“I just wanted to hold you”, sobs Hoglik, the orc that killed me fifteen minutes ago.
“I know,” I say to myself, as I cut his head off.
Shadow of War has some... memorable moments.
If you played 2013’s Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, you know the bones of what to expect here. Shadow of War (SoW) follows the same basic formula; it’s half Assassin’s Creed, half FarCry, and half Arkham Asylum. Too many halves? Well, SoW doesn’t play by your rules.
Picking up immediately after the ending of Shadow of Mordor where (spoilers incoming) Talion and Celebrimbor – the wraith sharing his body – have successfully forged a new Ring, to rival the One Ring itself and give them a fighting chance against Sauron. But then a sexy spider kidnaps your ghost roommate, and from there on out the plot just sort of happens.
The weird tone from the first game carries over into the sequel. By turns it’s epic and serious, with big action set pieces and truly emotional moments. But then an Australian orc captain calls another a drongo and the immersion is gone like Gandalf into the pits of Khazad-dûm. The humorous asides are jarring and tonally inconsistent, but I’ll be damned if they’re not hilarious – and I love them anyway.
Bruz, you have my heart, you inappropriately charming jerk.
Speaking of weird voice acting, there are more than a couple of characters where ease of understanding becomes an issue. When Act 2 begins, you’ll meet Carnan; before this happens, turn on subtitles. Trust me on this.
The Nemesis system, which defined Shadow of Mordor, is back and better than ever. Any rank and file orc that kills you gets promoted to Captain, given a personality and a cool nickname, and you can get revenge on him after you rise from the dead. The speed with which the game seems to generate this is still really impressive, effectively seamless, and the characters that come out are works of art (see Hoglik above). Some orc names seem more common than others; I get than not everyone is unique, but I’ve met three Hogliks now.
Captains drop loot which can be upgraded, but it lacks the connection of the first game, where you upgraded your Ranger equipment – all of which felt personal. This is just random junk that I ditch as soon as I have something better.
On a personal note, I might finally be suffering from open-world fatigue. The opening area of the game, Minas Ithil, is a Gondorian city under siege. Jumping off ruined statues, diving between shattered houses and markets, retaking the city inch by inch; I loved every second, and spent six hours of the game pointedly ignoring the main quest and just having fun.
Then I got to the second area, and realised how big the game actually was. I sighed. Because there was another four to go, and DLC on the horizon.
It’s not like there’s nothing to do; this is a huge world, sure, but Monolith has packed it with side-quests, collectibles, and all sorts of shenanigans to keep you a busy Boromir. It’s just that there’s too much to do, and it’s difficult to see where to start. Eventually I settled into a routine; grab the various collectibles and fast travel points, taking out as many Captains as I could on the way, then do a couple of the challenge quests, then focus on the story. It’s not hard, just a bit overwhelming.
As someone who played War in the North (pity me), Shadow of War could be a lot worse. A lot worse. I remember when Lord of the Rings games were awful. That being said, there are a few elements where it looks like the budget just ran out; loading screens are static images, cycling with no animation between them. This doesn’t sound like a big deal until you see it, and are instantly transported to 2004.
What other jarring, inappropriate choices could I mention? What’s that? Oh, you want me to talk about the loot boxes you’ve heard so much about.
Let’s jam; I’ve never had a real problem with loot boxes. I’ve bought some in Overwatch for the sweet skins, and I bought one in Destiny 2 recently for that sweet instant regret. I got some cosmetic junk, most of which I’ll never use, but I never felt personally insulted by them until I played Shadow of War.
Up until the final Act, the loot boxes are there, but irrelevant. The in-game currency ones don’t drop much of use, and you can’t use the fancy orcs from the other ones. But the endgame wants you to grind so much you learn to hate a game you’ve spent upwards of 30 hours in. Unless, of course, you buy the loot boxes.
I loved Shadow of War... until I didn’t. So I’m of two minds; on the one hand, I had a great experience with the game until it started begging me for cash. It’s like a great meal that ends up giving you food poisoning; the vomiting and unpleasantness doesn’t undo the fact that the food was delicious, but the aftermath means you won’t be going back anytime soon.
Shadow of War’s first three-quarters deserve a 9. The endgame is a 6 at best. But it’d be disingenuous to give it either, so let’s split the difference.
SoW is a great game, until it isn’t. And it’s such a shame, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think you’d all enjoy it. If you want an open world fantasy adventure, excellent and enjoyable combat, personal grudges with a variety of excellent uruk friends, and like spidery women, angst, and Gollum cameos, play it.
But, like Brad Pitt, you don’t want what’s in the box.
Brian received a physical copy of Middle-earth: Shadow of War from WB for review.