Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor was one of the breakout surprises of the year when it launched in 2014. It featured a solid story set in a beloved franchise with combat based on the Batman: Arkham series of games. It blew many people away with its innovative nemesis system and while the ending of the game wasn’t what many had hoped for, in the end, it was a well-rounded title, winning a few awards when all was said and done. Fast forward to 2017 and Middle Earth: Shadow of War looks to capitalize on the first games success while expanding on the ideas of the first title with a new “build your own army” system. Does Middle Earth: Shadow of War soar high on the wings of eagles or is it better off thrown into the fiery pits of Mount Doom?
Well, the answer is two-fold, really. Middle Earth: Shadow of War is a mixed bag of wonderful and terrible all at once. Its fun and engaging one minute and the next minute I’m wondering what the hell is going on as the story weaves in and out between other side missions and the nemesis system. Its the first game I’ve played in a long time where I gave no real care to the story going on and spent more time running around completing side missions to build up my army to take on enemies and take over fortresses.
The Nemesis System, carried over and expanded from Shadow of Mordor is the star of the show here once again. Its obvious that this aspect of the game is where most of the development was put into as it feels the most fleshed out of any experience in the game. The building and organizing of your own army to take down your nemesis’ encampments and fortresses are with out a doubt the most enjoyable grindy thing I’ve done in a video game all year…And I spent 100+ hours in Destiny 2 the first month it released on Xbox One! There are so many different ways you can build your army’s style and so many different orcs to fill out each role in your army. Their personalities are engaging and their dialogue is so well done, I laughed out loud at times. From the bash em up, beat em up brawlers to an orc that sings as he tries to kill you, it blew my mind how much individuality these orcs had. I don’t think I actually encountered two that were exactly alike in my hours of gameplay.
Once you’ve built up your army, its time to take on an encampment or fortress and this is where the polished and updated systems from the previous title really shine. You can assign captains in your army to do different things in an attempt to take down a fortress and its satisfying as hell to actually SEE them do those things, rather than it be an off screen event. Whats more, you can join them in some of the activity after you storm the fortress. It gives you this immersive feeling to be fighting along side your armies in real time using a strategy that you laid out just before attacking that I’ve never felt in a game before this. The boss battles at the end of the fortress take overs, while tough, are some of the most rewarding and satisfying gameplay to be found in a title this year.
With all of the gushing I’m doing about the nemesis system, I have to admit that everything else just feels tacked on, the story included. The story is pretty bland compared to everything else going on. Theres no sense of urgency within the story and no real reason to care about any of the other characters besides a few main ones. There are some twists and turns, but nothing that made me gasp or go “Wow, I didn’t see THAT coming” this time around. Some favorites from the previous game return, including some incredible missions with Gollum. For all of the fuss people made around Shelob and her ability to transform into a semi-attractive woman from a spider, you sure don’t see much of her after the first act. Disappointing, really.
The side missions beyond the nemesis system aren’t much to write home about either, sadly. Theres plenty of them to do, just not much substance to them once you’re doing them. The Shelob memories try to bring you some back story a la Assassin’s Creed style short video clip memories strung together to make one larger cutscene but it just feels empty and hollow once you actually complete them. The other frustrating thing worth noting is the upgrade system. Or really, the lack of true upgrades unless you slog through a bunch of missions first. Instead of giving you a specific upgrade per mission, the game has decided to have random drops that you encounter from killing enemies or completing quests be the way that you upgrade your gear. While some of these upgrades are worthwhile, most of them are one or two point progressions in damage or resilience at best. Upgrading weapons also seems pointless and honestly, its kind of confusing. You have to complete a certain number of challenges with a given weapon to be able to enhance it with a gem. There are various qualities and types of gems to enhance your weapon with but once you enchant your weapon with a gem, I never found a way to remove that first gem in favor of another one which just seems silly to me. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong here, but it just felt a bit backwards.
The games music is top notch. I found myself downloading the soundtrack to listen to whilst doing other things about my day. The menu music in particular gets you excited to play the game and thats a level of detail I haven’t seen in a soundtrack in quite some time. The voice acting is all well done, as expected, I just wish the dialogue from the cutscenes with main characters was on par with the acting. They do the best with what they’re given but god damnit, if I have to listen to Celebrimbor say the word “Palantir” on more time, I might throw my controller across the room.
The game looks beautiful at times and absolutely atrocious at others. This seems to be due to two things; poor PC optimization when it comes to textures and some completely random frame drops that, despite multiple updates to both graphics drivers AND the game since release, are still not 100% solved. I’ve tried every setting customized in what feels like a hundred different ways and there is still an unexplained stutter every once and awhile that usually causes me to mis time something and end up in a pile of bad guys who want nothing more than to roast me on the open fire next to us. Its frustrating, and I hope that something is worked out soon between the graphics drivers and the game updates, but we all know how that usually goes with WB titles (I’m looking at YOU, Batman: Arkham Knight).
How could I forget to mention the most controversial thing about Shadow of War; the loot boxes. Boy they sure have found their way into pretty much everything these days, haven’t they? While I am glad to report that they don’t interrupt the overall game experience too much (until you get to the end game where unless you want to bring for an additional 20-40 hours you really should consider using them), it doesn’t help that every time you pause the game, there is an annoying notification button about them. Every. Single. Time. Its almost as if they’re saying to you “Hey, have you seen our loot box system? Check out our loot box system! It can save you time! It can save you energy!” But of course, it can’t save you money as some of the best in game loot boxes cost an insane amount of money FOR A SINGLE PLAYER TITLE. Ugh. I’m sorry, but I can’t stand these things. They really go to show how low WB will sink to try and turn an extra profit and it just makes me sad.