Shadow of War

When it comes to video games tied to movie properties, the chances of the game being a triple-A, high-quality title are usually a toss up when you look at previous entries in this esteemed genre.

One game that surprised critics when it debuted and ignited a new video game series was Middle earth: Shadow of Mordor, a game set in the universe of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and a game beloved by critics for its deep gameplay and amazingly well-told story.

Now the inevitable sequel to Shadow of Mordor has arrived and you might be wondering if the team at Monolith Productions has hit gold twice or missed the mark with this latest game.

Released in 2014, Shadow of Mordor follows the story of Talion and his family after they are slaughtered and Talion is possessed by the wandering spirit of Celebrimbor, the elf forge master that made Sauron’s one ring. His family given over as a blood sacrifice to summon the wayward spirit, Celebrimbor possesses Talion and forges a new ring for Sauron.

While it might be entirely kosher cannon for fans of Tokiens’ works, Shadow of Mordor nonetheless introduced us to a darker, grittier version of this world that we had never seen before. This, couple with its unique gameplay, made it a blockbuster hit. Shadow of War largely continues this venture albeit with a few threadbare points in it where the engine from 2014 begins to show its age.

One of the first things people ask about Shadow of War is how does it play. An action-heavy title, think Batman’s Arkham Asylum series when it comes to tough, get-in-your-face battles with foes. The combat is smooth and natural, without anything jarring or that messes up your flow. Controls aid this process as they are tight and responsive, just as in the previous title. Where things tend to fall apart a bit is when there is a lot of action on the screen. Better suited for brawls involving three or four baddies, when the numbers get larger it really doesn’t matter how powerful you are – you’ll probably become overwhelmed. This is disappointing as a lot of Middle-earth: Shadow of War is about leveling up your character. To see that this has a natural ceiling and that you’ll never quite craft an invincible God-type character can be frustrating for fans of role-playing games that are used to such a mechanic. After all, what better reward for sinking in tens of hours into grinding than the ability to demolish your opponents.

Where Shadow of War stands out, like its predecessor, and somewhat surpasses it, is in its nemesis system and its new siege mechanic. Like in the previous game, non-player characters fighting for Sauron have unique personalities and histories, especially with you. While most of them can be subdued with the new ring, and thus join your side, this isn’t always the case and knowing you have a history with some commanders on the field makes that feature unique. This game really goes beyond Shadow of Mordor with its multiplayer sieges that you can engage in once you’ve completed the main campaign.

One area where Shadow of War truly disappoints, so much so that it might be a deal breaker for fans of the Lord of the Rings, is in how it handles its source material. While Shadow of Mordor was a new, refreshing experience for the Lord of the Rings, Shadow of War has delved deeper into cliche, trite storylines and melodramatic dialogue with inconsequential action. Obviously to make it all work it has to take some conventions of the Lord of the Rings and toss it out the window, such as Talion’s forging of a new ring, but here the modifications are not only egregious for fans and newcomers alike but also tedious and deleterious to the main game. If you can stomach some iconic characters stuck in a very decidedly B-movie setting, then Shadow of War is your game. Narrative naturally doesn’t impact the gameplay to the point of making the game not fun, but it is a glaring feature in a game that takes its inspirations from one of the most prominent works in all of fantasy literature.

That said, the conflict between Celebrimbor and Talion is ratcheted up another notch and there is some comic relief in the character of Ratbag who largely stands in for the goofy antics you would see from the dwarves. Fans of the Hobbit films will find a lot to enjoy with the characters in this game as they mirror their counterparts in that film more so than they do the characters found in the mainline Lord of the Rings series.

Where Middle earth: Shadow of War does not skimp out at all is in its presentation of the world of Middle earth. Brought to life in stunning visuals, Shadow of War isn’t a huge leap graphically beyond Shadow of Mordor but it is more varied in its zones and the level of detail seems to be much greater. Each of the five zones has a distinct look and feel to it that not only makes it beautiful but also situates the area firmly within some portion of Tolkien’s world.

Each area is filled with ruins that you can explore as well as different climates and biomes. These choices are only aesthetic, however, as changing scenery doesn’t impact your player character. This is a small detail but one that is noticeable given many open-world games renewed focus on providing some kind of authentic experience. By this we mean that your player character doesn’t shiver in the cold and doesn’t sweat in the heat. Again, the environment around you might change, but Talion will remain the same – this can be a bit jarring.

In terms of abilities to explore the ruins around him, Talion adopts much of the same style as found in the Shadow of Mordor: That is you can run, jump, and climb over most anything, though this can lead to some awkward moments. Like the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s climbing mechanic, just because you can go there doesn’t mean you should. It’s good that traveling is fun and there is an incentive for exploration because Shadow of War is a massive game. What could have been tedious travel from place to place is instead fun and engaging.

The variety of bad guys, called uruk, with their various personalities, voice acting, and different strategies really stands out in Shadow of War but is largely brought over from Shadow of Mordor so it is tough to give the game too much credit for merely porting over a well-made, popular feature from the previous game. Unlike most games, Shadow of War employed a raft of voice actors and designers to make each one more unique than the last, and they’ve succeeded yet again in Shadow of War.

Where things do get more in depth than in Shadow of Mordor is in the various strategies and class-based skills these uruk employ. The system being more fleshed out than in the previous game means that the player has more strategies to employ to achieve their objectives. Conversely, it also means the player will become bogged down in even more crippling minutiae – something that few people want in an action game. While you can do field reconnaissance to make sure your boss encounters go swimmingly, it is often a whole of lot fun to just wing it and go in guns blazing to try to figure out what works through trial and error. Though not the way the developers intended, this means the system, through its overflow of information, becomes secondary and thus optional. In the first game doing this would not be advised, but Shadow of War gives players reason to look beyond the walls of text and endless subterfuge. Afterall, with a combat system second to none, engaging in a fight is what makes Shadow of War so much fun. It’s sad developers amped up their focus on secondary systems to the point they could become irrelevant rather than boosting all areas of the game.

Why would you engage in blind combat? Well, aside from the tedium of reconnaissance, there’s also the whole loot aspect to defeating enemies. Loaded to the brim with loot that can make you a stronger, better player, fighting uruk endlessly is the quickest path to obtaining these items. Why think about it if you’re going to get rewarded anyway? Again, these two systems are conflicting and perhaps a relic quest functionality or something that combines the importance of reconnaissance to defeat enemies with the drive for better loot would really benefit Shadow of War.

The biggest new addition to Shadow of War are the fortresses and the siege mechanics that come along with them. While not entirely novel concepts, this addition to Shadow of War makes loot acquisition and controlling the best soldiers a lot more meaningful. We think a lot of gamers will spend most of their game time with this feature as it is by far the strongest addition to the franchise with this installment.

Overall, Shadow of War is a competent, if not great at times, game that deserves a look if you enjoy action games or you are a fan of Lord of the Rings. Where the game falls short, however, is in its amalgamation of old systems with new features, the former failing to add anything to the latter and instead confusing the matter entirely. Adding more doesn’t make a better game and keeping some things the same also does not count as improvement. In so many ways Shadow of War seems like a copy and paste of the original with a few new features to justify its purchase price. Given that its predecessor was a great game means this, too, is a great title. But given that game came out in 2014 and this one came out years later, we would expect a little bit more in the way of change and upgrades.

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