Over three years ago developer Monolith Productions were able to produce an excellent licensed Lord of the Rings game with Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor by mimicking the success Rocksteady had pioneered with the Batman Arkham series. One of the truly standout features of this game was the Nemesis system in which every Orc, or rather Uruk, enemy in the game was capable of remembering every encounter and dynamically changing their appearance and dialogue based on past events. With the release of Middle-earth: Shadow of War, the Nemesis mechanic is bigger and better in practically every way, creating an even more enjoyable adventure as you grow your army and pop a few heads along the way.
Shadow of War immediately picks up from where the last game ended, with the forging of a new ring of power to rival Sauron’s. However the ranger Talion and the one ring forger Celebrimbor, who still occupies Talion’s body, are not destined to wield this power straight away. Instead they are forced to give it to Shelob the spider, who can now take on a human form. As per the last game, several liberties or changes have been implemented on established Tolkien lore which, for those who are willing to accept such alterations, allows the game to find a serviceable narrative to support the excellent Nemesis system.
Brand new characters are introduced such as the Blade of Galadriel, Eltariel, a Gondorian warrior named Baranor, and Carnán, a powerful creature who features a deep connection to the earth. Each offers up their own set of side missions which are as important as the main objective and should not be skipped, although the characters themselves offer up little depth other than their initial personalities showcased. From hunting down Nazgul to sealing the tremendous power of a Balrog, they actually present some of the most exciting and unique sections in the game and offer a great change of pace from the structure of the main plot.
The first act of the game is essentially a tutorial section in which you are slowly introduced to the games mechanics, characters, and world. You are restricted to Minas Ithil, a city under siege with the destined fate to become Minas Morgul. I found this opening section a bit too slow having already experienced the first game and wished I could go straight into using the domination ability to capture Uruks.
Minas Ithil does however work as a good way to become used to the two main combat options that Shadow of War offers. The combo based action combat is featured once again where dodging, countering, stunning and striking your way through enemies is enjoyable as ever. As before combat builds to an instant kill finisher or an explosive bow shot, with a bigger emphasis on the more powerful moves this time round due to increased amount of enemies being thrown at you.
The ability tree is relatively complex and has a variety of key traits to unlock, with new upgrades available to purchase in each trait as you increase in level. Your character levels up via practically everything in the game, although typically doing a main or side story mission net a lot more experience overall. These upgrades are essential in the game as the new gear based system will always match your current level or below, and recruitment of Uruks cannot be achieved unless they are equal or less than your level.
The gear system itself is implemented well with the quality of loot ranging from normal to legendary. Each piece offers unique abilities for equipping gear from the same set, and you definitely feel empowered your appearance becomes more epic throughout the story.The fact that this gear doesn’t apply across to the cinematics is disappointing however, causing it to be a bit jarring when Talion rapidly changes outfits between scenes. Luckily the best gear can be upgraded via doing certain tasks such as recruiting an Uruk Captain of a required level, preventing excellent gear obtained early on from simply being unusable later in the game.
In terms of abilities I expected I’d obtain a specific set of upgrades first and stick with them most of the game, but I found more often than not I was changing ability upgrades mid-battle to exploit an Uruk Captains weakness on the fly. Switching between abilities is also helpful to change your gameplay style, such using the Shadow Strike skill with the chain upgrade to kill multiple other grunts at once in scenarios where you’re in a hurry. For when you’re trying to be sneaky, the Shadow Dominant upgrade is better as it can make it easier to stealthily turn grunts to your side before a final hidden attack on a main Captain.
Regardless of how you play, the interchangeability of different skills allows a more customised experience to suit any given player or situation. The stealth based combat options have also received new abilities such as being able to double-jump. This grants a greater level of control when moving around on roof tops to silently assassinate targets. Although I never actually encountered any Captains who could be instantly killed by stealth, the choice to pursue a target quietly was often a valid strategy. Although the level of presence recognition from nearby Uruks was often a bit too generous.
Upon completion of the first act your old powers are restored and the real quest begins with the formation of your army to defeat Sauron. This is where Nemesis 2.0 is really on display with the ability to finally dominate and recruit Uruks. The character that’s used to first demonstrate this feature is the fantastic Bruz the Chopper with his unique Australian slang and personality, making him really stand out as a highlight Uruk! Since he is a side character and does appear in everyone’s game he has been given a bit of a stronger character trait and style then most of the Nemesis Uruks, but that’s not to say they don’t stand out either. There were so many memorable encounters from the hundreds of Uruks I fought such as a one who I repeatedly killed yet constantly come back for revenge, becoming more machine each time. From singing and ruthless Uruks to the completely deranged, every interaction was an excitement to behold and often their initial appearance and design feed as much into recruiting them as their stats did.
On top of the different character traits, the Nemesis system seems to just support an endless amount of unique enemies by implementing various allegiances such as a Marauder tribe the flaunt their spoils of war, or the Warmonger tribe that are all killing machines. With the addition of a new hulking class of Uruks called the Ologs, the ability for loyal followers to betray you and to be attacked completely out of blue by an assassin there is so much to be enjoyed and surprised by in this game. Even over the dozens of hours I spent in Shadow of War I only ever encountered the same line of dialogue once and even post end game it still managed to feature visually unique Uruks.
