Three years ago gamers were introduced to Talion and Celebrimbor in Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor and these two characters wowed audiences across the world with their tale of love, loss, and vengeance in the world J.R.R. Tolkien created all those years ago. This story of one man doing what Boromir said was impossible – simply walk into Mordor – was an intense action fantasy game with a system that has become almost iconic in the short time it’s been around, I am of course talking about the “Nemesis System.” This system gave your battles a dramatic flair that few games have had – for the uninitiated the Nemesis System allowed you to build a kind of relationship with the various orcs and uruks that dwell within Mordor. They’d remember you if you fell by their blade, they’d give you nicknames and if they returned from one of your victories they would exhibit scars from your clash. It was astounding and to compound on top of that, a loving injection of lore into the already dense world of Middle-earth was something quite special. It was the perfect novella accompaniment to J.R.R. Tolkiens work and could have ended there and then, but the crew over at Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment thought – once more into breach dear friends – and that’s where we come to Middle-earth: Shadow of War.
Shadow of War follows on almost immediately from the end of Shadow of Mordor, Talion and Celebrimbor have decided that instead of going quietly into the night they’re going to try the impossible and defeat the Dark Lord themselves. How will they do this? Simple, they’re going to forge their own “Ring of Power” one that could potentially contest the power of Saurons ring. At the offset of the game everything that can go wrong for these two goes wrong, they lose the ring, make questionable decisions about allies, and as the story progresses you get the creeping worry that their ideals take different paths.
The first element that I noticed about Shadow of War is the attention to detail; it’s a Tolkien fans dream come to life some may worry that it takes too many liberties but the touch to the lore is minimal at the worst of times. If anything it adds characters and elements that even the much-beloved films didn’t put in, for example – Shelob is a speaking spider in this game while in the movie she is a silent figure of menace which means that the game stays more faithful to the narrative crafted by Tolkien. Not only that one of the many side quests you go on in the game is searching for lost Gondorian artifacts and each of these are given such loving explanations and history behind them that you can fall down this beautiful rabbit hole questing after them. They can be great easter eggs like a pipe from the Shire to a drake scale that sparks a conversation between Talion and Celebrimbor about dragons.
This is not the only side quest however, there are many of them that will take you across every corner of Mordor and the majority of these side quests will involve battling orcs, uruks, trolls, graugs, and even the Nazgul once in a while. This is where the Nemesis System makes a welcome return and expands on what we loved about it from the first game by adding an element where you have to not only take down captains but you must conquer fortresses within Mordor and within these fortresses are “The Overlords” an especially strong follower of Sauron who’s special abilities will test your skills to their very limits. Conquering a fortress is a game unto itself as you have to make sure you have enough strength in your invading force to win. There are several ways to strengthen your troops and weaken your opponents these include – killing or subjugating your opponents forces and sending spies from your forces to weaken the forces of the fortress. These are highly enjoyable and the introduction of the many diverse tribes into the franchise adds yet another strategic element when you lay siege or defend your fortress. There are the beastmasters, a mystic force of curse-ridden abominations, a group of warmongering despots and so many more that I won’t spoil. These all had distinct personalities that added to the enjoyment of the whole experience as I realised what force I had come across in the land of Mordor which would force me to adapt on the fly with my various abilities.
Speaking of Talion and his abilities he has several to call on, many are returning favourites from Shadow of Mordor and it’s disappointing because the combat side of Shadow of War is easily the least interesting aspect of the game. There are a lot of variations to skills that you acquired from Shadow of Mordor and that’s all they are, there are one or two notable abilities such as the dominating of drakes to make them your mounts and lay waste to the land of Mordor and the power of your ring of power which helps dominate more powerful beings but that’s ultimately it when it comes to combat. On the aspect of the world of Mordor the game is no longer one mass environment but has been split into several warzones filled with all the denizens of Mordor and a few from Gondor and it was highly impressive to see these varied and decently sized environments come to life as I entered them.
The newly implemented online battles are enjoyable, you face off against other players who have their own forces and fortresses but it’s cut short by unnecessary micro-transactions which sour the sweet taste of laying siege to your friend’s forts for bragging rights. This could have been dealt with far better and it’s a shame it’s not.
Overall Middle-earth: Shadow of War is an enjoyable sequel and expands on everything fans of Shadow of Mordor loved about it. There are unfortunately complacency issues with the graphics at times, the online aspect, though enjoyable, feels like a cash grab when you try to delve deeper into it and the combat system hasn’t truly evolved to a point where you feel like its anything more than DLC rather than a sequel in the technical aspects. The elements that will bring you back to Shadow of War, in my opinion, are the robust lore, the story, and the characters and there are plenty of those to keep most fans of action RPGs satisfied for a long time.