An excellent sequel that goes on for perhaps a bit too long, just like The Hobbit
In 2014 we nominated Monolith’s Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor for Game of the Year, only really losing out because of the vast amount of great games out that year. The combination of the Tolkien license, Assassin’s Creed-style exploration, Batman Arkham combat, the insanely clever Nemesis system and the gameplay goals basically changing entirely halfway through is still amazing today.
So with sequel Shadow of War now out, Monolith has to do a lot more to impress us, especially as it doesn’t have a movie to go off of like the last game. It certainly does, but it could possibly have done more – or maybe even a little less.
This is the start of many canon-breaking moments in Shadow of War. If you’re a Tolkien snob who was outraged by the omission of Tom Bombadil or the addition of Evangeline Lilly to the movies, for god’s sake do not get this game, you’ll have a heart attack. The casual (and constant) appearance of dragons and a Balrog contradicts the movies, let alone the books. Basically you have to learn to take all of this like fun fan fiction, and if you prefer to be entertained above all else Shadow of War at least manages that.
The easy way to describe Shadow of War is that it’s the first game with everything increased. For a long time I really did feel like I was just playing the first game again, right down to the long beginning section where you can’t Dominate anyone. While the locations are generally better, from the besieged city of Minas Ithil to the lava-covered plains of Gorgoroth to the greener valleys of Nurnen, if you played Shadow of Mordor you’ll get déjà vu.
Run around, interrogate Worm Orcs to get information on Captains and Warchiefs, then take them out and get special loot. While the missions generally get more epic, such as the amazing attack on Minas Ithil that really felt like I was taking part in a great battle from the movies like Helm’s Deep, the gameplay was very familiar – if still very fun. Even after getting the Dominate power back to bring Orcs to my side things didn’t change that much from the first game, which had the same thing.
Then I got the chance to attack the fortress at Nurnen with my new army and everything changed. I was leading a huge invasion force, on the front lines, to assault a huge castle. I hired trolls to take out the walls. I sent a spy to infiltrate their ranks to unlock the doors. I even hopped on a dragon at one point, as if the whole thing wasn’t epic enough already. The conquering of these fortresses in all five regions becomes Talion’s main goal, which is the ‘War’ of the title and the main drive.
While this does mean the story (and characters) takes a bit of a back seat for the dozen or so hours it’ll take you to conquer Mordor, there is so much amazing content here it’s a real value-for-money game. It starts as just a repeat of Shadow of Mordor and becomes something so much more. Perhaps too much more admittedly. It takes a long time to properly conquer one of these regions, and you have to build up a new army every single time. Times that by five and Shadow of War can get quite exhausting.
Fortunately Mordor’s best feature, the Nemesis system, is not only intact but it’s also been improved. Enemies who kill you still get promoted and a unique personality, but now allies also remember missions and whether or not you left them to die. Regularly I’d get hunted by certain Orcs who’d turn up at random moments, keeping me forever on my toes. Also the personalities of the Orcs, and how they interact, have received a revamp – in short, they’re hilarious. None more so than Australian Troll Bruz The Chopper, but then he’s been written as such – I personally preferred my own Nemesis Krimp The Poet, who only speaks in rhyming verse. It’s discovering all the different Orcs, unique to your game, and their wild personalities that really makes exploring Middle-Earth worthwhile.
Performance & Graphics
OS: Windows 7 SP1 with Platform Update
Processor: AMD FX-4350, 4.2 GHz / Intel Core i5-2300, 2.80 GHz
Memory: 6 GB RAM
Graphics: AMD HD 7870, 2 GB / NVIDIA GTX 660, 2 GB
DirectX: Version 11
Storage: 70GB Available Space
Additional: x64 required
Yep, that’s all kinda hefty. Our test system is an AMD FX-6300 Six-Core Processor, 16 Gb RAM, Nvidia GTX 1050 Ti 4Gb, and Windows 10 64-Bit (you can see the Performance Test video below) and, fortunately, it all managed it pretty well. We had to turn down the Ultra textures to just High but otherwise we had everything on maximum settings, and it all ran fine – if not perfectly than never less than totally acceptable.
Graphically this is one very attractive game. Even better, as mentioned Shadow of War is far more varied in terms of locations, making for a far more visually diverse experience. The animation excellent too, especially on the Orcs who have such a range of emotions you sometimes feel bad for roasting them to death with dragonfire. Nah.
While there’s arguably too much stuff to do in Shadow of War, with 5 armies to take over and 5 regions to conquer even before you consider the story or side-missions, I do applaud Monolith for not cluttering the map with “things” the way some publishers’ games (we’re looking at you, Ubisoft) do on open-world games. There are a few collectibles but they never feel like too much, and the map remaining easy to read and only filled with important things. So while there generally might be too much repetitive stuff to do, it’s always clear how to do it.
Still could do with more actual missions, however. They’re always good fun but they mostly stop in the second half of the game.
MIDDLE-EARTH: SHADOW OF WAR VERDICT
Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is an excellent sequel stuffed with content, although it’s one with provisos all the way. It’s great to see a high quality Tolkien story telling an exciting new tale in the Middle-Earth saga, but it’s a little too fan fiction with plenty of lore-breaking moments. The gameplay is excellent and never less than fun, but you often feel you’re going through the motions of the last game – until you’re not and you’re going through the epic but slightly repetitious quest to conquer the five regions of Mordor. There’s hours of content, way more than the last game, but honestly it could’ve done with a bit more focus or further story missions. At least the wonderful Nemesis system makes everything better, as does the quirky and often hilarious personalities of the Orcs – and most importantly, that they’re random and unique to your playthrough.
Shadow of War won’t win any prizes for originality, well, not after the first game swept them all. But it’s a bigger and (mostly) better sequel to a series that still feels unique, and for fans of Middle-Earth we’re not likely to get more movies so you can’t really ask for better than this.
TOP GAME MOMENT
The final region battles when you lead your army to war. Truly epic.
A bigger and better sequel to one of the best games of 2014
The Nemesis system has been expanded, and the Orcs it creates are wonderful
Battles are truly epic, feeling like you’re stuck in the middle of the best battles in the saga
The story is lots of fun…
… however it’s pure fan fiction with many lore-breaking moments
The first half of the game feels like you’re replaying the last game, and the second half gets a bit too repetitious.
About Chris J Capel
Chris joined us in 2011 and loves Star Wars, comics and bad videogame movies.