Shadow of War does away with EVERY NOTION of faithfulness to Lord of the Rings Lore as it was established by Tolkien in his books. This might be the most abrupt introduction to a review ever, but this particular issue is so crucial to the game’s analysis (and eventual enjoyment) that it can’t be replaced by a paragraph regarding the game’s development timeline, information on the developers, or other cliche introduction paragraphs. If Shadow of War was a Star Wars movie it would take place in the Old Republic era and its protagonist would be Darth Vader, who, along with his buddies Revan, Palpatine, and a sexy alien dancer called Jabba the Hutt, would strive to build a second, Blue Death Star in order to destroy evil emperor Luke Skywalker’s original Gray Death Star – THAT’S the amount of Lore-breaking we’re talking about here, not “they introduced a new character that wasn’t in the books” or “they killed off a character that survived in the books” or something simple like that. In other words, if you approach this game as hardcore Tolkien purists, mere seconds into its introduction cutscenes you’ll probably feel like ripping out your eyes and throwing them into a bucket of Purell in order to sanitize them from the lorebreaking sacrilege they just witnessed.
But why is this the case? Perhaps because, as was stated in our Shadow of Mordor review 3 years ago, the game’s story and characters don’t have anything really noteworthy to offer (in contrast to its gameplay elements), so the top heads at Monolith and/or WB Games decided to take things to the next level. Not by writing complex, fascinating storylines or deep characters that fit in nicely to the established lore, but by taking all “FUCK YEAH!” elements that LOTR has to offer, twisting them, and cranking them up to 11.
Sensual Brunette Shelob in the role of our wise advisor? FUCK YEAH! The Witch King conquering Minas Ithil 50 years before the War of the Ring (according to the established timeline this happens 1000 years before Frodo and Sam’s journey) and us fighting him and the Nazgul in order to recapture it? FUCK YEAH! Orc Leaders mastering the secrets of Necromancy and raising armies of undead Uruk-hai? FUCK YEAH! Close quarters combat against a Balrog while riding the shapeshifting spirit of an Entwife over a frozen lake in the middle of Mordor? FUCK YEAH!!! I won’t get into many more details in order to avoid spoilers (and there’s MANY MORE similar instances I could reference) and for the same reason I won’t analyze the game’s plot too much (other than “Sexy Shelob steals our new Ring and tells us that the Witch King is attacking Minas Ithil, so we decide to go there until we figure out how to reclaim our Ring”), but you get the point. The game’s aim is not to portray “what is true to the lore” or “what Tolkien would have probably wanted”, but what will manage to impress and look “AWESOME AND ΚEWL”.
What’s funny though is that, putting aside all prior knowledge of LOTR lore, all this absurdity actually works and manages to be extremely entertaining… until Act 4, at least. But more on that later.
Since the game’s main Open-World gameplay mechanics are essentially the same as in Shadow of Mordor and have thus already been analyzed in its reviews, we can focus purely on the innovations Shadow of War introduces. And prominent among those is the enhanced Nemesis System, which I still consider to be one of the greatest gaming innovations of the past years. Its core remains the same, with wandering Orc Captains of varying Levels of power being part of a peculiar hierarchy, fighting amongst themselves for a variety of reasons and being dominated/taken advantage of by Talion. What’s new is that each Captain has now been assigned a special Character Class which affects his main combat skills (of course, a certain amount of randomization is still to be expected), and is also part of one of the game’s 7 Orc Tribes, which in turn affect his weapons, skills, as well as his external appearence).
What’s also enhanced is the bonds that can be formed between the Orcs: apart from the typical rivalries among them, 2 Orcs can now develop… friendships as well. If 2 Captains acquire the Blood-Brothers trait and Talion kills one of the two, then the other ambushes us at random moments while we’re wandering around the world (even if we’re currently undertaking a mission) in order to avenge his brother. These blood bonds are so strong that even if we kill the Blood-Brother of one of our Orc Warchiefs, we receive a “Betrayal” event that results in him chosing to abandon our army and attack us in order to exact his revenge! The above, combined with the radical enrichment of the available variety of Orc Leader personalities (e.g. during my playthrough I encountered an Orc Captain that bore the title “The Bard”, and before each battle he would… whip out a Lute and start singing) make the final result extremely entertaining, and it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that, in the almost 45 hours I invested into the game, not once did I encounter an Orc Leader that wasn’t unique and that looked like or acted like one of the Orcs I had previously encountered.
