The year 2014 was a splendid time for sequels to established video game franchises, as releases in series such as Far Cry, Dragon Age, Wolfenstein, Infamous, Mario Kart etc gained considerate critical and commercial success throughout the year. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Middle Earth : Shadow of Mordor, a new IP on the block, especially a licensed title based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s works, emerged as the true underdog and went on to sell millions of copies and even win a few GOTY awards in the process. A sequel was inevitable and after much hype and anticipation, Middle Earth: Shadow of War was released on 27 September 2017 for the PC, PS4 and Xbox One to become one of the most controversial video games released in the last few years. Where did SoW (as it is to be called in the rest of the review)go wrong? Is the controversies surrounding the game based on ill-made theories, or is it one of the biggest disappointments of last year? Let’s take a look.
Middle Earth : Shadow of War
Shadow of Mordor abruptly ended with the protagonists Aragon…I mean Talion and his long-dead wraith friend Celebrimbor deciding to wage a full-scale war on The Dark Lord using the wraith’s branding powers and Talion’s unrivaled ability to look dark, generic and brooding all the time. Shadow of War begins by the duo forging the ring of power, which is said to be more powerful than the one ring, losing it 10 seconds into the cutscene, regaining it 10 mins later after an exposition dump by Shelob, the great spider who for some reason, is a raven haired dress wearing femme-fatale now. Then you start your journey to rid the land of Mordor from the clutches of the dark lord Sauron by visiting the contested city of city of Minas Ithil. There, you meet the last line of resistance in Mordor and unwillingly work with them to obtain a secret artifact that is highly sought out by the Nazgûl. After your plan goes south, you begin to amass a vast army of orcs who will be mind-dominated slaves fighting against the dark lord’s army. In your journey, you will meet and occasionally work with many characters from the books and films leading up to an anticlimatic ending (or should I say 2?). It’s easy to wrap up the story of SoW without spoiling anything in simply two words: shoe-horned and underwhelming.Let’s face it, the story of the first game wasn’t anything to write home about and it left us with a sore taste in the mouth and wanting more. Sadly, not much has improved in the sequel. The main story feels underwhelming and clearly lacks the implied tension and struggle as everything happening on any given moment is jut another excuse for you to push forward and take back an area from the never-ending uruk forces. The story is designed around the gameplay, i.e add in roadblocks and walls in the narration that effectively blocks off areas and features just to introduce some more gameplay mechanics, whether it makes sense or not. There is no real motivation behind any actions, and pretty much everything railroads you to the next big thing that needs doing. Talion and Celebrimbor are unlikable like in the first game, and you can see clearly no effort or time went to make them anything more than two dimensional work of pixels and polygons. There is no single moment in the game where you want to genuinely care for the main characters especially Celebrimbor. He comes off as such an unlikable prick. At least in the first game, you felt the genuine need for vengeance concerning these two lost souls. As custom commands, Gollum makes a rudimentary appearance. Side characters such as idril, Baranor and the Spirit of Carnan easily fills in checkboxes for high-fantasy tropes and nothing more. An Elven assassin and called Eltariel’s character undergoes a paradigm shift towards the end of the campaign and her storyline ends abruptly to allow the upcoming dlc to fill it in. Ratbag, the comic relief from the first game makes a comeback and is somewhat entertaining sometimes. There are many discussions online about how unfriendly the game is to the lore of the subject material, but I won’t get to that since it’s safe to assume that it won’t matter to the majority of the players. Although no-one expects Obsidian level writing from the folks over at Monolith, the story of SoW is barely worth mentioning.
Aside from the increase in fluidity and the number of animations, the core gameplay remains fairly unchanged. SoW is a mixture of Assassin’s Creed style locomotion combined with the combat from Arkham series and the open world busywork from every game imaginable. Movement is smooth and seamless. Player can run, vault over obstacles and climb structures easily due to the tight and stramlined controls. The game world is divided into several maps this time around, with more environment variability, ranging from the large uruk infested city of Minas Ithil to the volcanic plateau of Gorgoroth. Missions vary from assassinations to boss fights to sieges. You still have a plethora or collectibles thrown in because, just every game this generation has to have that. There are enemy camps to dismantle, beasts to tame, armors, weapons and runes to collect. But the problem is that this new loot focused gameplay doesn’t work well with the narrative, as you can find upgrades to your ring of power frequently dropped by even the lowest of enemies, and it’s not explained anywhere how these urukus managed to get a hold of these rings which you had to go through hell and high water to forge.
