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Middle-earth: Shadow of War (Xbox One) Review

October 13, 2017 | Posted by Stewart Lange
Middle-earth: Shadow of War
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Middle-earth: Shadow of War (Xbox One) Review  

2014’s Shadow of Mordor was arguably the sleeper hit of the year for AAA titles when it was released. Everyone knew it was coming, but nobody expected it to be as good as it ended up being. The mixture of the combat from the Arkham series, free-running lifted straight from Assassins Creed and the rich lore and familiar surroundings of the Lord of the Rings series made for a blockbuster hit, making it onto many game of the year lists, including my own. The success of the original made it almost a certainty we’d receive a sequel and after a couple of delays, it’s finally upon us. With more missions, more of Mordor, more Orcs and more micro-transactions, it’s a whole lot more of what you loved, and maybe didn’t, about the first game.

To avoid spoilers about the story, Shadow of War picks up with Talion some time after the events of the first game. An uneasy time has fallen over parts of middle earth as Talion and the Elven wraith he is forged with create a new Ring of Power, free from the corruption of Sauron. Interfering parties get involved and take the new Ring and as you can imagine, all hell breaks loose. With the Ring in the hands/legs of Shelob (sometimes in woman form, the spider from Return of the King), she points Talion to Minas Ithil to seize back a Palantir (much the shiny orb/crystal ball that attracts Saurons eye when Merry touches it) and this sets off a series of events that will take you all across Middle Earth. Numerous intertwining quest lines make it a much more interesting experience than the first time around, with plenty of options of what you want to do next. Although nothing has a real priority over anything else, it is nice to feel like you are controlling what major events happen in what order.

The nemesis system from the first game is back and has been changed ever so slightly. You can recruits Orcs to your cause, either from dominating Captains in battle, or from loot crates (I’ll get to those). The higher level they are, the better chance they have of dethroning their competitors and moving up the pecking order. The more orcs under your command, the better, as you’ll eventually get an easier time when you try and take the fortress in each part of the land. The nemesis system is such an important part of the game, it really makes it feel unique to you. The characters, their names and their weaknesses are procedurally generated, so not only does it come up with some interesting combinations (Shag the Twins, anyone? Just me? Check outafterdark216 on Instagram if you don’t believe me) but if you don’t fully finish the job, they even come back to taunt you about your first, or last, meeting. If they beat you, then it’s even worse as they taunt you. Enemy captains will ambush you, flee from you and even refuse to join you, while friendly ones will aid you for the most part, but will sometimes just see the “error of their ways” and revert their loyalty back to Sauron. Very inconvenient if you’re using them to storm an outpost. A slight issue with this is that if you go away to level up to make a battle easier, then tough. They’ll level up with you. Apart from this minor issue, the nemesis system remains one of the most interesting parts of the game.

The orc armies are used to take fortresses, as I mentioned. This is the biggest change in the gameplay from the first, finally teasing something at least close to the scale of the battles you saw in the movies. Playing out like large capture the flag missions, they involve you and up to 5 orc captains, depending on your level, storming the regions fortress. How easy this battle is is up to you, as if you lay in the ground work and make sure there aren’t any supporting captains, it becomes a doddle. The problem I found is that no matter how easy you make this part of the siege for yourself, you still need to go one on one with the war-chief, who isn’t scared of playing it cheap. They generally have a few friends in tow, which is fine to help you build your combo or restore health, but these comrades regenerate. I ground one down to about 20% health over 10 minutes or so, only to be mauled by a newly spawned Caragor. Considering I couldn’t bring my own Caragor, or any followers into battle “because honour,” I was slightly pissed off about how cheap this was. Still, as the saying goes, get good and you’ll do good.

The elephant in the room here is the micro-transactions. A lot of people are boycotting this game as a result of these and I think that is slightly unfair. I’ve played the majority of the game to this point and not once have I had to dip into my own pocket. Basic loot crates can be purchased with in game currency to buy new orcs for your army, while any weapons you buy are levelled, so you’ll not have a use for the ones you do buy pretty quickly. This might seem a total rip off and it is, but I’m here to tell you that it’s been completely blown out of proportion. Rumours of the real ending being hidden behind a paywall, though, I’m not sure of as I’ve not quite finished with the story and really don’t want to risk anything being spoiled for me. The problem seems to be that the mere inclusion of them has soured the opinion so badly that people are likely to pass on this game altogether as a result of them being here.

Shadow of War is not a bad game because it includes micro-transactions. Hell, they aren’t even pay to win. If you can ignore those and especially if you enjoyed Shadow of Mordor, Arkham, Assassin’s Creed or just have a love of Tolkien, there is so much to like here. It looks good, the sound captures the feeling of the movies but certain cheap gameplay mechanics, the fact you can’t even level grind to make boss battles easier for yourself and the games own insistence on getting your credit card details, whether you benefit from giving them or not, just take away a level of enjoyment for me. But Shadow of War is still one hell of a good game, especially as I feel like it’s been a while since I sunk my teeth into an epic single player campaign. It’s not going to be my game of the year, but I’m sure as hell going to enjoy playing it until the end of the month when that is released.

The final score: review Very Good
The 411
Great graphics and fun gameplay do just enough to save a WB Games cash grab. Everything that was good about the first game is still right here, with bigger battles and a longer story. The magic might be gone, but make sure your thumbs are limber and head back to Mordor if you've been before. You won't regret it.