Middle-earth: Shadow of War – review

  • Format: PC, PS4, Xbox One
  • Unleashed: Out Now
  • Publisher: Warner Brothers
  • Developer: Monolith Productions
  • Players: 1
  • Site: https://www.shadowofwar.com/
  • PC code purchased by reviewer; console discs provided by PR

Middle-earth: Shadow of War, or Shadow of More War, or whatever other weird title you can think of for the sequel of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, is pretty alright. We loved the original in fact, but maybe the sequel didn’t quite get it right. And by “maybe”, we actually mean “it didn’t”. It’s by no means bad, and some things are vastly improved upon; but it suffers immensely from feature bloat and a severe outbreak of iconpox. It’s mostly flabby padding, but we still kinda like it.

Talion has created a new ring of power with Celebrimbor, and this time there’s no Sauron trickery laced into it. But woe is you, Celebrimbor is stolen away by Shelob (who now has the ability to transform into a sexy lady, because marketing) who tricks you into giving her the ring and working for her. Then you’re off to save Minas something or other from orcs and blah, blah, blah – it’s all very boring and you can normally spot almost every story beat from a mile off; including loads of tropes like the powerful woman is just a woman scorned, the fighty lady is the general’s daughter, etc. It’s nice to see Gollum again, but the writing isn’t exactly Tolkien standard.

Talion eventually gets the ring back, and it really shows how bloated the game is that, even then, he doesn’t really come across as any more powerful than he was in the last game. This is partly down to the fact that your combat prowess is hampered by a new upgrade system which throws lots of nice looking `ability upgrades at you and forces you to chug through them. This works really well in MMOs and other games where you have parties of characters; not so much in a single-player title like this.

It’s not that you have a poor choice of abilities (there are some fantastic upgrades that make the game significantly more fun), but the rate at which you unlock them is Tolkien the mick a bit. This is a byproduct of making every skill have two or three upgrades, but only allowing you to have one active. It’s great that you can block to get an instant kill on grunts, but we kinda need the arrow-replenishing skill because running away from fights looking for shiny magical ammo just isn’t practical or fun.

The superpowered free-running puts every Assassin’s Creed so far to shame; but it struggles to cope with some of the more interestingly-shaped fortresses. In other news, the controversial loot crates aren’t (completely) awful. It’s another thing that has been unnecessarily added, but it saves some time in the endgame, where recruiting new Uruks can be tedious at best when you just want to finish the story. You can buy them all with currencies found in-game, though you can get all the really good stuff quickly by paying for it if you have more money than sense and/or want to min/max your army as much as possible. Either way- you’ll earn enough in-game currency to satisfy most costs without having to go out of your way. Nonetheless, this sort of profiteering isn’t exactly true to the source material.

Uruks and Olog-hai; these are the real stars of the show, the redeeming feature that makes both this and Shadow of Mordor so very fun. All with their own personalities and unique looks and abilities, most of these guys will be fun to fight with (and not just because the green skin and cockney accents might put you in mind of The Hitcher from The Mighty Boosh). Some will kill you once, or perhaps multiple times, and you’ll learn to hate them for it and find all sorts of inventive ways of wreaking revenge on them. What really makes them fantastic is their monologues. Whenever you meet them they’ll have something to say (sometimes for too long), but since they remember past encounters to a degree, they’ll play off of those fleeting meetings and it makes them feel impossibly real.

There are more tricks up their AI sleeves this time. Betrayal is not uncommon for those you mercilessly enslave, but if you don’t want to lose them forever you can now shame them, which might let you dominate them again later on. Or, if you get far enough in the game, you can forever scar them instead; making them either gibbering wrecks – that can still smash you into pulp, mind you – or occasionally turn them into maniacs, which strengthens them. Morally dubious at best, but useful. Enemy orcs will also adapt during combat, so doing the same thing over and over again just might not work any more, leading to some fun encounters (and some that you’ll just have to run from). By and large, combat remains the same as it was in Shadow of Mordor, i.e. amusingly Arkhamesque.

Sieges are brilliant the first few times; but there’s actually so little variation in them that they become boring pretty fast. It pains us to say that, because they should be brilliant. It’s just that there’s little variation in how they play out if you’re vaguely competent at killing stuff and setting it all up. The only way it can turn out differently is if you purposefully make it more difficult for yourself, or take to sieging other players online, which isn’t as rewarding as you’d expect it to be. Turning the last act of the game into a seemingly endless grind of sieges was arguably the biggest mistake.

You can view this from one of two perspectives; either there’s so much bloat that everything good gets overshadowed, or playing through the dreck lets you endlessly cover yourself in Uruk guts. We really wish we could only see the latter. Uruks and practically everything about fighting and stalking them is great; everything else can go on the chopping block for all we care. Oh, and while we’re at it, sexy Shelob has just as weak an excuse to exist as “Quiet has to have practically no clothes on”. That said, any game that lets you ride a dragon is worth a look in our book.

Additional writing by Luke K.

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Written by Sean P

I enjoy playing games and I enjoy writing things, so I decided to combine the two. I do bits here and there and have a twitter that mainly just announces things I've done as my life revolves around very little that is truly interesting.

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