Middle-earth: Shadow of War Review – More of the Same

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When it was released in late 2014, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor came off as quite a surprise for unsuspecting gamers, as it not only marked the biggest launch for a game based upon Tolkien’s universe, but it also went on to win several awards from video gaming publications.

Three years past the release, its sequel – Middle-earth: Shadow of War – looks to surprise its audience once again by upping the ante in terms of gameplay and presentation, and try to recapture the spark of the first game.

The first Middle-earth game was an open-world 3rd person action adventure with brutal, Batman Arkham inspired, melee battles coupled with stealth mechanics, upgradable abilities and stat boosting loot; all coming together with a semi-parkour auto traversal system similar to the mechanic found in Assassin’s Creed franchise.

Shadow of Mordor focused on letting players engage in melee combat, and utilize wraith abilities to fight and manipulate enemies. The game also introduced the Nemesis System, which created an actual evolving hierarchy within enemy ranks, where Uruks could rise up the ladder and gain buffs upon defeating their rivals or the player character, creating dynamic scenarios where a simple enemy can turn into a boss character that has its own share of character specific strengths and weaknesses; a system that made each battle fresh and unique, making the game stand out from other action games.

As a sequel, Shadow of War tries to add new mechanics to this system in order to make it much bigger than what it was before; however, does that translate into something better, or is it just setting itself up for failure by tampering with what worked before?

When it comes to core gameplay Shadow of War retains all of the game mechanics just as they were presented in Shadow of Mordor 3 years ago. The game is still a 3rd person action adventure where the player character is required to cleave his way through Orcs by mashing attacks, dodging and parrying; all the while traversing up, down and around enemy structures in large open environments.

This time however, the developer; Monolith, decided to take the ‘bigger is better’ approach by expanding on almost every part of the game mechanics brought forward from the previous game. This holds true for everything, from the combat aspect of gameplay with the amount of skills and upgrades at the player’s disposal, to the RPG elements like leveling up characters as well as receiving gear loot, perks and stat boosts.

Players can level up their characters by defeating powerful enemies and completing objectives; this gains player XP, which unlocks Skill Points, that can be used to unlock and upgrade player skills and abilities.

Shadow of War features a much more extensive skill tree than its predecessor, with each skill containing 2 to 3 different upgrade levels. These skills are divided according to general Combat, Predator, Wraith and Ranged playstyles as well as ability to shadow mount beasts like the lumbering yet powerful Graugs, the fast moving Caragors or even the sky-faring Drakes.

Another avenue where Shadow of War expands upon its predecessor is in the amount of gear loot which provides the player character with perks and incremental stat boosts. These gear pieces include swords, knives, bows, armours and cloaks, each with their own stats, and also the ability to slot gems in them for even greater perks and gameplay flexibility.

This gear loot is plentiful and its types range from Common, Rare, Epic and Legendary. Thankfully the customization of loot is not just about number crunching, as each gear type comes with its own design, which also changes the cosmetic look of the player character in gameplay. Unfortunately, these changes are not reflected in the story cutscenes, which really breaks the immersion and that is a real-shame.

Perhaps it is due to the implementation of gear loot and customization options that Shadow of War seems to have taken a small step backwards when it comes to its visuals.

The first game did an amazing job of replicating the presentation and tone of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies into the game itself and in that respect Shadow of War is no different. The game retains this art design and utilizes its Firebird engine and good use of lighting and textures to deliver great character designs as well as clothing, weaponry, armour and architecture in tune with the aesthetic introduced in the movies.

Similarly, just like Shadow of Mordor, the game contains great music and voicework that really goes a long way to recreate the atmosphere of middle-earth as established by the books and especially Peter Jackson’s movie franchise.

However, where Shadow of War seems to falter is in the fact that its in-game character models, their animation and the Orc enemies don’t look quite as detailed as they did in Shadow of Mordor.

While the difference is somewhat noticeable during exploration, it is not staggeringly apparent during the intense gameplay sections. This discrepancy in details might be due to the introduction of visually diverse gear-loot with variety of weapons and armour sets, as well as due to the fact that the game world seems to be much larger in scope and scale.

