Middle-earth: Shadow of War Review: Orc-Smashingly Good

Middle-earth: Shadow of War is about killing, brutalising and dominating orcs. It’s fun. Really fun.

Shadow of War is the action RPG sequel to the highly acclaimed Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor that released back in 2014. As in the first game, Shadow of War sees you take up the mantle of Talion and Celebrimbor (or Bright Lord or gravewalker — you have a lot of nicknames) in a quest to take on Sauron. Alas, you cannot do it alone; first you must reclaim your Ring of Power and use it to forge an army that can rival that of Sauron. How do you accomplish that? Well, you kill a tonne of orcs, of course.

Middle-earth: Shadow of War heavily focuses on the player’s journey to create this unstoppable force, with much of the game’s plot revolving around the tearing down of orc tribes and establishing yourself at the seat of power. You do this by searching out enemy captains and war-chiefs that you must take down in order to lead an assault. Each captain you come up against has a unique name, appearance and its own strengths and weaknesses, making them feel – quite ironically – human.


The nemesis system from the first game sees a return here, but it’s been updated to focus more on the individual traits and features of each enemy, making fighting bosses much more of a gripping challenge. Excellently performed voice acting adds to the characterisation of enemies, too. For example, I had an orc who seemed a little obsessed with me, whose dialogue bordered on sexual. It made for “intriguing” battles to say the least. On the flipside, I also fought a domineering and gluttonous troll with epic strength. His battles were hard and long, often drawing in other captains, but he kept defying death and turning up with newly-lodged axes in his head.

What was worse was that this Olag-hai had also betrayed me. In Middle-earth: Shadow of War, you’ll need to recruit captains of your own by besting and dominating them in battle. You’d better watch out, though, as they can – and do – betray you. Once these special orcs are loyal to you, you can send them on missions against to establish them as war-chief spies or as your own personal bodyguards, along with a number of other missions. Sending in your dominated captains can be a compelling way of invading fortresses as you will have different experiences depending on who and what you have invested your time on.

In order to recruit these captains, you will have to master combat. Combat is much like it is in its predecessor; a mixture of stealth and hack-and-slash Arkham-esque fighting. Before engaging in a fight, you can choose to scout out the area, kill or dominate archers and plan an attack based on your targets weaknesses. Or, if you’d rather forgo strategy, you can just jump straight in. Both are acceptable tactics and you can build Talion’s strengths to be either physical or tactical. However you decide to approach battles though, you’ll still end up in a hack-and-slash grind sooner or later.

 

What stops Middle-earth: Shadow of War from being a repetitive tirade of orc-smashing is the wide variety of skills and abilities that you can utilise in order to take down your foes. You have skills that allow you to act stealthily and at range, releasing (or riding) giant beasts or fearsome fire-breathing drakes before ambushing your prey. Or you can invest your skill points in increasing the use of your might meter, making it easier to fatally execute individuals or stun them with frost. You will also have to choose which gear and gems you will equip to yourself, giving a surprising amount of depth to the RPG elements behind the bloodthirsty orc-smashing. There’s a decent degree of skill needed too, meaning that at higher levels and in harder areas, you can’t just spam attack and get away with it. Instead, you’ll need to plan out attacks — or get very good at improvising.

The areas you conquer are very varied. Despite all having similar fortresses, each new environment has a different feel and look. The explosive start in Minas Ithil under siege makes way to the magical woods of Núrn that feels almost calming, if a bit unsettling. If you want to explore each area more carefully, you may choose to indulge in the collectathon part of Shadow of War, collecting old Gondorian artefacts or searching for the elven passwords to collect more gear. It may seem like a bit of a grind, but each artefact you collect offers up some insight into Tolkien’s world, which, if you’re a fan of The Lord of the Rings’ universe, is almost certainly worth the extra effort.

Of course, all the orc-slaying action is accompanied by a serviceable narrative that draws focus on this domination, fortress-storming mechanic quite heavily, especially in Act II. The plot still provides an engaging narrative though, taking you through unexplored parts of Tolkien’s world, venturing into parts of the Lord of the Rings timeline that has, until now, been left alone in mainstream media. The game utilises minor characters and gets the most from them. I enjoyed the story and its cutscenes, although the fact that your armour defaults back to your starting costume in them is a minor annoyance. Side-missions and gear challenges add more to the experience and plot too; playing as Celebrimbor in his prime is interesting and shows you more depth to his standard elf-supremacist personality.

Microtransactions are a thing, but to be honest, you’d be hard pressed to notice them. I played for hours before coming into contact with them. They do take the cynical form of loot-boxes, and while it’s a shame they’ve been added in, they’re unnecessary and easily ignored.

Middle-earth: Shadow of War is much like its predecessor: there are a lot of orcs to beat up, and it’s extremely fun to do so. The expanded nemesis and domination elements push this sequel to new heights, making battling with captains and war-chiefs a constantly unique experience despite the fact that you are essentially doing the same thing again and again. With a wealth of new environments and a decent storyline to boot, Middle-earth: Shadow of War doesn’t feel like a forced entry but a great expansion on the original concept. It’s rather funny, too.

Middle-earth: Shadow of War is available on PC, PS4 and Xbox One. We reviewed the PS4 version.