I never really enjoyed Lord of the Rings. I don’t think the movies are particularly engaging, and the books are very long-winded. I love the world-building though, and the high fantasy setting that inspired Dungeons & Dragons, A Song of Ice and Fire, and countless other contemporary works. If you’re like me and have always wanted to experience the Lord of the Rings universe, minus the fluff, then Shadow of War is a great way to dive in head-first.
For anyone who is a huge Lord of the Rings and Tolkien fan, Middle-Earth: Shadow of War might take some getting used to. It’s best to think of this whole experience as an alternate universe of Middle-earth because there’s some stuff you’re going to have to accept to enjoy the game. For one, there is no Frodo and Fellowship of the Ring. Bilbo dropped the ball or something, and instead the party in charge of defeating Sauron is the fallen Gondorian Ranger Talion and the wraith of the legendary Elvish blacksmith Celebrimbor.
One Ring to Rule Them All
In this universe, Sauron still wields the One Ring, but at the beginning of Shadow of War, Celebrimbor has forged another ring to rival the One Ring. So now there are two One Rings. This means twice the zany hijinks as Talion and Celebrimbor continue their mission to kill Sauron and cleanse his blight from Mordor.
Thematically, Shadow of War is focused on good versus evil, and how if a line is crossed that the forces of good just end up looking like a caricature of the forces of evil. This is most obvious in the game’s most touted feature: the new Nemesis system. Talion and Celebrimbor need to build an army to take down Sauron’s armies. The most efficient way to do that is to magically enslave the Orcs in Sauron’s army. Of course, if you look at it, that’s just as bad as how Sauron has used the poor creatures, but we’re the good guys, so it’s okay.
The original game in the series, Shadow of Mordor, had two relatively sameish areas to explore and recruit in, but Shadow of War expands that to five fortresses that you can staff with your orcish army. Not only is each fort located in a different locale, one snowy, another volcanic, but the orc settlements change depending on what tribe they belong to. The Machinist Tribe builds big, rusty, metal outposts, while the Feral Tribe makes theirs out of animal bones and hides.
What tribe an orc belongs to also determines some of his behavior and appearance. The Machine Tribe will use more mechanical weapons, like crossbows, and often will have lost limbs replaced by metal monstrosities. The Mystic Tribe, on the other hand, will usually use cursed weapons and speak about dark magics when confronted.
One Ring to Find Them
The Nemesis System in Shadow of War adds a lot more character to your foes then they had in Shadow of Mordor. Whereas there were only a double handful of archetypes at most in that game, you can go tens of hours in Shadow of War and still meet orcs that will blow your mind. There’s plenty of “generic” orcs that sort of blend together, but then every once in awhile you’ll meet one that’s a poet (and a terrible one at that), or a gambler who stakes the odds on everything he does.
With the way the Nemesis System works, you can easily have a rivalry with an orc for quite awhile, especially at higher difficulties. If an orc kills you, he’ll get stronger, and if he becomes your Nemesis, you can expect to get ambushed and taunted when you least expect it. An orc’s appearance and demeanor reflect the encounters you’ve had with them as well. If you killed an orc before, they may return with scars or missing limbs and a chip on their shoulders. If they killed you and gained more status in the orc hierarchy, they might have better armor or a cockier attitude.
It’s a good thing the orcs keep the good times going because the main campaign is only middling. Talion and Celebrimbor are just not really likable characters, and their constant bickering gets old quick. I would say the story is an improvement over the first game’s plot, but it won’t have you on the edge of your seat.
One Ring to Bring Them All and in the Darkness Bind Them
There’s also some issues with pacing in Shadow of War. Everything flows pretty smoothly until the end of Act III. Act IV starts and has an entirely different feel than anything up to that point. Instead of being driven by story-based missions, you start having to defend your fortresses from Sauron’s attacks. If you had fun recruiting and building up your orcs throughout the game, Act IV isn’t too annoying. If you went straight through the story without any sidequests though, this might be a frustrating time for you because it will feel grindy.
There are loot boxes in the game, but they feel somewhat pointless. You can pay real cash for Gold premium currency which you can then use to buy War Chests with Legendary Orcs or Weapons in them. However, the game gives you so many of both during the course of it that buying them is wholly unnecessary. They could be a good quick boost if you just need some orcs your level to fill some gaps in your defenses, but it really doesn’t take long to find a Legendary Orc and level them up.
Furthermore, Loot Boxes only give you orcs and weapons that are your level or lower, so they’re obsolete quickly after opening them unless you’re continuing to level them. It feels very tacked on, and I think this is the first time that might be a good thing in a game.
In all, Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is a vast improvement over the first game. It’s taken every facet and gone bigger and better. The main story could use some tightening, and Act IV should have had some sort of narrative to give defending your fortresses some overarching meaning. The loot boxes managed not to be predatory, and can easily be avoided unless you just want some guaranteed boosts. If you were a fan of Shadow of Mordor, you’ll love Shadow of War, and if you’re new to the series, I don’t feel like this game is a terrible place to start.