Driving my wraith glaive into the ground, I proclaim that I have taken this fortress in the name of the Bright Lord. Scores of Orcs howl and shriek as we collectively revel in our rather simple and uncomplicated victory. We came. We saw. We conquered. Conquest, and its interaction with the new Nemesis system is the heart and soul of Middle-earth: Shadow of War. It’s been over a week since the launch of the game, and I’ve spent the last 50+ hours discovering everything the game has to offer. In this review I’ll cover the improvements, the hiccups, and yes – even the presence of microtransactions and what effect they have on the game. Strap in — it looks like meat’s back on the menu!
Shadow of War kicks off directly after the events of Shadow of Mordor. I did a quick series of videos showing the ending of that previous game, as well as the fight that lead up to it, but Shadow of War thankfully does a great job in recapping how you got here. Without spoilers, the long and short of it is that co-protagonists Celebrimbor and Talion have faced Sauron and seen his true power, concluding that the only way to defeat him is to forge another Ring of Power. And yes, that is as dangerous as it sounds.
Taking place across four acts (more on that in a moment), Shadow of War starts off with Talion and Celebrimbor joining the fight to save one of the last bastions of hope for Gondor, Minas Ithil. As the shining city comes under fire from the forces of evil, Talion and Celebrimbor partner up with some dark forces of their own with the hopes that doing something bad will lead to something good. Pushing forward into the second acts, and not unlike its predecessor, Shadow of War grants the protagonists the ability to begin to recruit an army to begin to push back the forces of evil. This means finding Captains, beating them into submission, and then using the new ring to twist them to your cause. It’s here that we see the revamped Nemesis engine and everything it does to raises the stakes for this sequel.
If you’d like to see the first 45 minutes of the game in action as a primer to the rest of this review, look no further:
I cannot begin to express just how much I appreciate the new trash talk coming from the foes in Shadow of War. Most Orcs or Olegs (the large brutish newcomers to Sauron’s army) will open up with “Manswine!” or “Manfilth!”, but just as many will riff on what you’ve brought to the table. Riding in on a Caragor, they might razz you as a coward for bringing a war beast to the fight. Similarly, a Graug might make the Orc shout ‘Oh, come on!” in exasperation as they know they are about to get crushed into a thin paste. If multiple Captains are in the area, they’ll chime in one after another, reinforcing the previous Orc’s trash talking. It only gets better from there.
I crest the hill and a Orc Captain spots me. He opens his mouth and his “hype-orc” front man jumps in front of him and says “Yea! He’s so angry he doesn’t even know what to say!” or something similar – I was too laughing to catch all it. Taking the both of them out, I ran into another Orc Captain with the title of “Giggles”, living up to his name in every way.
When you run into an Orc Captain, your level and their level is matched up. Forcing them to their knees in submission, you can recruit them if they are the same or lower level, but you can also release them and fight them to the death. The third option is to shame them. Shaming lowers their level, sending them off to come back another day when you might be able to sway them forcibly to your side. That said, there can be…side effects.
One Orc, nicknamed “The Backbiter” had dogged me relentlessly. He was a normal hideous Orc when I encountered him the first time, but repeatedly smashing him in the fact caused him to return with armor plating over his heavily scarred face. He would grow stronger, eventually being arrow-proof (so I couldn’t hurt him or pin him with arrows), vault-proof (so I couldn’t flip over him), ice-proof (so I couldn’t stun him), and had no troubles smashing his armored face into mine, stunning me and removing any button prompts that would otherwise allow me to dodge away. When I beat him down, his Iron Will skill prevented me from wrestling him to my team. In frustration, I shamed him down a few levels. He showed up and gave me some more grief so I shamed him again. In fact, I shamed him from nearly level 50 down to level 10. Then it happened. With a gurgle and a shriek, The Backbiter lumbered off. When I encountered him next, his wide-eyed look and the gurgling that replaced his once lengthy insults and taunts told me that he had gone completely insane. He fought with unrelenting ferocity and I struggled to take him down. Concerned with how bad this could get, I struck down the Orc. When he showed up yet again, he seemed to more angry, and even less sane. We often create our own enemies, and clearly I had made this one far more dangerous. I am the Bright Lord, but I had crushed this creature in a way far beyond simply killing him.
