Middle-earth: Shadow of War, the sequel to 2014’s acclaimed Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, has a lot going for it. It brings back the great gameplay and much loved nemesis system from its predecessor, and improves on a lot from Shadow of Mordor.
Is that to say it’s flawless? No. Its incohesive story — which features the ranger Talion and the wraith Celebrimbor preparing to attack Sauron — has its moments, but isn’t anything special. The mediocre story and bland new characters at times bog down the enormous fun of killing every uruk in sight.
Graphically, this game is a nice improvement from its 2014 predecessor, but that doesn’t make it the prettiest game out there. Some muddy textures and pop in that at times can be pretty bad set this game behind titles like Horizon: Zero Dawn and Uncharted 4 visually. That being said, the game still looks great. The lighting is very well done and character models are exceptional — especially Talion and the transparent wraith Celebrimbor.
Shadow of War also has a great photo mode, improving on the one from the first game. Photo mode is becoming somewhat of a necessity in games of all types nowadays, and Shadow of War has one of the best, right up there with that of Horizon: Zero Dawn.
The sound design, music, and voice acting are also well done. The realistic and gritty sounds of swords clashing against metal, wood, and flesh; the sounds that reflect the environment you are walking, running, or climbing on; and the great effects from all of the wraith magic you perform all do a great job of keeping you immersed.
The voice acting is well done in most areas, with Talion, voiced by Troy Baker, and Celebrimbor, voiced by Alastair Duncan, having standout performances. The other human and elf voices are fine, but nothing special, although I can’t help but hear and appreciate Uncharted 4’s Nadine in Laura Bailey’s performance as Eltariel.
As for the uruks, they’re all perfect, from the bellowing voices of the trolls to the sniveling voices of the scrawny uruk’s that fight from a distance. They all have distinct personalities and voices, and they always react to the situation you confront them in. If you attack a captain while they are fighting a caragor, they will mention it in their monologue before the fight. As you go through the open world you will hear uruks having conversations, and they’re written and acted very well. It’s always fun to hear uruks mention an event that had just occurred that was of your doing, or tell another uruk that they’re worried that the “Gravewalker” (Talion) will show up.
Now for the best part of Middle Earth: Shadow of War — the gameplay. This is one of the few games that nails the Arkham combat system as well as Rocksteady’s Arkham itself. You’ll be attacking, countering, flipping, and rolling all over the screen. For the most part it’s the same as the combat in the last game, and that’s a good thing.
The ranged combat is also quite good, although it usually leads to melee combat. When you aim your bow or hammer, time slows down and drains your Focus, letting you target enemies with greater precision. This also makes shooting in midair possible once you get that upgrade. You can also attack enemies with a shadow strike when aiming at them. This attack moves you to the enemy and either does a lot of damage or kills them.
Stealth is just as forgiving and simple as in the first game. You can kill uruks from any position, and the only thing you need to do to stay quiet is hold the crouch button. There’s even an upgrade that makes it so you don’t need to crouch. Movement is also very similar to Shadow of Mordor, although now you can boost when climbing like you do when running. A double jump feature is also a welcome addition, making you feel faster and more agile. And lastly, in addition to the mounts from the previous game (caragors and graugs) you can ride drakes, which are practically dragons — definitely one of the more epic improvements over Shadow of Mordor.
The nemesis system makes a triumphant return in Shadow of War, and is even better than it was in Shadow of Mordor. It still works in the same way as it did in the past, but like all other things in this game, it’s seen some really positive changes. Instead of there being 5 warchiefs, there’s now one overlord that controls each fortress and acts like the boss of that area. Under him is a differing number of warchiefs depending on the location, and under them, the standard captains.
Now I’d like to touch on the game’s loot boxes for a moment. No, they are not intrusive and they don’t ruin the game. In fact, I’d say you are ruining the game for yourself if you buy them, as they undermine one of the best parts of the game: capturing uruks. Of course, this doesn’t fix the fact that this type of business practice presents a slippery slope, with the micro-transactions progressively getting worse over time. So I urge you to not support these loot boxes, and to vote with your wallet.
The story in Shadow of War starts off well, with returning protagonists Talion and Celebrimbor creating a new ring of power. But they soon lose the ring to Shelob, who is now oddly able to turn from a terrifying, giant spider into an attractive woman. From there the story introduces some new but bland characters, like all of the humans and elves. All of the returning characters are just as good as they were in the previous game, even though there aren’t many. The best new character is definitely the troll that serves as a tutorial for how to take over and defend fortresses, Bruz. He has a great personality and is quite funny, and his missions are a lot more fun than they sound.
The biggest problem with the story is (strangely) that there isn’t one main story. Instead there are multiple storylines that all end up feeling incohesive and at times like mediocre side-quests. That said, even though the story isn’t the best, the cutscenes are done really well and feature cinematography that looks like it was taken right out of Metal Gear Solid. These cutscenes go a long way in making the story fun, even if its narrative strength is somewhat lacking.
The game’s ending is more fulfilling than that of Shadow of Mordor, with a much better end game boss battle. Once you’ve beat the game, I’d suggest you do the same thing you would do if you were played Arkham Knight and just look up the true ending on YouTube. The true ending is good, but it’s only a 3-minute cutscene, and that isn’t worth putting dozens of hours into when you could just look it up.
“A ton of fun in a much loved world”
Overall, Middle-earth: Shadow of War is a great game that is worth your money, even if its loot boxes aren’t. The fantastic combat and decent but simple stealth are great fun, and nothing is better than destroying an enemy fortress with an overpowered army. The nemesis system is better than before, and new mounts and gameplay elements do a great job of improving on the first game. Do yourself a favor and buy Shadow of War, especially if you’re a fan of all things Middle-earth.