The only flaw I could find in the implementation of Orc Leaders is that… they tend to ramble at the most inconvenient moment. Imagine fighting the battle of your life, tens of combatants swinging their swords and spears, epic attacks and ripostes, acrobatics and impressive maneuvers, and then suddenly a new Orc Leader enters the fray. Immediately all action stops, the camera zooms in on the Leader’s face and he starts his introductory taunting: “Filthy Man-Swine! I shall crush you and feast on your remains! I remember you from the Black Gate all that time ago when I was…” blah blah blah – and while he’s talking all combat is still essentially frozen. After a 20-30 seconds speech, combat resumes. Then ANOTHER Leader enters the fray – another pause, another 20-30 seconds of speech, then fighting resumes – then ANOTHER Leader enters the fray – another pause… For heaven’s sake. All those interruptions completely ruin the flow and epic feel of each battle. They should have at least implemented the choice of skipping those speeches after the first few seconds.
Perhaps the most crucial addition to the Nemesis System is the introduction of 5 Fortresses (one for each of the game’s provinces), which must be conquered by Talion through epic Siege instances, and which must then be defended against the enemy’s besieging armies. The instruments of Talion’s wrath are, as always, the Orc Captains he has dominated in each province, whom me place as Assault Leaders during attacks on fortresses or Warchiefs when defending fortresses we have already captured. As epic and impressive Sieges can be, though, after a certain point the whole process does get a bit repetitive… but, again, more on that later.
Talion, the protagonist, receives some upgrading love as well, and now has at his disposal a much more extended skill tree as well as a rather “RPG-ified” arsenal. In contrast to SoM, where we simply unlocked and implemented certain Upgrades/Titles/Runes to our weapons in order to diversify their attributes, in SoW we receive typical Gear Drops of varying rarity level (Normal, Rare, Epic or Legendary, with each rarity level introducing 1 extra effect to each gear item). Each new gear item’s properties are as diverse as the possible attack playstyles we can adopt. For example, during my playthrough I came across a Legendary Cloak that could Heal Talion whenever he was set on fire – this resulted in me essentially blowing up everything that could be blown up, and watching the enemy troops running around and being incinerated while at the same time my Health Bar was being refilled.
Unfortunately, Talion’s gear and skill upgrades do not entail a similar upgrade to his substance as an interesting character. Despite the constant “drama” he is portrayed as going through, his general motives, thoughts and feelings are for the most part just barely brushed over, and the game fails to form a real connection between him and the player. It wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that the Nemesis System and the Orcs are the REAL protagonists here, and not shallow and dour Talion – we see Orcs forming rivalries and friendships, fighting each other, exchanging curses and taunts, and generally just having fun really, while Talion… is just there, ready to dominate and exterminate them. It would be an interesting twist for Talion to realise that he is the bad guy here, coming out of nowhere to massacre those poor Orcs, but I guess this wouldn’t really be a fitting revelation for a Lord of the Rings game.
The game’s biggest fail, however, is neither its “relaxed” treatment of Tolkien Lore, nor its uninteresting protagonist and plot. On the contrary, the pure Open-World fun it has to offer, combined with the brilliant Nemesis System, are so solid that could even make us forget about all of the above “flaws”.
In Shadow of War, there are two kinds of in-game currencies. First we have Mirian, which we earn simply by playing the game and completing quests and missions, and which we use mainly to unlock extra “attributes” for our weapons and gear after completing certaing challenges or for purchasing offensive and defensive upgrades for our Assault Leaders/Warchiefs before a siege. But Mirian also has another use: we use it in the game’s Market in order to purchase Silver Loot Chests or Silver War Chests, which contain Normal or Rare quality gear items, or Orc Leaders that we can deploy in any of the game’s provinces. In addition to Mirian, we also have Gold, which we earn either in small quantities by completing some of the daily challenges that show up in our Quest Log, or… with real money. By spending Gold, we can buy Gold or Mithril quality Chests, which drop GUARANTEED LEGENDARY gear items or Orc Leaders, as well as XP Boosts that let Talion level-up much faster.
