Talion, the Ranger of Gondor, returns in Shadow of War to tear apart thousands of orcs in every shade of claret. Shadow of War, the sequel to the hit Warner Brothers title of 2014, Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, is more of the same. And that's not a bad thing. Where the original was a fun sandbox in its own right, Shadow of War wraps the story (regardless of its controversial Lore) and large-scale conquest into the third-person action-RPG for a far more complete package.
Here’s the basic plot of Middle Earth Shadow of War with minimal spoilers, as all of this happens right at the beginning of Shadow of War. Talion’s soul was entwined with the long-dead elven ring forger, Celebrimbor. Celebrimbor also happens to be a kick-arse elven lord fighter as well. Talion/Celebrimbor, go to Mount Doom and forge a new ring, a ring as powerful as the other nine rings but free from Sauron’s mind controlling effects. Shelob, the ancient spider, abducts Celebrimbor right out of Talion, offering Talion a trade. Celebrimbor in exchange for this new ring of power. To sweeten the deal, Shelob would be able to see the future with the new ring and could share some of this insight with Talion to help him.
Meanwhile, Minas Ithil, the last free city of Gondor is under siege by the Witch King, Sauron’s right hand. Held within the walls of the human city is the powerful, all-seeing, Palantir. The Palantir enables whoever is strong-willed enough to wield it the ability to see anything they wish. The powerful Celebrimbor would be able to use the Palantir to counter Sauron’s armies. Sauron has sent the Witch King to retrieve it from the city at whatever cost, so he may use the Palantir as a weapon for his forces of darkness. And so without any prime Shadow of War spoilers, that encompasses the Shadow of War story plot, without divulging anything you aren't made aware of pretty swiftly within this sprawling 30-50 hour Orc death fest.
Playing again as Talion, mixed with Celebrimbor of course, you set along the path to try and save Minas Ithil. During which you take on Orc Captains and Orc Warchiefs, that have levels of their own and are managed by the named Shadow of War Nemesis System. It’s the usual sort of experience point gaining system for Talion - as you kill the bosses you earn experience which leads to levelling up. When you level up you gain access to a greater choice of skills and can allocate a skill point into unlocking new magical wraith powers and fighting techniques, that in turn help you rip through thousands of orcs and war trolls.
In a nutshell Shadow of War is Assassin’s Creed mixed with Batman Arkham Asylum. The latter was published by Warner Brothers and developed by fellow subsidiary Rocksteady, but the Shadow of War series owes it a great debt. Shadow of War focuses heavily on its fighting and its fighting system is lifted from Batman, right down to the rhythm-esque counters.
After enjoying the first Shadow Of Mordor for what it was, I couldn't help but feel like that game in 2014 had fine-tuned the combat and parkour, added a new Nemesis boss management system but was basically an early showcase for those systems wrapped up in a simple Middle-Earth feeling single map. Shadow of War was going to be a few more years spent enhancing those areas that the first game missed out on. Namely, plot and depth of the world.
Shadow of War definitely attempts both of these things.
One area that highlights the intricate development craftsmanship from Monolith is the Shadow of War bosses. Captains are far more visually and audibly varied, with one specific orc delivering a rhyme during his confrontational monologue. Their personalities influence their fighting styles, which adds flavour to your encounters. It definitely gets under your skin in an entertaining way when a basic grunt catches you off guard, managing to kill you. Then you watch as he gloats while becoming supercharged, and the Nemesis system elevates them to the senior Uruk ranks, where you will encounter them again. If you hunt them down you’ll face more gloating when you next face them, making their final demise ever more sweet. Just don’t lose a second time to them.
Shadow of War is best played on a gamepad, but it does switch excellently to keyboard & mouse at any moment, instantly updating the in-game key prompts accordingly. Nice touch guys. Great to see you helping out PC gamers.
The combat does little to move away from the now ageing Assassin's Creed and Shadow of Mordor mechanic. Hit X button repeatedly to smack the greenskins, throw in the occasional Y to block, or perhaps an A to dive out the way. When you come across the larger Captains, do all this but for a bit longer, although perhaps gather some intel on their strengths and weaknesses before the encounter as this can sometimes avoid embarrassing situations. In one scenario I was down to my last bit of health, but so was the enemy. The bullish Captain was barreling down on me in a monstrous attacking charge, I calmly pulled out my Spectral Bow and time slowed for the short period of time, allowing me to take aim for a killing headshot. With the slowed time period coming to an end I released the string. Twang. Immune to arrow fire. The captain pulverised me into the dirt. Then, for the next 20 seconds, he took the piss and was granted a bunch of extra levels, before I respawned at the top of a tower on the other side of the map. The dick.
