Middle-earth: Shadow of War is an extraordinary game: in its complexity, in its ambition and perhaps most of all, in its undeniable messiness.
When Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor launched in 2014, it was a surprise, if not a revelation. Though it appeared in marketing materials and press events to be a tonally incoherent cash-in on a beloved intellectual property, Shadow of Mordor introduced one of the most astounding design innovations in the past decade of game development: the Nemesis System.
Developer Monolith Productions has, of course, returned to the this brilliant system in Shadow of War. The armies of orcs that would normally be nameless, personality-stripped bad guys are transformed. Enemy captains and warchiefs are imbued with entrancing and often hilarious character. Stories emerge procedurally rather than through cutscenes; each player experiences their own tale about the one Uruk they just can’t keep down, or the enemy whose hand they cut off only to have him return with a hook for a hand.
The Nemesis System was something delightful and totally new in 2014, and it was enough to earn the game a spot on our game of the year list. Now, it has expanded it to include even more orcs of a wider variety of personality types, and more interactions and options for building your personal army. In fact, Monolith focuses in so much on this aspect of the game that it loses the plot in other parts — like, well, the plot.
To tackle a game as big as Shadow of War while acknowledging how beloved its predecessor was, we decided to have two editors handle this review: reviews editor Phil Kollar and executive editor Chris Plante.
Middle-earth: Shadow of War picks up shortly after the goofy twist at the end of Shadow of Mordor. (Spoilers incoming for that game’s conclusion in 3 … 2 … 1.) The undying human ranger Talion and his ghostly elf companion Celebrimbor have forged a “New Ring,” a powerful weapon to help them fight back against the dark lord Sauron and his endless army of orcs. Along with a rotating cast of green-skinned brutes, Talion and Celebrimbor team up with a bigger group of allies in this game, including the elven assassin Eltariel and a mystical wood spirit named Carnan.
If you’re a longtime Lord of the Rings fan who found Shadow of Mordor’s looseness with canon distasteful, this sequel is only going to make you angrier. It’s closer to the original works of author J.R.R. Tolkien in some ways — while the first game seemed comfortable existing on its own as some sort of what-if scenario, Shadow of War seeks to bridge the gap between The Hobbit and the proper Lord of the Rings trilogy — yet it manages to be more extreme in the liberties it takes with the established lore of the series.
I should probably make it clear here that I am not one of those hardcore fans. I’ve read a few Tolkien books, I enjoyed the Lord of the Ring movies, but the lore stuff doesn’t matter to me. If anything, my annoyance at Shadow of War’s storytelling stems more from how self-serious and stuffy it is. Every time the game gave in to goofy, cornball antics — some of the stuff I expect will turn off intense fans — I actually enjoyed it more. Did the story bother you at all, Chris, or were you able to mostly ignore it for the sake of that sweet Middle-earth gameplay?
The main story is predictable and self-serious, but I appreciate the establishing of stakes. For the most part, I could track why I was required to pop orc heads like thousands of juicy grapes. I need to save somebody or someplace or something that, should I fail, will mean doom inherits the land. Unlike so many open-world games, Shadow of War is holistic: Practically everything you do feeds into the larger quest to conquer evil, whether it’s training allies, grinding resources or toppling effigies.
I do wish the plot shared the playfulness found in individual encounters with orc leaders. Even more so than its predecessor, Shadow of War goes out of its way to imbue bosses with distinguishable, often likable personalities. Within the first few hours, I’d met a poet, a singer, a pseudo-ornithologist and so many other oddballs.
It feels like magic how each character evolves, depending on whether you make them an ally, humiliate them before their peers, or simply melt off their flesh. I shamed one enemy in combat so many times that he mentally regressed, gradually devolving from an eloquent leader to a non-verbal goon, stalking me from one encounter to the next, grunting and barking. Later I turned him to my side, then made him my bodyguard. We are friends now.
That’s the silly thing: I care so much more about my orc pals that, by comparison, the central characters clog the game with middling cutscenes at best, and at worst, force me to participate in stealth missions in which my supposed buddy can’t help but run directly into combat like a total buffoon. Mercifully, the main characters don’t succumb to inane fantasy dialogue, but nonetheless, when they spoke my eyes looked nearly as dead as theirs.
As for the orcs — my sweet, sweet, orcs — I have some mixed feelings about our supposed friendships. I mentioned this with the previous game, but while the mechanic of recruiting a massive army is fun, the idea of enslaving creatures doesn’t leave a pleasant aftertaste, to say the very least. And by act two, enslaving orcs is the staple of this heavy meal. Shadow of War is a game that works best when you don’t think too much about what it is you’re actually doing.
So to get back to your question, no, I didn’t love the main story, but the friction between main quests and side quests, humor and horror, is unquestionably baked into the heart of this particular branch of Middle-earth video games. A high-stakes world littered with quirky characters — most of whom you will slaughter or lead to slaughter against their will.
Speaking of being all things at once, I sure was overwhelmed by the wealth of skill tree unlocks, weapon modifications, loot, follower upgrades and fortress modifications. Rather than taking a complex system and making it more accessible, the developers have taken a complex system and added layer upon layer. The more time I’ve had to learn the systems, the more enjoyable they’ve become, but I’m curious how you feel. And at what point does managing so many in-game menus and characters become work?