There are two online game modes found within the game world; a “Social Conquest mode”, in which players are able to invade other players’ fortresses and attempt to conquer them. This mode has two settings: friendly and ranked. Friendly allows the player to invade someone’s fortress, without the risk of losing your army. Ranked, on the other hand, allows the player to invade, but with a risk of losing some of their Orc Followers permanently. Then there is also a Vendetta mode where you access another player’s world and try to kill the uruk that killed them the last time. These two modes add nothing much to the main game other that provide the player with randomized loot based on your score and have your name up in the leaderboards.
Aside from some of the main story missions, most of the objectives are open ended and can be completed in a wide variety of methods. There are several stronghold sieges to complete, which are fun the first few times, but gets tedious soon after. The skilltree from the first game also makes a comeback which leads to the next part of this review;
One Uruk limb at a time – The combat
Shadow of War does very few things right like it does the combat. At the core, it’s still the same Arkham clone, but there are a lot more skills and movesets to aid your bloodthirsty vengeance through Mordor this time around. Combat is fun, fluid and completing objectives and pulling off combos gain you experience points, which you can spend on upgrading your character. Skills range from ability to pull of critical hits to slow time mid air and fire an arrow to instantly teleport towards and enemy and land a killing blow. You can also take a stealthier approach and slit enemy throats before they know you are even there. You can freeze and poison enemies or lure animals to do the job for you. The skilltree makes a good job of making sure that your’e equipped to deal with every challenge the game throws at your semi-dead face. Every ability in the skill tree has three sub-abilities, only one of which you can activate at a time. Then there is the wraith World, a detective-style mode that lets you see things of interest, like footprints or distant orcs, even through walls. All gear has stats and can be upgraded to grant you extra skills, like setting an enemy on fire, provided you complete a gear-specific challenge first. All gear has sockets, where you can add upgradeable gems that grant extra health, damage, and more. There are even daily challenges to complete. But all these systems are paper thin and there is no noticeable change in ditching your current sword and upgrade to a one that does +2 damage. This illusion of choice doesn’t make up for the dozens of terribly designed menus you have to go through to get to the one you want. The excellent combat is held back by the this bloated gimmick to have as much as stuff thrown into the game as they possibly can. But I have to say, hacking up Uruks left and right is a satisfaction on it’s own and is further enhanced by the bread and butter of the game; the nemesis system.
Keeping your enemies closer – The nemesis system
The sole reason Shadow of Mordor crept into many GOTY lists is due to the introduction of the nemesis system, and although SoW won’t win any such awards, it will be the main reason it won’t go into the bargain bin anytime soon. Any complaint of the first game not utilizing the system to it’s full potential is rectified here, as pretty much the sole objective of the game is to brainwash an army of uruks to take the fight to the dark lord himself. Fans of the first game will feel themselves right back in with the nemesis system. Each Uruk in the game has the potential to develop their own personalities, abilities, weaknesses, their own tribes and relationship with the player character. The uruks have their own hierarchy, for example, each strongholds in the game is ruled by a specific uruk overlord, who controls one to many warchiefs under his belt. These warchiefs, are in turn guarded by, then again one to many bodyguards. This hierarchy is in a constant state of change as urukus can gain ranks, stage coups, take over positions by killing their adversaries and level up, thanks to the actions of Talion. A prominent way to affect the uruk hierarchy is by using Celebrimbor’s branding ability. After mortally wounding an uruk, whether they be a generic grunt or a warchief, Talion can brand them through the use of his ever-helpful wraith powers. These branded uruks will then unwillingly be at your disposal to do with them as you see fit. Talion can assign them as his bodyguards, send them to assassinate other uruks, make an uruk bodyguard double cross their warchief, or even assign his own plaything as the stronghold Overlord.
