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Middle Earth: Shadow of War Review


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On 10/27/2017 at 12:00 PM by Julian Titus

Three fourths epic.
RECOMMENDATION:

Don’t let the loot boxes and poorly designed final act scare you away. This is a worthy followup to Shadow of Mordor.

When I reviewed Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, I elected to tell a personal story of my journey through the game in lieu of a traditional review, since it best represented the strengths of that title. As I was playing through its sequel, Middle Earth: Shadow of War, I wanted to do the same thing. Unfortunately, there are enough complexities with this release that story time will have to wait for another feature. Shadow of War is simultaneously the most fun I’ve had all year and one of my disappointments for 2017.

I want to make no bones about that last sentence: I absolutely loved the majority of Shadow of War, and for the bulk of the experience I was convinced it would end up as my game of the year. Shadow of Mordor is one of my favorite games from the current console generation so far, and its sequel improves on nearly every aspect of the original. The game is bigger, environments are more varied and interesting, and the ever-present Nemesis System is deeper. It’s just about everything one could want in a sequel.

This time around, Talion and his wraith hetero lifemate Celebrimbor are trying to raise an army to stem the tide of Sauron’s forces from overtaking Gondor. To do so, they form a new ring of power that can bring the orc captains under their will. While this was present in the first game it didn’t show up until very late in the story. Shadow of War wisely introduces this mechanic in the first couple hours of the game. It is by far the most interesting way to interact with the orc hordes, and I had a blast tracking down particular orcs to bring them into my ranks.

Instead of taking place in two massive areas, Shadow of War is set in five smaller zones, each with their own orc hierarchy and fortress to overtake. Claiming the fortresses is the main goal of the game, and I derived deep satisfaction from exploring each area, tackling side objectives and running into enemy orc captains who would either fall to my blade or join my side, depending on the situation. I would spend hours working my way up the chain of command, swaying orc bodyguards in order to have them turn on their warchiefs, who I would in turn incapacitate. I felt like a master tactician of war, reducing a once insurmountable fortress’ defenses into a shell of its former self as my own army descended upon it like a swarm of locusts.

The thrill of these moments cannot be understated. I lost track of the times I found myself grinning ear to ear, cackling as I would orchestrate unbridled chaos in an orc camp and turning the tide in my favor. Shadow of War doesn’t try to get in the way of fun like so many open world games. Talion can climb walls and towers at speeds that would make Spider-Man green with envy. Stealth is quite forgiving, which may make the game easier, but I enjoyed being able to ghost through an area, leaving a pile of corpses in my wake. Combat is just as satisfying as the first game, becoming deeper and more fun as you fill out your skill list. I did find it to be significantly easier than the first game, but I can’t tell if that was because the game is actually easier, or if it was muscle memory from the huge amount of time I spent in Mordor before.

This isn’t to say that Shadow of War is without flaws; far from it. I was dismayed to see that the control issues the first game had were not addressed. Simply put, the A (or X, depending on console) button is used for too much. It is used to dodge roll, vault, sprint, climb, and double jump. The game tries to predict what you’re trying to do and often guesses wrong. For me, this would usually happen in tense situations where I needed to beat a hasty retreat, only to have Talion jump and stick to a waist high wall, or roll when I wanted to climb. Targeting is also a huge pain in large groups. There is nothing more frustrating than wanting to expend your Might meter to execute an orc captain only to have it wasted on a grunt that’s far off to the side. I also can’t fathom why the game would assume you want to drain the life from one of your friendly orcs instead of dominate the orc captain you’ve been fighting for the past five minutes. I gave the first game a pass on these issues, but it’s disheartening to see them pop up again, in some cases worse than before.

Then there are the problems of pacing and structure that pervade this entry in the Mordor series. Since the individual areas are smaller it feels like the orc captains are pressed together. While I loved running into them as I explored, I often ran into situations where I was fighting two or three at a time. Though these were exhilarating rarities in the first game, it happens often enough in the sequel to become annoying. Since there is little reason to return to an area once the fortress is taken there aren’t as many opportunities for particular orcs to wage a lengthy war with you. I only had a couple orcs that came back to pester me multiple times, and while I can confirm that they will track Talion from area to area, this didn’t happen as often as I would have liked. As such, I never had a true nemesis as I did in the first game.

