Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor came as a big surprise when it launched back in 2014. Although games based on Tolkein’s works – and their cinematic adaptations – have generally been good over the years, Shadow seemed like a strange fit. However, Monolith had a breakthrough, combining fun and visceral combat with enemy encounters that could change the world around you.
As for the game’s story, it wasn’t all that compelling. Having lost his family during an ambush on the Black Gate, Talion – a ranger of Gondor – is brought back from the dead thanks to the wraith, Celebrimbor. Together they blazed a trail through Mordor, taking revenge on Sauron’s lieutenants and the legion of orcs at their command.
Shadow of War carries the torch after the somewhat anticlimactic ending to the first game. As the forces of darkness encroach upon the realms of man, Talion and Celebrimbor are once again looking to stop them. While the stakes are notably higher this time around, I never found myself particularly invested in the story or its two leading characters. That said, there’s a stronger supporting cast this time around, including notable power players such as Shelob and The Witch King, as well as newcomer Brûz who is destined to become a fan favourite.
The best stories are the ones you make as the player, delving into the evolved Nemesis system. It’s quite clever really, turning otherwise throwaway NPCs into characters that can grow and take on personalities depending on your interactions with them. For instance, if an orc grunt manages to kill Talion they’ll get an instant promotion, placing them among the captains and warchiefs that occupy each territory.
On the flipside, killing these orcs can lead to interesting outcomes too. One tenacious captain kept coming back after numerous defeats, still daring me to a duel despite having one leg missing, being riddled with disease, and having gouges all over his body.
What’s great about the Nemesis system is the unpredictability. There’s a randomness to which captains you’ll encounter on your journey, with Monolith having created an impressive array of assets, combat styles, voices, and personalities. This creates a cavalcade of potential villains or allies, some of whom you’ll no doubt grow attached to. There are some great, often humourous combinations and the orc banter, while sometimes contrived, can add some welcome flavour.
Recruiting orcs in Shadow of Mordor was a great way of undermining their leaders and reducing hostility in certain territories, but here there’s a greater goal in mind. We now see the famed Nemesis system stretch its tendrils beyond the enemy ranks as Talion and the Bright Lord begin to amass an army of their own.
Captains can be sent on missions to ambush, raid, and infiltrate their former comrades, sowing chaos among the ranks. All the while you can assist them, assigning new powers or watching them battle in one of Mordor’s fighting pits.
This all helps when it comes to Shadow of War’s siege battles. Before jumping into these epic scale clashes you can choose which allies to bring along, adding a small degree of customisation. However, despite their impressive scale and the number of orcs simultaneously on-screen, the action is funnelled towards a handful of checkpoints to seize that lead to final confrontation with the fort’s overlord.
These fights can be exhausting and brutal, highlighting a notable ramp up in difficulty over the original game. Sharp reflexes and optimising Talion’s skills will help rack up kills, yet combat encounters are rarely ever a cakewalk. Orcs often come in droves, backed up by monsters and elite enemies such as the dual-wielding Savages or troll-like Ologs. The variety here is much improved and you’ll definitely have to be more thoughtful in your approach instead of slashing at foes with the occasional dodge or counter.
Chucking multiple orc captains into the mix – each with their own particular strengths and weaknesses – only adds more pressure, another ball to juggle as you dart around, looking for a way to manage the mass of enemies surrounding you. At times it can all be a bit too much, testing a player’s patience rather than their skill.
That said, the combat mechanics are still fun and rewarding with some powers to experiment with. Monolith has also bolstered the supporting gameplay elements including stealth and ranged attacks, making it easier to get away when things get too hairy. Talion’s traversal abilities have been given a boost too with more scalable surfaces, an enhanced sprint, and even a double jump.
Once you’ve wrapped up the story, Shadow of War’s endgame kicks into gear. Aside from letting you go back to cross off any outlying side missions, the game encourages you to continue recruiting and upgrading captains. You can then put them to the test by playing bonus fortress siege and defence missions against tougher hordes of enemies.
It adds a hefty amount of replayability for those who want it. Personally, after finishing the campaign, I honestly felt burnt out from the constant string of battles. Repeating the same sieges over and over doesn’t appeal to me right now, though I enjoy the thought of being able to dip back in whenever I want.
For those worried about Warner Bros. cramming microtransactions into the game, don’t be. Conceptually they’re horrid attempts to milk players for cash despite them already paying full price, but after some thirty hours spent conquering Mordor, I never felt the need to part with a single penny. They are, as the publisher says, a shortcut, and there’s a generous enough influx of Miriam for those wanting to crack open loot boxes anyway. My only gripe is that double XP boosts can only be bought with real cash, even if you’re sitting on a stockpile of in-game currency.
Middle-earth: Shadow of War is massive, yet at the same time a prime example of a sequel that’s bigger, but not necessarily any better than the original. Once again the Nemesis system shines, allowing players to forge their own unique stories, even if the game tries to do too much with it at times. Getting caught in its tangle of new systems and features can be frustrating, but there’s still a great open world game here.
Version Tested: PlayStation 4 Pro