The world presented in Shadow of War isn’t exactly an “Open World” that is a staple of most sandbox action adventure games these days. The game consists of 5 regions, that while visually connected to each other on game-map, have to be selected and these regions act as massive open sandbox stages. These are more densely packed with buildings and enemies than the sparsely populated open world of Shadow of Mordor.

These regions offer a nice change from the red-brown palette of Shadow of Mordor and offers visual variety in terrain that ranges from greens and browns of Forest Grass Lands, to blues and greys of Snowy Mountains and a mix of reds and yellows of Fiery Volcanic Pits.

As with the game’s presentation, the core mechanic of Shadow of War’s Nemesis System remains unchanged from Shadow of Mordor. It still allows the artificial intelligence of randomly generated enemy Orcs to remember the deaths of the game’s protagonist and react accordingly to create organically occurring pseudo storylines with non-scripted rivalries and allegiances with NPCs.

While most grunt level Orcs are cannon fodder, those that get promoted to the rank of captain or above come in all shapes and sizes, and utilize tactics that differ according to one of the many types of tribes they belong to.

All of these types of Orcs can also be “Dominated” into brainwashed allies. While the ability to convert Orcs was also present in Shadow of Mordor, this time the breath and scope of what can be done with Orc Followers has been increased.

The Orc followers can be assigned as bodyguards as well as commanded to spy on Warchief, sent on mission to kill an Orc Captain or level up, reassigned in army and act as assault leader in Siege Battles. Since defeating Orcs rewards players with gear loot, it creates an interesting tradeoff between whether to farm them for loot or create valuable allies in the army.

The main purpose of building an army of followers in Shadow of War is to take part in Fortress Invasions. Though touted as the major gameplay addition, these Siege Battles are occasionally occurring large missions that end with a boss battle with the fortress’ Overlord. Capturing victory points, taking over the fortresses and defeating their Overlord lets Talion control the region with his own appointed Overlord as well as the war chiefs and captains underneath him.

Whether they are enemies or followers, each of these Orcs come with their own sets of different weapons, weaknesses, traits, levels and abilities. These Orcs are somewhat similar to the game’s gear loot as they also come in different levels, that range from Common to Epic and Legendary depending on the number of epic traits and abilities they have.

Interaction with orcs creates dynamic narrative elements that depend upon player actions and therefore unique to each player and his/her playthrough. They have very discerning personalities, that come out in battle taunts before and during a fight, and they can fight each other, come to your aid, or even betray you; creating organic narratives that are better and more entertaining than the scripted story told in the game’s campaign.

The narrative in Middle-earth: Shadow of War continues the story from Shadow of Mordor, which told an original tale that took place between the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and focused on Talion, a Ranger who bonds with the wraith of the Elf Celebrimbor, as the two set out to avenge the deaths of their loved ones at the hands of the armies of Mordor.

In spite of its addition of new characters, messing around with iconic figures and other narrative innovations, Shadow of Mordor seemed to try its best to remain somewhat faithful to the Tolkien’s Middle-earth lore and added things that remained within bounds of Lord of the Rings mythos so as to fit within the established canon set by J.R.R. Tolkien.

With Shadow of War, it seems Monolith has completely let go of that sentiment, and all pretense of keeping things authentic to the vast amount of Tolkien lore seems to have gone down the drain. The game introduces several narrative contrivances that bend and stretch roles of iconic characters in order spice up Talion’s story and his part in the Lord of the Rings mythos.

While it has got its moments, these small twists and turns in the story are innocuously serviceable for a newbie or casual fan of the Lord of the Rings franchise, but to a Tolkien fan the game’s plot is essentially fan-fiction that uses characters, names and terminologies from Tolkien books to create justifications for set-pieces and gameplay scenarios.

And even when viewed as its own separate entity, the story in Shadow of War does not fare much better; the liberties it takes with the source material doesn’t deter it from reusing old narrative beats and following tired tropes of traditional action adventure games. While it tries to introduce character depth, it is undercut by mediocre storytelling as well as lack of narrative nuance and substance to create the desired impact.