The Nemesis system certainly received an overhaul, but there’s no ignoring how much the team focused on combat improvements. Gone are the instant-kill Orcs that could be taken out with a single headshot or a well-placed stealth attack. Now, these vulnerabilities are simply weaknesses and additional engagements will likely be needed. There are a whopping 33 main skills, each with two or three enhancements that can be applied to unleash additional devastation. These skills are divided into Combat, Predator, Ranged, Wraith, Mounted, and Story-driven power types. Their names are somewhat straightforward, but powers like summoning Caragors, bow skills, pinning shots, and how fast you can dominate a target are just a very small sample. At the end of Act 3 I had completed the storyline at large, and had amassed every skill I wanted, leaving the rest (roughly a dozen) as mere completionist fodder.
In all, there are five main areas to conquer in Mordor. The green lowland swamps of Núrn, fiery mountains of Gorgoroth, the white city of Minas Ithil, the “Legacy of Kain-esque” fortresses of Seregost, and the Orc-occupied city of Cirith Ungol round out an impressive landscape that, while entirely cosmetic, does a fantastic job of providing a backdrop for the unfolding story. Playing on the PC (my rig specs can be found here), I was able to run the game on Ultra at around 30fps and at 1080p with the high-resolution texture pack installed and in play. 4K just doesn’t seem possible without a far more powerful system, but that didn’t stop the game from looking absolutely magnificent. We will be revisiting the game on the Xbox One X when that hardware arrives, as it runs the game in 4K natively.
Beyond the mechanics of graphics, I have to hand it to the team at Monolith for the procedurally-generated Orcs in this game. While the rank-and-file Orcs are all copy and paste, each Captain and above has their own voicework, armor, and nicknames which can change based on their actions. Pushkrimp the Mighty became Pushkrimp the Coward when I set him on fire and he immediately fled the battlefield. These aren’t just one-shot events, either, as these Orcs often have more to say when they meet you a second or third time. I didn’t hear a single bit of voice repetition from the Captains, and many of them were legitimately laugh-out-loud funny, with a special shout-out to Kumail Nanjiani for his hilarious dry-humored performance.
There are a few ugly moments in Shadow of War. At times I ran into hiccups where I would see a flat cross-section of a tree, or a line of Orcs would appear out of nowhere to reinforce a fight. The further I ran into Act 3, the more bugs I encountered, being killed by an invisible Caragor (flailing motions and everything, but no button prompts) in one instance, being killed by non-existent archers or spearmen, and having an Orc one-shot kill me with a sword from across the room. Thankfully these issues are infrequent, but since it advances time when you die, it can disrupt your fortress assault forces as random Orc Captains are killed based on ongoing conflicts.
As an example, here’s an odd bug I ran into where Talion was dancing to the beat of his own wardrum.
Movement, combat, and loot 2.0
If there’s one area where the smallest change makes the biggest difference, it has to be the locomotion mechanics of Shadow of War. Shortly after starting the game you’ll have the ability to add a double-jump to your repertoire. This allows Talion/Celebrimbor to make a second leap/cartwheel in mid-air, covering a large distance very quickly.
The Orcs have gotten a bit of an upgrade in this area, as well, learning your tactics as you fight. In Shadow of Mordor, flipping over your target always worked. Here, an Orc will eventually get wise to that, blocking you from leaping over them, as well as shoving you to the ground. Some Orcs are smarter and will learn faster than their contemporaries. Others will end your nonsense with a hastily thrown flashbomb or a headbutt that leaves you stunned. Most terrible of all, Orcs now (rarely, thankfully) have an “Ignores Last Chance” skill that finishes you off without an opportunity to make a comeback. There is one thing that is thankfully missing, here – I never did encounter an Orc with melee-resistance or immunity. That’s been replaced by Arrow-Immunity, but I can live with that.
Once you do swat down an Orc Commander, you have the option to recruit them (provided you are higher level than they are), shame them to lower their level for your next encounter, or fight them to the death. Some Orcs have an Iron Will trait and will resist recruitment, and none of this prevents them from joining your cause and then immediately stabbing you in the back with a “worst possible timing” betrayal. It creates a cool dynamic where “friends close, enemies closer” can bite you in the ass. In the case of Bûg the Biter, perhaps literally.
If you decide to execute your foes instead of recruiting them, they will drop loot commensurate with their classification. Epic-ranked Captains will drop Epic loot, and so on. Higher level loot often comes with a set of challenges attached. Setting three Orcs on fire will unlock a power that perhaps has a 30% per-strike chance of immolating a foe. Legendary gear often has three or four objectives, making them ostensibly better. In practice, I found that many of these randomly generated objectives and outcomes were incompatible with my playstyle, leaving me with more useful Epic gear than Legendary. Legendary loot, or clan-specific loot combines nicely, granting additional bonuses (a la Diablo III) when equipped in pairs or trios. That said, it would be nice if, in the upcoming expansions, Legendary gear was more hand-curated.