A nice touch is the enemy Captain’s can adapt to your attacks, learning your repeated approaches. So it definitely pays to mix up your attacks. Freeze them, daze them, roll over them and attack their back, fire arrows in their faces and use executions effectively if you get them on the floor. And the skill power upgrades you unlock certainly help add spice to your combat options, but again, there isn’t really anything there that hasn’t been done a lot before. Shadow of War’s combat is certainly a visual treat, which helps to alleviate the repetition of the core system. Hours can be spent happily carving new chunks out of the endless orcs and their superiors.
Without spoiling anything, later in the game, the maps can open up and some extra orc domination options take effect, moving the game even closer towards Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII. Attacking enemy citadels, focusing on undermining their military hierarchy, filling enemy ranks with senior units that are now under your thrall. It’s a nice touch and where I could see them going after Shadow of Mordor. So while not a surprise, they have definitely put some effort in here.
Assassin’s Creed’s game series rollout was similar. Release the first one with its new, never seen before parkour mechanic, get some cash in to help pay for the next game that will add the missing bits to the gameplay, story and combat. I can see similar things here with Shadow of War, although I’m not sure how much more lore mutilation Tolkien can take moving to the inevitable next title in the Middle-Earth series. Personally, I’m OK with it, but I still shed a tear for the grandfather of elven, dwarven, and orc fantasy when you see the liberties Monolith has taken with the plot. Although, Shadow of War’s story is nothing when you think of Legolas surfing down an Oliphaunt’s trunk.
Shadow of War is similar in graphical splendour to its predecessor, which at its time of release was rinsing out VRAM on graphics cards, but today’s hardware has caught up. Shadow of War now is capable of running on a wider range of PC hardware, but still pushes top-end systems should you want the best graphical feast it can offer. It does make for a nice visual treat. You can see more here in our in-depth PC performance reports for Shadow of War.
Now to summarise the Shadow of War flaws, for it isn’t perfect. The maps and the quests allocation are somewhat unclear. A lot of quests are being passed around without any easy way to track what quest was just unlocked by your actions, or why it was unlocked. You can zoom out to a greater region view, and fast travel to another map. This wasn’t obvious for a long stretch of gameplay, which meant I was grinding away in a single map wondering what else I should be doing. On the army screen, the symbols over the Captain’s heads were unclear for a long period of time and what influence that might have on the game. A real annoyance in a smooth-flowing game like this is when you find yourself clinging to the side of a building one meter above the ground. Next to you is a huge orc raising his arm to kill you, while probably wondering why a moment ago you were beating him senseless and now you decided to turn and hug the wall beside you both. The flip side of this is that sometimes, instead of killing the orc on the ledge above where you’re hanging, you accidentally drop into a group of orcs 20 meters down that happens to be walking by. Context sensitive actions on a gamepad is a delicate thing, but a game this smooth needs to sort it out or it becomes very frustrating, fast.
Shadow of War also never really lets you know at what point you’re saved up to. So you may find yourself scared to quit in case you lose some loot you just found, but haven't progressed the story on. Speaking of which, quitting Shadow of War seems to take you back to the EULA, assuming you haven't agreed to the online loot crate fiasco. So it doesn't actually quit the game, just tries to get you to agree to its EULA again. So I always have to hard crash out of it.
Finally, there is a microtransaction loot crate system in the game. Make of that what you will. We have some other articles on it if you wish to read more on that and chat about it. The general gist is that an alternate ending is hidden behind a series of grindy sieges. Having stronger orcs is going to benefit you here, and these can be obtained faster through loot crates. By the end of the game, you should have plenty of Silver currency through normal gameplay though, which can be exchanged for crates if you wish.
This online aspect also leads to online multiplayer base battles; Social Conquests aren’t too similar to MGSV: The Phantom Pain’s Mother Base invasions. Not something we’ve covered here and personally doesn’t appeal to me. Shadow of War doesn’t offer enough depth of strategy outside a single player game and if I want to smash X at someone I can do it from my phone. If I want an online tactical fighting game, there are definitely other games that are made for this.
The above-mentioned flaws amount to mere inconveniences in what is a great third-person combat action game. Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, our Game of the Year in 2014, laid the groundwork and Shadow of War flexed its muscles, delivering tonnes more depth in a wonderfully evocative universe. Some of the humour in SoW is genuinely funny, while some of it goes a tiny bit too far for my personally slightly more serious fantasy taste.
There are no groundbreaking gameplay changes that made me go, oooh that's new, but Shadow of War is very well put together, making it easy to pick up and play for hours at a time. You can master the combat controls swiftly and unlock new abilities and gain new equipment when things start to get too repetitive. There are always things to do, making for a very long and enjoyable play through. Shadow of War will certainly figure strongly in our upcoming Global Game Awards 2017. Whether it will manage to get Game of The Year again, I’m not so sure in this packed year.
Providing thrilling gameplay, a flowing combat system, pleasing Tolkien landscape, challenging charismatic bosses, deeper story and a bigger end game mechanic to keep the player entertained for many many hours, today Middle Earth Shadow of War is one of the best games available in the third-person RPG-action genre.