Other than the actual Nemesis system generating a dynamic world of constantly changing and evolving enemies to recruit, some major new systems have been added for your recruits to do once dominated. Like the first game these characters just keep performing missions regardless of your intervention, or you can directly order them to kill a specific Captain or infiltrate a Warchief to allow for an easier overthrow later. The power struggle is always ongoing, and it is up to you to slowly take on missions or track down specific Captains to raise your army.
As you increase your force size you approach the ultimate goal of overthrowing the Overlord of a fort to claim it as your own. These conquest missions are a superb improvement to the mechanics already present and offer up an adrenaline rush as you take part in the spectacle of defeating a fort. This was such a logical next step for this franchise, and along with the significant growth in the Nemesis system are the best thing about this game.
It is a constant joy to capture each point as you push into the inner walls with your assigned Uruk leaders and purchased upgrades with the ultimate purpose of defeating the forts Overlord. These fights are done in a small confined arena based off the character’s tribe, adding a sense of originality for each fort takeover and making them some of the more challenging fights in the game. Upon the Overlords defeat either via death or domination a new Uruk must be promoted, granting potential bonuses and visual flairs to the fort based on their tribe.
There are multiple fortresses throughout Mordor, all of which feature their own unique landscape and side quests to do. The locations such as the volcanic Gorgoroth or the snowy mountains of Seregost offer a much needed visual diversity and distinguish each fortress from another. The visuals aren’t the best when it comes to the character models but the environments on a whole are pleasing to the eye. With the exception of some buggy camera work, glitches and rough texture pop-in this is a good looking game.
Not only Uruks inhabit these locations though, with various beast roaming the wilds and acting as potential tools for your brawls. Most are returning creatures such as the Caragor mount to quickly ride around, but there are new elemental versions of the giant Graugs to match their location along with the flying Drake. Drakes add a whole new feature to Shadow of War as they can be mounted and flown, allowing a euphoric sense of movement as you fly around locations or bombard enemies from the air to create some of the best cinematic moments in the game.
Since there are small open world sections of course collectables can be found scattered around the map, all of which can be revealed via the classic tower mechanic that also acts as a fast travel point. There isn’t an excessive amount of them though, and each grant some kind of extra lore information for a character such as Shelob or even Gondorian history. They also grant special abilities that cannot be obtained otherwise which gives them a tangible end reward as opposed to just the feeling of collecting everything.
As far as the main story and interactions go, Talion and Celebrembor are the most interesting and overall I was happy with the how their story concluded. The game isn’t finished yet though, and in order to unlock the true ending the Shadow Wars act must be completed. With the games conclusion there are some changes to the world and characters so it was interesting seeing the new dialogue formed to match those alterations as you explore this final section.
Shadow Wars is essentially the opposite of the fort capture mode, where you must defend all fortresses from invading armies. The waves of Warchiefs along with their Captains by far make this the toughest part of the game, especially when suddenly your forces are very important in preventing points from being lost and the fort being captured. Up to this point the Uruks you recruited have mostly been about making things easier for Talion, so I did enjoy the change of pace and necessity of gathering a strong army.
With the true ending on the horizon to add needed closure to the story, as well as simply more content to involve you in the Nemesis system, I did enjoy this final section. Disappointingly it drags on for far too long, ruining the momentum of the stories end. As some of the final defense missions have only max level Warchiefs it is necessary that Talion’s army are powerful enough to defeat them. Luckily you can dominate most attacking Uruks anyway so typically my forces were always equally strong, with just the occasion need to send them on missions for training.
Loot-boxes are featured which upon purchase will automatically grant you potentially strong followers based on your level. Up to this point other than the messages on the pause menu there is literally zero incentive to purchase a single chest, as the in game Uruks are more than enough for the main story content. I equally found them unnecessary for the final act as often epic and the occasional legendary Uruks are thrown at you in the main game preventing any need to purchase them at all.
It is also possible to obtain loot boxes with in game currency ,which you are likely to have plenty of before you even consider getting a loot-box. Having tested it myself though I can say it is an incredibly anti-climactic and slow process, so you’re better off just advancing time until an extra powerful Captain shows up. There is an online mode where your base can be attacked or you can initiate an assault on another person’s fort, but other than just wanting the strongest base for ranked mode and a way to continue capturing forts post game there is little incentive to need the strongest force. As a whole its disappointing that loot-boxes are featured at all, but they are a complete waste of time to purchase with no real purpose other than to remove a potential grind wall for those who have not been recruiting plenty of Uruks when going for the true ending.
With Middle-Earth: Shadow of War, Monolith Productions have managed to pull off a mostly successful sequel thanks to the excellent improvement to the already compelling Nemesis system. Although the game does stumble at times with it’s often simplistic characters, bugs and bad pacing, the pure joy of avenging your death or a fallen comrade with Talions overpowered abilities in Middle-Earth is exciting from start to finish. So many times I couldn’t help but be caught up in how awesome it was to dominate a variety of unique Uruks and using them to amass an extreme army to lead into battle. Shadow of War truly captures the adrenaline rush of epic scale fantasy conflicts that were present in Lord of the Rings, and manages to offer up an experience that will not be forgotten.
Written By Russell Collom
Reviewed on PS4 Pro
Available on PS4, PC and Xbox One