Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor came out of nowhere, an unexpected gem released to little fanfare that reviewed solidly across the board. Its Nemesis system provided structure, character and fluidity to enemies demonstrating that structure in games need not be so rigid, breathing something fresh and unique into the genre. Its success afforded developer Monolith the chance to further hone these mechanics, and the result is Middle Earth: Shadow of War.
The staple foundations of the first game, the free-flow inspired combat and Nemesis systems both return boasting some subtle improvements. The number of Talion’s – the main protagonist – abilities has been increased, items can now be equipped and buffs crafted for boosts to offence or defence. The Nemesis system, a chain of command management tool for the Orc army, returns, although over all it’s improvements are more behind the scenes. The characters it forges retain their varied charm but the class set is expanded to introduce newer types of Captains, notably assassins who silently hunt you striking at usually the least convenient time. Combat has been tweaked for additional challenge, with enemies now learning as fights progress. Use the same move too many times, and your target adapts to counter the move negating the ability to just repeat the same couple of attacks.
The narrative, something for which I care somewhat little in this series, picks up from the end of the first game, Its immediate reveal of the existence of an 8th ring felt off, like a knife in the back to Tolkien’s intricately constructed universe and almost certainly will irk the fanbase. Otherwise, it fulfils its purpose to act as an extended tutorial gently easing players into the game’s mechanics.
Other new features have a more negative impact, with a lot of new material placed to extend the time required to progress through the game. The skill tree is more granular and unlocking everything will require a serious investment of time. Environments feel cluttered, overpopulated and littered with collectables and distractions. The game also introduces loot, in the form of weapon and armour drops. This has facilitated one of the games more controversial features, loot boxes. These can be earned during standard play from completing certain quests, however they can also be purchased through the games marketplace. I’m not adverse to the pay to win model, but I am adverse to the random nature of these boxes. When talking about real money, I have no issue with allowing players to cough up for specific items. However, randomising output to maximise profit is exploitive and immoral, and as such the criticism levelled at Shadow of War, and other games that follow this model, is just and deserving in my mind. I feel for the developer, whose hand has likely been forced by a publisher focused on monetisation rather than fun, as conversation is diverted away from the game itself onto more wider industry issues, but in this specific case it’s easy enough to ignore and can even be disabled entirely by declining to partake in the online features.
A little more polish to alleviate some minor bugs should come in time, although some current problems can be annoying. Movement around the environment can at times feel clunky, with Talion often doing something unexpected. This results from some buttons being overloaded, often causing you to climb rather than run or vice versa. Captain introductions sometimes trigger twice, and often the game ill affords you the time to collect loot during a mission requiring you to backtrack post cutscene to collect things instead.
Overall, it’s very much more of the same which in this case isn’t a bad thing. Gaming the nemesis system and battling your way through hordes or Orcs for hours on end were the mechanics that made the first game so enjoyable for me, and the continuation of those themes here brings a smile to my face. All the other stuff around this, the loot, the narrative, the story missions and collectables just doesn’t do anything for me, acting mostly as barriers or distractions from the games most enjoyable mechanics. Mastering the combat is a heroic feeling, and once everything clicks it becomes a seamless and satisfying experience, one that’s certainly worth a look.
Middle Earth: Shadow of War was provided to us by Xbox/WB Games for Xbox One.