I mentioned at the start of this review that Middle-earth: Shadow of War is a messy game, and that messiness is most apparent in the way it spaces out the introduction of skills and systems, especially at the beginning. The first act is basically just a deluge — a piling-on of every mechanic from the first game, with the assumption that you’ll remember how all of this stuff works.
To Monolith’s credit, I did remember … eventually. It was probably about three or four hours into act two that I finally started to feel comfortable with Shadow of War. And once I did feel comfortable, things clicked in a way that reminded me exactly why I fell in love with this game’s predecessor.
Take the orc armies, as an example. Moral quandaries and even lovable personalities aside, there’s an approachable but deliciously meaty layer of strategy to how this part of the game functions. Each orc you recruit has its own traits — elements that it’s scared of, attack types it’s immune to, stuff that just pisses it off and sends it into a rage. These tidbits build on the orc’s character but also help you determine who’s easiest to take down, who’s best to recruit for a high-ranking spot in your own army and so on.
Shadow of War’s biggest addition to this system comes in the form of fortress sieges. While the orcs in Shadow of Mordor had a hierarchy you needed to dismantle step by step, in this game there’s a physical manifestation of that command line: Each territory has its own fortress ruled by an overlord, who is in turn defended by anywhere from one to six warchiefs.
Invading a fortress requires considerable time to recruit an army of your own along with strategy in the form of picking the right assault leaders for the job. If you pick an orc who is terrified of fire to attack a castle with lava flowing down the walls and fire-breathing drakes circling around it, you’ll struggle. You can try to brute-force your way through scenarios by killing everyone as Talion, but Monolith has exponentially increased the spectacle in Shadow of War, making it extremely easy to be overwhelmed by a veritable legion of bloodthirsty enemies. If you don’t plan wisely, you will die. And if you die, the orcs who killed you will level up and grow more powerful, making the next attempt to take a fortress all the more difficult.
The greater meta-strategy game around orc management and fortress sieging has enough quirks and variety to keep players invested for a long time. Monolith seems to have recognized this as the real draw of the game; the story takes a backseat through act two, with most of the plot development and cutscenes coming from largely optional sidequests that are scattered throughout the game’s five zones. I didn’t mind. Castle sieges are Shadow of War at its best.
You referred to the orc swarms as a spectacle, and somehow, that may be an understatement. Dozens of orcs, caragors, drakes and other beasts regularly filled my screen, along with prompts warning of a melee attack, a lethal arrow or just a plain old fireball coming directly for my noggin. Most, if not all, visual prompts (like a flashing triangle button, letting you know to parry) can be disabled through the options menu. While that doesn’t scale back the monster gangs, it does at least make individual targets and attacks easier to spot and react to.
Like most relationships with mobs, mine is complicated. On one hand, the game achieves a sense of scale that, while it doesn’t reach the level of “war,” certainly depicts sizable battles. When the original Lord of the Rings trilogy arrived in theaters in 2001, much puff was made of its computer animation tricks that set massive digital armies in head-to-head clashes. I think Shadow of War achieves a similar accomplishment for games. While the game’s world often looks like a high-resolution version of the previous generation of Assassin’s Creed games, it’s filled with more enemies than any of its contemporaries. And while it doesn’t really feel lived in (what do orcs do when they’re not drinking and killing?), it does feel realistically populated.
All of those baddies serve as fleshy targets for the player’s many weapons and violent abilities. At their best, enemies’ unexpected reactions are their own stories with highs and lows, tiny failures and tiny victories. One memorable fight began with me stealthily poisoning the grog of some relaxing orcs, but once they spotted me, a group of caragor-riding minions chased me up a tower. They had the upper hand, until I brutally carved their leader like a Thanksgiving turkey, sending a couple dozen orcs sprinting into the sunset.
On the other hand, the orcs are so abundant that fights regularly feel too crowded. In the previous game, I rapidly mastered the combo system. But in Shadow of War, big combos have come less frequently, usually interrupted by an arrow from a far-off, unseen enemy or a band of orcs lunging into the fray all at once. More attacks and abilities help knock back groups of enemies, but 15 or so hours in, they feel unreliable and underpowered.
Maybe this is the game’s way of letting me know I’m under-equipped for battle, but I don’t think so. Whether I was new to a fortress or had enslaved all of its captains, fights continued to feel claustrophobic and busy.
When I do find myself evenly matched, though, wow does this game make me feel like a brilliant mix of assassin and barbarian. I can’t believe we made it this far without talking about the double jump, which makes zero sense in the realm of physics, but who cares when it feels so good? The second jump magnetizes to roofs, walls or wires, and can be interrupted midair with a volley of lethal arrows. Enemies drop loot that can grant special buffs, like making it more likely that an enemy is poisoned or that their head will explode in a mist of gore.
