When Monolith Games released Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, it came as a watered-down version of a much grander vision.
It’s a pitfall seen many times in the gaming industry as developers aim to create the perfect experience only to find that their capabilities can’t meet their end goal. Some gamers may remember Fable for its boasted development and largely disappointing release. But unlike Lionhead Studios, Monolith was adamant about delivering on that original vision. And with Shadow of War, they mostly did.
Shadow of War works hard to be what we want from a follow-up—more expansive without losing what worked so well in the original. Monolith’s goal for their return to Middle-Earth was to deliver on the Nemesis System they had wanted for Mordor without diminishing the visceral combat that wound up being the focus. For the most part, they succeeded, though it can be said that the story took a bit of a hit and the game is sometimes too big for its own good.
One big plus, though, is that it’s easy to forget how flawed the story framing Talion’s rise to warlord status is thanks to the Nemesis System and the pure entertainment of slaughtering or befriending the uglier inhabitants of Middle-Earth.
Combat is as solid as ever, offering a more personalized experience. Players who love the adrenaline of hacking through a team of orcs can continue enjoying doing so, but those who prefer to stick to the shadows can pump skill points into the Predator Skill Tree. There’s even a bigger emphasis on ranged combat with the Ranged Skill Tree, allowing the bow to become just as useful as a blade.
Mounts were a small part of Mordor, but War ups the ante with, well, this may be better seen than read:
If bloody, fun, frantic combat isn’t enough to sell you, then chances are you’re looking for strategy. And that’s where the Nemesis System comes in. New skills, more side quests, and larger, richer environments all worked together to make War an overall fun game, but the Nemesis System is what gives it a unique depth.
To make it possible to depict a large-scale war, Monolith had to not only increase the size of the world but also the endless roster of orcs. This time around, Talion isn’t the only dynamic character as even orc captains and warchiefs have their own stories unfolding behind the scenes.
In Mordor, Talion forged and decimated orc alliances through his actions, but captains in War will think for themselves, sometimes even becoming rivals with another orc without the player ever interfering. War lets Middle-Earth shine with its own personality and allows the orcs to be one of the most dynamic and interesting characters, especially as the story starts to turn into a tiresome bore.
Of course, you can interfere by dominating and recruiting orcs to strengthen your army. It’s more than just a few story-based missions that appear three-quarters of the way through the game. It is the game and you’re going to spend a lot of time manipulating the orc horde to do your bidding.
The size of your army comes in handy as you take over siege fortresses in each of the game’s five areas. Like a single-player “Domination,” Talion and his horde storm these oversized, well-guarded outposts to drive out the enemy in hectic moments that almost call back to the cluttered battlefields of the Dynasty Warriors series. Once in control, you can build up defenses to stave off impending attacks, train your orc captains to be better fighters, or kick back with a spot of tea and enjoy the scenery.
While Shadow of War is brimming with greatness, it’s also held back by its own size. Bigger isn’t always better and Monolith still hasn’t quite figured out how to fill its world with interesting side quests and activities. Luckily, as you explore, you’re bound to run into a band of orcs in need of some slaying, but it’s the lulls in the action that can make things drag, especially later in the game when all you want to do is build your army and destroy the opponent. Ultimately, War could have been the size of its predecessor and still would have been just as much fun.
More recent games like Assassin’s Creed II and Arkham City perpetuated the concept of the “perfect sequel” and the return of Talion continues to prove that it is still a plausible concept. Though it may be overwhelmingly large and suffer from a forgettable story and contrived links to the original Lord of the Rings’ universe, Shadow of War ensures that gamers won’t soon be looking for something else to play.
Regarding issues of loot crates and microtransactions, at the time of this review, I haven’t spent a cent and still feel like I’m getting the full experience. Yes, it’d be nice if microtransactions didn’t become a guaranteed part of the industry’s future, but in the case of Shadow of War, not partaking in them doesn’t hinder the experience a bit.