There are several tribes of Orcs in Shadow of War to contend with, each with their own special powers, gear, and combat styles. The Machine Tribe, for instance, have long hooked chains that can pull Talion backwards during combat, ending a kill chain and setting him up for a very bad day. The Mystic Tribe can disappear and then reappear in your face, slashing with an unblocking strike that you have to dodge lest you become cursed and unable to use your advanced powers for a time. The team at Monolith and Warner Bros made a big deal about the different tribes types, and they do a fine job of keeping things fresh throughout a fairly lengthy game. There are two more unreleased tribes that’ll come courtesy of DLC, and I’m excited to see how they change things when encountered randomly in the field.
Each of the five areas in Shadow of War have an Orc-held fortress waiting in the distance to be conquered. Each have a variety of defenses that are put in place by the Orc Commanders and Warchiefs that occupy the area. These defenses create scenarios where you can encounter dangerous War Graugs, curse-throwing siege engines, Iron walls with spikes, or even Drakes circling the battlefield. Or in my case, none of that. Though the course of preparing for the Fortress assault, I had killed (either in a targeted or accidentally-encountered fashion) every Warchief. This meant that there wasn’t a single one of the five fortresses that had any special defenses. It meant that it didn’t really matter what troops I sent as all they’d encounter are rank-and-file peons when they assaulted the base. The only way these defenses, or the offensive counters you can select pre-battle, matter is if you prematurely attack the base the moment the mission becomes available. I was sincerely disappointed as these were a magnificent part of the lure of Shadow of War, now reduced to a throwaway mechanic in service of “play how you want” concessions.
In the end, there’s just not enough meat on the bone for Fortresses. I have little control over my advancing army, and when the tables are turned, I have little and less control over how my fortress is defended. It would have been great to see each fortress, which are already tied to a specific tribe, have permanent defenses that had to be thoughtfully approached and countered. In its current form, it’s a non-issue.
Overstaying its welcome – Act 4
At roughly 40 hours you’ll complete Act 3 of Shadow of War. Act 4 follows a series of cutscenes that could easily be called the end of the game. Entitled “The Shadow Wars”, Act 4 is split into ten stages where you are tasked with defending the fortresses you established in Act 3. Foes will assault your base, and your job is to put up defensive structures to prevent them from succeeding. It seems straightforward, and a likely fantastic tie-in to the mechanics introduced earlier in the storyline.
As I mentioned before, you cannot recruit an Orc that is higher level than you. By the end of Act 3 I had hit level 44. The first base assault brought six Orc commanders around that level to my doorstep. By the time I made it to Núrnen, the second base defense, that level number had risen to the mid 50s. You can imagine what a level 57 Orc does to a level 42 one, and it sure ain’t pretty. Poring over the invading forces’ advantages and weaknesses helps with this as you can select fire arrows when your incoming invaders are weak against fire, or poison spouts on your walls for foes that aren’t a fan of being poisoned, but it really has limited effect. Instead, you are pushed to create a scenario where you have a near 1:1 ratio of Warchiefs to face theirs. That means going out and grinding out levels to be able to bring Orcs under your command, and then hunting for progressively higher level Orcs to track down and capture. You can use your Arenas for this but that creates a different problem.
Once you’ve taken down an embattled fortress in Act 2, you’ll be able to visit three progressively more difficult arenas to allow your Orcs to fight for supremacy. You’ll pit one of your fighters against a randomly generated foe with the usual compliments of strengths and weaknesses. Success brings levels for your crew, and failure means death. If your chosen Orc dies, you simply pop down to the Arena and dominate the victor, bringing them under your command to take the place of the fallen dead. This simple system is both blessing and curse. While it does let you rid yourself of “Legendary” level 15 Orcs and trade them out for “Epic” Level 50 ones, it makes the whole army suddenly disposable. All of the genuinely odd and funny moments the new Nemesis engine brings is discarded as your Commanders suddenly become easily-replaced stats and powers. Failing to hold your victory points and losing the keep doubles down on the grind as you’ll now have to re-take the keep and free any captives snapped up during the assault. This leads me to loot boxes.
Loot boxes – cosmetic, time saving, or predatory?
Much and more has been said about loot boxes. More often than not, loot boxes are cosmetic in nature (granting some sort of goodie to make your character look cool), or time-saving, providing in-game cash to bypass grinding for weapons or levels. Both of these have a specific audience, and are generally considered to be fairly harmless. The third category of loot boxes is one that predates on the game’s audience, creating a pay-to-win environment, a Complete Gacha system (gambling for higher level loot as you might see in free-to-play mobile games), or the restructuring of a game that forces an unnecessary grind on the player to push them to invest real money to progress. Ignoring the wailing and gnashing of teeth by my press counterparts, I wanted to dig into Shadow of War to find out which category the game fell in.
