whole show. Fortresses have a wide range of built-in defenses, from siege weapons to archers to boiling oil being poured over their walls, and taking control points nullifies these defenses--but also invites one of the fortress's powerful warchiefs into the fray.
But what if you went to the trouble of taking that warchief out before you started the conquest? He, and his associated defense, are already out of the picture. What if you designated one of your lower level orcs as a spy beforehand? He'll show up and backstab the warchief mid-battle. You can also invest in a wide array of assault upgrades of your own, from more powerful foot soldiers to beasts and siege upgrades, in addition to choosing which assault leaders you want to bring into battle. Having this many tactical options makes this aspect of Shadow of War almost feel like a strategy game, if not for the fact that you can usually overwhelm superior defenses just by playing really well once the action starts (though the effects of the decisions you make beforehand are plainly obvious either way). These fortress missions feel big and varied and exciting in a way the main story missions don't.
Shadow of War's story is actually laid out in an interesting way; rather than one long, linear sequence of quests, the missions are broken up into half a dozen categories that revolve around different little Middle-earth subplots, which have you bouncing back and forth between territories and which occasionally overlap with each other. The trouble is that almost none of what you're doing in these missions is particularly interesting. Most story quests have you ticking off lists of basic activities, following an NPC from place to place and killing a few orcs along the way, or (at best) taking part in simplified versions of the things you're already doing on the dynamic Nemesis side of the game. One of the quest lines in particular makes you carry out slight variations on the exact same objective something like four or five missions in a row. It almost feels like there are two halves to this game that are mostly unaware the other exists, and the story would have been dramatically better if Monolith had found a way to integrate it with the more dynamic parts of the game more elegantly.
In addition to broadening all the Nemesis stuff dramatically, Shadow of War also turns itself into a loot game, since you're continually picking up rare, epic, and legendary gear with slightly higher numbers from the orc captains. This certainly adds more variety to the progression treadmill, and since each new piece of gear comes with its own little challenge you need to complete to perfect it and unlock its full stats and perks, you've always got small goals to work toward in between the big missions. But like much else in Shadow of War, this starts to make the game feel cluttered and overly busy after a while. There are weapon challenges, regional challenges, daily challenges, numerous side missions and collectibles, endless Nemesis missions, orcs to level up... You'll end up spending more time than you may want slogging through multiple layers of menus, and managing your numerous armies of orcs in particular can become a huge chore. I can't believe I'm saying this, but the game would have benefited from a spreadsheet of sorts, to let you sort orcs by level or class or relationship, so you could more easily assign appropriate tasks to the dozens of warriors under your command.
There's no way around the dullness of Shadow of War's main quest, since you'll have to slog through all those bland missions to advance the story and unlock all the game's mechanics, but there's thankfully an entire other game's worth of fulfilling, dynamic action in carrying out Nemesis missions, dominating and pitting orcs against each other, building up your armies, and (ultimately) taking over those big fortresses. That's the real value of this game, and if you're able to overlook the game's flaws, it's well worth showing up for. The biggest knock against all the Nemesis stuff, however, is that eventually even it becomes repetitive as you trudge toward the finale. After you've finished the main quest line, the game forces you to keep grinding fortress defenses incessantly if you want to see the true ending, and by that time, you'll already have done a full game's worth of fortress defenses. It's a great system that eventually starts to feel a bit less great due to overuse and rote repetition.
With gear to equip and orcs to level up, it's not surprising in this year of our loot box 2017 that Warner Bros. is selling exactly those items to you in blind boxes--nor is it surprising that this has been by far the most controversial aspect of the game. Luckily they aren't particularly necessary or even remotely worth buying. You'll get a nonstop flood of character gear as you play the game--I rarely felt like I had time to settle on a given loadout before I was swapping it around--and there are in-game ways to boost the amount of experience and quality of loot you get, anyway. The one place you might feel pressured to spend money is in that long cycle of post-story fortress defenses, where you need stronger and stronger orcs to hold onto (or retake) all the bases you seized earlier. But by that time, I'd built up so much of the in-game currency that I was able to buy plenty of chests to dispense new orcs without dropping real cash. The bigger problem is simply that this mode exists in the first place, and that the game feels like it refuses to end. Whether the developer thought you'd actually want to replay these missions over and over for fun, or the running time was artificially extended to entice you into spending some money, I can't say (although since Monolith is going to offer an endless version of this mode soon, it's probably the former). The bottom line, though, is the game should end a bit sooner than it does, and once you reach the tedium of the Shadow War you may well be ready to just watch the full ending on YouTube and then walk away from the game.
Despite its flaws, there's a lot to like in Shadow of War. For the most part, the action is as sharp, varied, and fun as in the first game, with its blend of Assassin's Creed stealth and Arkham-style large scale combat. Since every captain has his own set of likes and dislikes, you'll keep finding clever new ways to exploit the mechanics to end a fight quickly--or have the fight end itself, as the various AI and combat systems grind against each other--although sometimes the battles get a little too big and the captains have a few too many immunities to be all that much fun to fight. This core action and the complex systems that underpin it are fun enough to play around with that it's a real shame that so many issues exist around the edges of this package, because those issues eventually started to diminish my enjoyment of the game's good parts. Shadow of War, like its predecessor, rests on a single gimmick, but it's a really good gimmick. When the action is at its best, with the gears of all those AI systems turning smoothly, it still offers an experience you can't get anywhere else.