At the end of Act 3, Talion has conquered 5 Fortresses in the game’s 5 provinces. Then, Act 4, titled Shadow Wars, begins. Here, Sauron’s Orc Leaders attack our Fortresses and we must defend them (or, if we lose a siege, work towards recapturing them). This Act essentially consists of 10 Stages – in Stages 1 to 4 we have to defend a single Fortress from the enemy’s attacks, and after Stage 5 the sieges increase (so we must defend several Fortresses during each Stage in order to advance to the next). After completing all 10 Stages, we see the game’s “real ending” and the end-game credits. Naturally, as we progress from one Stage to the next, the enemy Orc Leaders increase in Level and power, and so we must level up our own Leaders or try to Dominate new, more powerful ones, in addition to leveling up Talion (since we can’t Dominate orcs whose level is higher than our own).
At the later Stages, enemy Orc Leaders are so powerful (the Level Cap is at 60, with later Leaders also having the “Legendary” attribute which makes them even more powerful) that we are left with 2 options:
1) Invest lots of time and effort before each Siege to “farm” new and more powerful Orc Leaders, level up our existing Leaders, or buy new “Normal/Rare” ones by spending Mirian to purchase Silver Lootboxes. And, of course, grind XP in order to level up Talion.
2) Buy the OTHER kind of Lootboxes using real money, and instantly acquire Legendary Gear and Orc Leaders, as well as XP Boosts that allow us to progress more rapidly towards the game’s ending.
TL;DR: in order to reach THE GAME’S ENDING, we either have to spend endless hours grinding and farming XP and Orc Leaders to become powerful enough to win 20 Sieges in Act 4, or take a shortcut by buying “Premium Lootboxes” which give us the means to reach the ending much faster.
“Come on guys, Premium Chests are completely optional, no-one’s forcing you to buy them”, one might say. And he might have a point, if we’re talking about Chests being implemented in a game like Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, which can easily be completed just by doing quests and following the storyline, and where chests are there just to give you a boost that allows you to skip quality side-content and reach the ending faster (why would someone be deranged enough to do that, however, still eludes me). In Shadow of War’s case, however, the GAME’S ENDING is locked behind just enough of an endless grindfest in order to justify the inclusion of microtransactions. It’s a SHAMEFUL display of greed, unheard-of in the history of single-player games.
This situation is only the latest hit in a series of events that began when “they-who-shall-not-be-named” released the first Horse Armor DLC and introduced into the gaming industry the notion that it is completely normal and casual for companies to milk more money out of players that have already fully paid for the purchase of a game. Paid DLC (that had a tendency to feature material cut from the original game just to be sold separately), Premium Boxes for easier leveling, “Creation Club” for paid Mods… and now the GAME’S ENDING being locked behind a grindfest that can be avoided by spending more money. Who knows what we’ll see in the future if this trend continues unchecked?
It’s a REAL SHAME that Shadow of War ends up being marred by this situation. It’s an otherwise most entertaining Open-World Action title, with quality content and with the Nemesis System guaranteeing that players will experience amazing instances that NO OTHER title can currently offer (imagine if they had also made it a bit more lore-friendly, too). But instead of feeling like we’ve played the enhanced and greatly improved sequel to Shadow of Mordor, the aftertaste that’s left after experiencing Act 4 is that we’ve just witnessed the next metastasis of the cancer that is plaguing the gaming industry in the last 10 or so years. And, in all good conscience, the greedy attitude of whomever came up with the idea of implementing microtransactions into this game cannot be rewarded with a higher score that this (it already feels extremely generous as it is, and would be a lot lower if not for the game’s general entertainment value). For shame, gentlemen. Do reconsider your priorities, before it’s too late.
- Improves upon Shadow of Mordor’s gameplay recipe, in every possible way.
- Nemesis System proves once again why it’s one of the greatest gaming innovations of the past few years.
- Nicely implemented “RPG-ification” of Talion’s arsenal.
- Huge world, with lots of primary and secondary activities.
- Dealing with the Orcs certainly is a delightful, and sometimes even hilarious, experience.
- The cancer that is microtransactions in a Single-Player Game has officially metastasised to the next level.
- Rather “relaxed” interpretation of Tolkien’s established Lore.
- Steadily uninteresting protagonist.
- No option of skipping the introduction speeches of Orc Leaders that interrupt the flow of our battles. Just shut up, already!