The upgrade tree, while complex, grants some hilarious powers. In one fight, I knocked back enemies by throwing five daggers at once, let loose a drake, shot said drake in the mouth until it submitted to my greatness, then teleported onto its back, covering the fortress and all the stunned (and presumably impressed) orcs in flames. This is how you’re meant to deal with the intimidating hordes of enemies. The game wants you to think. And when you do, you’re rewarded. So I’m torn on what frustrates me because it’s the game’s fault, versus what frustrates me because my style of play is sometimes at odds with what the game wants me to do.
Which brings me to the endgame. Phil, you’ve conquered all of the fortresses, slaughtered who knows how many bad dudes, and plodded through so many menus. Does the game get even more complicated? Does it find its chill? What should I expect as I move forward?
The endgame of Shadow of War is … it’s a lot, Chris. Upon finishing the previous game, many players talked about how they wished there was more to do after the story’s completion, how they’d love to just stick around and build up orc armies and clash them against each other. Monolith clearly took these conversations to heart when coming up with the new game’s fourth act, Shadow Wars, which serves as an ongoing finale.
I won’t spoil the plot — which has some hilariously goofy twists and turns near the end — but I will say that Shadow Wars takes the siege gameplay and flips it around. You’ve conquered all these orc fortresses, so now what? Naturally, you need to defend them against invading armies of ever-increasing difficulty.
From the outside, Shadow Wars is a legitimately inspired idea. It provides an endless playground and plenty of motivation to keep raising and upgrading your armies, replacing your allies with bigger and better alternatives, and slicing down floods of enemies. It’s also a great time to fiddle with the game’s asynchronous multiplayer, which allows you to go on vendetta missions to take out orcs that killed other players, or even siege another player’s fortress for loot.
However, Shadow Wars is spoiled by two major issues.
First, it’s not just postgame content. While the main plot of Shadow of War wraps up in relatively tidy fashion before act four begins, Monolith has confirmed that there is a second ending unlocked by completing Shadow Wars. (The developers are calling it a “bonus ending.”) I love the idea of offering dozens of hours of grindy yet fun content for players who really adore this game to sink their teeth into. But that works better as an option rather than a looming obligation for completionists. Having the game’s real finale locked away behind those dozens of hours — hours that, while fun, are devoid of story missions, side quests, cutscenes or other distractions that help mix up the pace — is a disappointment.
Will I return to mess around in Shadow Wars some more? Almost certainly. But I have no plans to ever see that final scene outside of YouTube.
The bigger and more pressing problem with Shadow Wars is that it’s the main home of one of Shadow of War’s more controversial additions to the first game’s formula: microtransactions. Technically, you can jump into the marketplace and purchase loot chests earlier in the game, but there’s really no pull to do so during the main campaign. You can find plenty of nice armor and weapons and all the orcs you need by playing regularly.
In Shadow Wars, however, things get more complicated. With all other side content drained, the only thing left to do is to play fortress defense missions (and collect more orcs to help with more fortress defense missions). Finding powerful orcs becomes the be-all, end-all focus of the game, and the easiest way to find powerful orcs is, cynically, to purchase them. The cheapest chest on the marketplace (which offers the barest guarantees on the quality of allies you unlock) can be purchased using the in-game money Talion picks up. That money also buys upgrades to your fortresses, though, and between the two I spent all 60,000 or 70,000 coins I had gathered over the course of the campaign in a few hours.
When you run out of in-game money, you have two choices: Make a huge time investment by hunting down orcs in your game world and earning chests via vendetta missions, or spend some real money to get the more powerful orcs you need now. Does the game ever force you to spend money? No. I’m sure you can get to the end of Shadow Wars without spending a dime, as long as you’re patient and persistent. But locking progress through this mode (and, again, toward the game’s secondary ending) behind either spending more money or doing tons of tedious busywork feels at least greedy if not predatory.
If you can get past the microtransactions, Shadow Wars seems set to provide a much meatier extended playtime than Shadow of Mordor ever offered. But more than anything, that’s my biggest disappointment with Middle-earth: Shadow of War: Everything about it seems to come with a caveat, some small annoyance or two that you need to dig past to get to the still-very-fun game underneath. The Nemesis System is still a wonder that has yet to be replicated. The movement and combat are thrilling.
There’s so much to do! But also, there’s so much to do. The line between work and play is a thin one that runs directly through Middle-earth. And so I feel torn. I really had a wonderful time throughout this game that regularly made me feel frustrated or icky or simply exhausted. It’s a truly inspired exercise in design, one that seems OK with numerous flaws so long as they allow for its complex systems to be prioritized above all else.
Shadow of Mordor was unrefined but in a way that was ahead of its time. Playing it felt like glimpsing the future of big action games. Monolith’s attempts to build on that vision in Shadow of War are often successful, particularly where the deeper Nemesis System is concerned. But other pieces of this sequel feel undercooked, getting in the way of what should be a great time. Shadow of War provided plenty of fun in the 30 or 40 hours I’ve spent with it so far, but somehow this future seemed so much brighter in 2014.
Middle-earth: Shadow of War was reviewed using “retail” PlayStation 4 download codes provided by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.
In the original version of the review, the ending of Shadow Wars was described as the “true ending.” For clarification, we’ve changed the description.