Once the player is done with Shadow of War’s lengthy 3 Act story campaign, the game actually presents the player with an interesting final challenge, which is quite lengthy, repetitive and requires a fair bit of effort to complete.

This post-game mission, dubbed: “ACT IV: The Shadow Wars”, lets players experience the other-side of the fortress siege invasions. Now the player is tasked with defending his fortresses from relentless assaults from the army of Sauron. Completing this massive challenge unlocks a bonus ending that acts as an epilogue and ties the bow on some of the loose threads.

Players are tasked with setting up their army, defending the capture points, killing the waves of advancing enemies and defeating the enemy Warchiefs before the opposing side is able to do massive damage and the fortress falls.

For the players to stand any chance of succeeding, they have to customize their orc army and upgrade their fortress defenses, all of which requires players to spend Mirian, which is the in-game currency earned from leveling-up, completing missions and challenges. Once the story missions end, the player then has to grind a significant amount to earn Mirian at a piece meal basis.

Some might argue that the tedious nature of this final challenge hints towards predatory concessions made to the overall game design to accommodate the Microtransactions portion of the game. To fully understand the impact of such a system, it is important to look at this Loot-based, real-money market portion of the game in greater detail.

Middle-earth: Shadow of War contains a Market section that allows players to spend real world money to purchase loot-chests that grant players with XP boosts, loot gears and orcs of varying quality.

It is important to note that this Loot-Chest form of system is one of the worst forms of microtransactions utilized in present-day games market. It is a gambling system that incentivizes players to drop real money to receive random rewards; essentially paying for a chance to get something worthwhile. However, that does not say much about its actual impact on the game itself.

In fact, the microtransactions in the game are not at all obtrusive or intrusive in their application. Surprisingly the marketplace in Shadow of War is definitely not in-your-face; not only does the game never prompts the player to engage in microtransactions, it is actually quite generous in the frequency in which it awards players with new skill points, relics/gear loot at a steady pace.

As for its impact on the final act of the game, while buying loot-chests can considerably lessen the time taken to complete Shadow Wars, it is still completely doable without ever spending a dime. Furthermore, since the primary ending at the end of Act III resolves most of the plot points introduced in the series, completing Shadow Wars quest is completely optional and the “ending” it unlocks is just a bonus rather than a “true ending”

Yes, the post-game content is grindy, but that is par for the course. Even before micro-transactions became an unfortunate part of the game publishing system, Action, Adventure and RPG games have a history of including challenging ‘Post-Game’ content that challenges and provides additional excuse to play the game for those that enjoy playing the game.

That said, the ability to purchase loot chests via Shadow of War’s microtransaction market does create a “Pay-to-Win” scenario for the online multiplayer base-defense mode present in the game.

Shadow of War’s “Social Conquest mode” works similar to Metal Gear Solid V’s Forward Operating Base missions. In it, players can partake in asynchronous online multiplayer and are able to invade other player’s fortresses to conquer them and gain some gold or risk permanent death some of their Orc followers in case of failure, if played under its ‘Ranked’ setting.

Aside from its multiplayer portion, Shadow of War gives players a lot of incentive to play in and explore the game-world. Game is littered with collectables. Ithildin runes, Shelob’s memories and Gondorian Artifacts. The game also contains tons of challenges and side missions, however almost all of these boils down to defeating a set number of enemies or reaching a destination to defeat a powerful enemy.

None of these options and challenges will matter it the gameplay itself is unappealing. So, if you are sick of action adventure games with Arkham styled button mash action, Assassin’s Creed movement and climbing towers in open world environments then it is best to stay clear of Middle-earth: Shadow of War.

While the additions to the Nemesis System are not significant enough to convert those that didn’t like Shadow of Mordor, if you enjoyed the first game and if the staples of open-world action adventure genre do not bother you, then Shadow of War offers enough new content for you to enjoy the ride for a long time.

Where Shadow of Mordor came out as a fresh and interesting take on the Lord of the Rings franchise, Shadow of War manages to iron out kinks and expand the world of the first game without adding anything significant to the formula, making it a more derivative but fun experience.

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