The nemesis system has been expanded greatly, allowing for more dynamic encounters as you carve your way through Mordor by making friends and foes alike. Your plans to stealthily assassinate an enemy may be foiled by a surprise assault from another uruk, or you might be on the brink of death, under the mercy of the jagged edge of an orc axe, when suddenly, out of nowhere, one of your uruk companions will rush through and mercilessly butcher your attacker saving your life in the process, or the uruk bodyguard you sent in to double cross a warchief, to your surprise will turn himself against you at the last moment and relentlessly try to take vengeance for that wraith hand on his face that you imprinted. These random moments are what gives the game moments of true astonishment and awe and when it works, it works great. Add to that the challenging Nemesis difficulty setting and you’ll found yourself carefully assessing an enemy’s weaknesses and plan how you want to take him out and it’s a joy to watch your loyal follower struck the killing blow to an ugly uruk who just had a raised blade over your head 5 seconds ago.
Unfortunately, as neat as the nemesis system is, one of my most griping issues with the game is in fact caused by the said system itself. Shadow of Mordor wasn’t an exceptionally long game by any means (for a game of it’s type) and it’s safe to say that it didn’t overstay its welcome. The game ended before any of the systems or the gameplay became a drag, nor did the game force you in any way to abuse the systems to get to the end game. Sadly, that’s not the case with SoW. By the time you are done with the game, you will be burnt out on the nemesis system. You will start to see the flaws in it’s procedural generation as with any other game. You will see multiple uruks with the same name and features right next to each other, you will learn to anticipate nemesis actions, assaulting enemy bases becomes so routine that you rush through an area to brand your target as soon as you can after getting there, and it becomes a chore to assault an enemy just to have 3-4 another uruks make a surprise assault on the said enemy, but turn their attention to you. Moreover, one of the most prominent features of the game becomes so abusively overused that you’d think what on hell were the developers thinking when they designed these sections, and that is where the next part of this review will focus on.
Bane of Mordor- Shadow Wars and lootboxes
SoW and the lootboxes controversy has been discussed and debated so many time in the past few months that it would be better for everyone if I don’t kick that dead horse once again. So I’ll keep it short. Lootboxes shouldn’t have been in this game in the first place. Not only that it doesn’t fit the mostly single player only game, it doesn’t even fit the lore or the narrative in the slightest sense. An uruk selling other uruks for money? I’ll let the higher ups in WB think about that. But the main gripe I have is how these microtransactions effectively ruin the game, especially the end-game. Without spoiling much, it is to be said that at the very end of the campaign, the game switches to an anticlimatic mode, where you have to do the stronghold sieges, which you may or may not have completed earlier, over and over again. I’m not talking three or four times. You will be literally asked to defend these strongholds a total of 20 ridiculous times. If you are playing on nemesis difficulty or lacks epic or legendary uruks at your disposal, the game effectively tries to push you towards the lootboxes, from where you instantly gets access to legendary orcs so that you may defend your strongholds effectively. If you don’t plan to buy these orcs, get ready to spend the next 15 or so hours grinding to level up your orcs and finish the shadow wars, and for what?, just to get a final cutscene and have an achievement pop-up? This section greatly ruins the experience and tries to abolish the good aspects of the game by turning the whole game into this cairn of mindless grind and greed.
Graphics and Sound
In terms of sheer graphics quality, SoW looks great, if you have a decent rig to max it out. Textures look sharp (upto 4k), DSR, anti aliasing, shadows, post processing effects, everything is done well. My only gripe here is how generic the art style is compared to the more dark and washed out style of Shadow of Mordor. The game runs well even on older end hardware in acceptable frame rate. There are a few clipping issues especially during combat animations. But that is to be expected considering the geometry involved.
When it comes to sound, everything is just standard stuff. Most of the voice acting is done well, but since the characters lack personality of any kind it can get quite jarring. Uruks are voiced really well and it’s great to run into orcs and hear them talk whether if it’s boasting about their combat skill, how they are going to cut your face out or even sing like tavern bards. The weapon and environmental sounds are pretty standard, even though the sound of metal slicing flesh could have been a bit more natural rather than metallic. Overall nothing much to held the game back on any means.
Shadow of War is a divisive game to recommend. On one hand, you have the excellent nemesis system and an enjoyable combat system. But on the other, you have a long and tedious campaign filled with grinding and microtransactions. Fans of the first game could find some enjoyment here, but that solely depends if they can put up with the same repetitive gameplay for 60-70 hours that is required to complete the game, shadow wars included. For anyone else who wants to check the game out, it’s better to avoid the game for now, unless it’s sporting a hefty discount tag or if you get the full game (with upcoming dlcs included) for a reasonable price and pray that WB won’t pull this anti-consumer tactic on their upcoming games.