My first step in this process was to complete the game without spending a single dime of in-game currency on the loot boxes. I did this — easily, in fact. Without spending any of the roughly $60k worth of Miram I’d collected (the in-game currency) on a single loot box, I finished Act 3. I never hired an Orc or purchase a weapon pack from the market. In that way, it’s very easy to conclude that loot boxes are a frivolous afterthought for Shadow of War, but we still need to address Act 4.
As I mentioned earlier, the game has a full ending at the conclusion of Act 3. Beyond this, however, is a “secret” ending (I’m not sure how it’s a bonus, though – grind through Act 4 and it’s yours to watch…all three minutes and 50 seconds of it.) that is meant to give a conclusion to the duology of the Middle-earth games. For the leveling / swapping problems I’ve identified before, each siege in Act 4 requires progressively tougher Warchiefs. You can certainly grind them out, forcing you to revisit a lot of spaces you’ve likely seen far too often if you are a completionist like myself. The easier option is to jump into the market and buy yourself some Orcs.
Currency in Shadow of War is split into two categories — Mirian (silver money) and Gold (a mix of real-world and in-game money). There are daily challenges that can net you either 50 or 500 Gold in a single act. For example, if your Orcs are able to withstand the attack of another player in the online conquest mode, you’ll snap up 50 Gold for your non-effort. Similarly, you can snap up another 50 for killing a specific creature in a designated area – a challenge that changes daily. The first time you take over someone else’s fortress online, you’ll get a healthy 500 gold bonus, but that’s a one time thing.
There are five categories of boxes in the Market — Featured, Bundles, War Chests, Loot Chests, and Boosts. Featured is straightforward — it’s any limited-time chests the team at Warner Bros wants to offer up, such as an Assassin-only box. These have gacha aspects as there is a random chance of this or that, using words like “at least one” and leaving the results to chance. These refresh every few days and cost gold. Bundles give you two silver and a gold box, or two gold and a silver box, cost gold to purchase, and are meant to give you a quick boost in gear, Orcs, and XP boosts. War Chests grant you a trio of new followers, entirely randomized in rarity and strengths / weaknesses. Loot Chests provides gear commensurate with the level of boxes purchased. Silver boxes provide common and rare, and gold chests provide epic and legendary. Mithril boxes are all legendary, and subsequently most expensive. Boosts are just what the name suggests, offering a 2 hour boost to XP gain or additional cash. But here’s the rub…
There’s no point to any of it.
Between the start of the game and the conclusion of Act 3, at no point did I grind for levels, gear, Orcs, or loot. My pockets were overflowing with Mirian by the end — more than enough to buy every fortress upgrade, purchase every gem slot for my gear, upgrade all of my weapons, and frivolously spend on assault bonuses whether I needed them or not. Purchasing loot boxes is a pointless exercise here, catering only to those who want to say that they have the best gear the game has to offer, but to no actual benefit. By simply picking up collectables and playing the game in a normal and linear way, I had acquired all Legendary gear by the end. Gear that would simultaneously poison and set foes on fire, with over 40% chance applied at every strike. Other than the entirely unpredictable Backbiter that I’d driven insane, I stopped having trouble with combat a dozen hours before the end. Buying loot boxes would have been redundant. To see how it works, I purchased a box and ended up with gear that my current loadout far outstripped.
So…with the knowledge that the loot boxes are all but vestigial, or used to pad out Act 4, my conclusion is simple. The loot boxes in Shadow of War are not predatory, cosmetic, or time-saving — they are simply misguided. Enjoy Middle-earth: Shadow of War from Act 1 to Act 3, embrace the “normal” ending, do Act 4 until you are bored to tears, and then hit YouTube to watch the “bonus” ending. Skip the grind and loot boxes and remember Shadow of War as it was intended and clearly designed — as a single-player game, not a “service”. Of note, there has been a few detail-barren announcements that the team will be adding additional end-game content, but without specifics, it’s too early to comment whether it’ll make its saving throw or just deepen the already-pointless Act 4 grind.
Middle Earth: Shadow of War
Massive in scope and improving on its predecessor, Middle-earth: Shadow of War is a triumph in every way that matters. While certain aspects are underdeveloped, or simplified to embrace “player choice”, the Nemesis 2.0 system, combat improvements, and genuinely engaging combat system keep things fresh for the 40 hour adventure. If only they hadn’t followed the movies and extended the ending well past its welcome.