By far the biggest complaint I have with Shadow of War is the final act. For 40 hours I had been having a wonderful time. Then you move into the Shadow Wars, a series of increasingly difficult siege attempts on your fortresses. It sucked the momentum right out of the game. By this point I had completed every other mission, so I ran into this wall of identical missions. These onslaughts are carried out by higher level orcs, which required me to either find new orcs in the wild to promote, or level up my current ones. The former choice was to continue to do things I had already done for 40 hours and was getting burnt out on. The latter option involves having orcs pit fight, which involves watching the AI fight one on one. I did this for a few hours and stopped when I realized that I was no longer playing the game, but watching it. As such, I didn’t “finish” Shadow of War.

For 40 hours, I had the most fun I’ve had with a game all year, and I say that in a year with some of the best games this generation released all at once. I can’t stress enough how much I enjoyed Shadow of War. However, the endgame is a boring, poorly designed slog, and left me with a bad taste in my mouth. I fully recommend this game. It’s at its best when you’re exploring the world and engaging with the Nemesis System. I got my money’s worth there, even if the game seems to go on for 10-15 hours too long.

 

Review Policy

In our reviews, we'll try not to bore you with minutiae of a game. Instead, we'll outline what makes the game good or bad, and focus on telling you whether or not it is worth your time as opposed to what button makes you jump.

We use a five-star rating system with intervals of .5. Below is an outline of what each score generally means:


All games that receive this score are standout games in their genre. All players should seek a way to play this game. While the score doesn't equate to perfection, it's the best any game could conceivably do.


These are above-average games that most players should consider purchasing. Nearly everyone will enjoy the game and given the proper audience, some may even love these games.


This is our middle-of-the-road ranking. Titles that receive three stars may not make a strong impression on the reviewer in either direction. These games may have some faults and some strong points but they average out to be a modest title that is at least worthy of rental for most.


Games that are awarded two stars are below average titles. Good ideas may be present, but execution is poor and many issues hinder the experience.


Though functional, a game that receives this score has major issues. There are little to no redeeming qualities and should be avoided by nearly all players.


A game that gets this score is fundamentally broken and should be avoided by everyone.

Side By Side - About those loot boxes...


Shadow of War came under fire for its use of micro transactions, and I can’t talk about this game without addressing them. Simply put, there is no point to spending extra money on loot or orcs in this game. There is always better gear to find and better orcs to recruit. I personally didn’t find the marketplace to be invasive. There is one story mission that gives you 500 of the premium currency. I used it on two of the premium loot boxes and never looked back. Since I hadn’t found these orcs in the wild I had no personal investment in them. I deployed them and never paid attention to them again, and they were quickly replaced by stronger orcs that I found on my own.

If there is any complaint I would have about the loot boxes it is that the only way to earn premium currency is to conquer two fortresses online per day, and even if you succeed you only earn 50 credits, which is nothing. There should be better ways to acquire premium currency for those that choose to engage with the loot boxes.

Please note that spending tons of money on loot boxes would in no way improve the end game missions. Orcs can only level up to Talion’s level, so the only way to reach the levels of the attacking orcs is to grind missions. You can buy experience boosters in loot boxes, but these can be purchased with the in game currency, which I had plenty of by the final act. I can understand the blowback from consumers on the inclusion of these loot boxes, but the way they are implemented they end up being completely pointless and easy to ignore.


 

Comments

Machocruz

10/30/2017 at 02:00 PM

The Batman esque combat and Assassin's Creed esque movement turn me off, but I still want to try these games just to see how they've structured the open world play.

Julian Titus Senior Editor

11/08/2017 at 12:01 AM

Well, if you don't like the combat and movement I'd say just move along, because they are such a big part of the experience. As far as the open world, it's pretty standard stuff, but I had the most fun by just moving in a direction towards a point of interest and letting myself get distracted by enemy orcs, camps, or other objectives. I ended up doing all the side content that way. 

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