Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is quite simply one of the most mechanically exquisite games I’ve played in a long time.
The combat is intense and visceral, the controls tight and responsive, the difficulty perfectly balanced, and with some significant upgrades to the Nemesis and progression systems, it also possesses an enviable level of depth. However, Shadow of War is held back by its many narrative failings and its abysmal treatment of Tolkien’s work – problems that, no matter how absurdly fun the game is to play, can’t be overlooked.
The game begins with protagonists Talion and Celebrimbor – the Elven wraith who possesses Talion’s body, making him immortal in the process – ensconced within the very heart of Mount Doom, hard at work crafting a new ring of power capable of rivalling Sauron’s and thus giving them the strength they need to overthrow the Dark Lord. Unfortunately, no sooner have they applied the finishing touches to their mighty new trinket, than Celebrimbor is captured by Shelob (in the form of a sexy goth woman rather than the gargantuan, nightmare-inducing spider she’s depicted as in The Lord of the Rings) and held to ransom.
From this point on, the game essentially devolves into 3 interconnected stories. One follows Elven assassin Eltariel and her endless quest to destroy the Nazgul, another chronicle’s the final days of the beleaguered city of Minas Ithil, while the third and most significant focuses on Talion and Celebrimbor’s efforts to construct their own army of Orcs so as to defeat Sauron. Strangely, given the nature of the source material, it’s a tale as much about power fantasies and personal revenge as it is good overcoming evil.
In principal, it’s an enticing proposition; a multi-faceted story exploring a range of themes, set within the distinctive, evocative realms of Gondor and Mordor. However, in practice, it feels fractured and incoherent.
Almost as soon as the introductory sequence has finished, the player is bombarded with a startling array of side-quests and optional tasks that, though unquestionably fun, prevent the story from gaining any real momentum, especially as Talion/Celebrimbor’s quest to depose Sauron is delayed until they’ve first assisted the Gondorians in Minas Ithil and have reclaimed their lost ring. But, even when the player has gained the ability to conquer forts and dominate Orcs, and is thus ready to begin their assault on Mordor, the narrative becomes more staggered still as all the usual RPG side distractions – vast new areas to explore, secondary missions to complete, collectibles to find, challenges to be beaten etc. – submerge the player in a deluge of map markers and HUD icons.
Consequently, by the time the player’s actually ready to face Sauron, it’s difficult to remember exactly what’s connecting these disparate narrative threads or why we should care. It’s not a problem unique to Shadow of War – Skyrim’s a great game but suffers from similar issues – however, as Horizon Zero Dawn and Breath of the Wild demonstrated so effectively earlier this year, it is possible to tell disparate stories and fill a game with entertaining content without hampering the pace of the central narrative.
Those who’re just looking for an enjoyable and challenging action RPG might not be overly concerned. As I said above, the individual sub-plots aren’t necessarily bad, they simply struggle to find room to breathe. But for fans of the source material, like myself, it’s hard to ignore Monolith’s extremely disappointing treatment of established Lord of the Rings canon.
Like Shadow of Mordor before it, there are countless changes that, though innocuous enough on their own, are utterly gratuitous – the widespread use of magic or the substitution of Caragors for Wargs, for instance – along with a considerable number of larger, less permissible alterations in both tone and theme.
Talion’s moral ambiguity and Celebrimbor’s imperious, vengeful personality clash jarringly with the Manichaean fight between good and evil that’s at the very heart of Tolkien’s work, while Shelob’s willingness to assist the protagonists (not to mention her shapeshifting powers) and the use of Necromancy by specific, high-ranking Orcs are equally out of place in The Lord of the Rings universe.
I’m not criticising Monolith for using artistic licence. Indeed, so long as it’s implemented for the right reasons, it can help rather than hinder the source material. However, if a developer or publisher is choosing to make an established IP the foundation of their game, I would argue they’re obliged to show it a certain degree of respect. Otherwise, all they’re doing is lazily cashing-in on someone else’s creation because it’s cheaper and easier than designing a brand-new setting from scratch.
Thankfully, the superlative gameplay (almost) makes up for these narrative and thematic shortcomings.
Combat is fast-paced, tactical, and visually stunning. The player feels incredibly powerful when he or she overcomes a gang of viscious grunts, systematically working their way through each low-level individual with a chain of devastating attacks and abilities, culminating in a gloriously violent execution animation. While going toe-to-toe with enemy captains or warchiefs, who are now more diverse than ever, is always a satisfyingly tense, tactical affairs that give the player a real sense of accomplishment when they emerge victorious, especially as these high-level individuals are now able to adapt to Talion’s fighting style. Rely too heavily on his vault ability, for example, and Talion’s opponent will quickly learn how to neutralise it. It’s a sublimely executed mechanic that has the potential to alter the dynamic of the contest and will hopefully become a common feature of the genre in future.
These well-balanced mechanics are supported by an equally impressive progression system. The skill tree, split into 6 broad categories, contains a wide range of abilities that are earned through defeating captains (not grunts) or completing specific tasks. Interestingly, each of these abilities can be further augmented by one of three sub-skills. For instance, once Talion has unlocked the ‘Brace of Daggers’ ability, it can be modified with a secondary skill that increases his throwing speed, the number of projectiles he can throw at any one time, or its potential to deal critical damage. There’s even a pretty robust if hackneyed Destiny-style loot system that further incentivises players to undertake the procedurally generated Nemesis missions, as a shiny new piece of gear is guaranteed to drop each time an enemy captain is killed.
Though powerful weapons, armour, and accessories are standard rewards for defeating powerful foes, the well-documented online marketplace also allows players to spend in-game currency or real-world money on loot boxes containing these items too: the latest example of thinly veiled player exploitation, though one that’s arguably more out of place in a largely single player game like Shadow of War.
Loot boxes aside, the real show stealer here is the updated Nemesis System, the biggest change to which applies the same emergent back-stabbing and opportunity-taking mechanics that made Sauron’s army of Orcs so dynamic in Shadow of Mordor, to Talion’s army.
When not competing for their master’s favour, Talion’s followers can be commanded to complete a range of missions, from infiltrating an enemy warchief’s camp (potentially simplifying the process of capturing one of the game’s imposing forts) to assassinating a particularly difficult captain on the player’s behalf, adding yet another tactical, unique dimension to combat.
Enemies, meanwhile, in terms of appearance, personality, and behaviour, are even more diverse than in Shadow of Mordor. They have an uncanny knack of getting under the player’s skin before and after battle which, in turn, gives rise to numerous personal stories of persistence and redemption specific to each individual player’s experiences. I find there’s nothing more satisfying than turning a gloating commander into one of Talion’s followers.
It’s far from perfect mechanically, however.
Traversal, which is usually quick and fluid, can be imprecise and clunky at times, for example, while during large-scale melees, Talion has a nasty habit of wasting a precious execution finisher on the wrong Orc. But the biggest single issue is the end-game content. Comprised of an unnecessarily large series of increasingly difficult sieges, it turns one of the main game’s most enjoyable elements into a boring, repetitive grind and, since the game’s true ending is only available once this section has been completed, it is, to all intents and purposes, unavoidable. I have a sneaking suspicion this was an intentional design choice; the thinking being that players would be far more tempted to drop a few bucks on loot boxes here and there if doing so would expedite the process.
Still, at least ‘The Shadow Wars’, as this section’s called, gives players ample opportunity to explore the atmospheric environments of Shadow of War’s world at a more leisurely pace, free from the bulging quest list that demands their attention throughout the rest of the game.
The rich greens of Nurnen and its surrounding forest, along with the icy peaks of Seregost are particularly eye-catching, contrasting as they do so markedly with the desolate, ash-strewn plains of Gorgoroth and Cirith Ungol. The character designs too, specifically the Orcs and Uruks, are, if not beautiful, impressive in their sheer grotesqueness, and demonstrate the astonishing amount of work and imagination that must have gone into creating such a diverse collection of NPCs.
And, it’s only fair to say, Monolith brought a comparable level of assiduity to the game’s sound design as well. While not everyone appreciates the DualShock 4’s in-built speaker, it’s used to great effect in Shadow of War, emitting the eerie sounds of the wraith world and the meaty crunch of weapon on flesh to help immerse the player in the game world. The voice acting’s similarly impressive, despite some inconsistent attempts at reproducing the English accent, Troy Baker impressing in particular with his portrayal of world-weary, vengeful, but ultimately virtuous protagonist Talion.
If it was being judged solely on the quality of its gameplay mechanics and the amount of pure, unadulterated enjoyment it provides, Middle-Earth: Shadow of War would be up there as one of the year’s best titles.
However, given that Shadow of War places a heavy emphasis on its story and is, moreover, set in a peerless fantasy world beloved by many, its incoherent narrative, exasperatingly poor use of Tolkien’s legendarium, and incongruous microtransactions can’t be ignored.