Middle-earth: Shadow of War has been out for almost a couple of weeks now and I’ve finished it. Completely. There’s been a lot of talk about microtransactions, grinding and a general negativity to the mechanics added outside of the gameplay but do these really damage the overall game?
Following on from the previous title things get off to a quick start as Talion and Celebrimbor forge a new ring of power to take on Sauron. I’m not a big enough fan of the lore to know exactly what takes the Mickey with the source material but Shelob, the giant spider, takes the form of an attractive human lady during her missions and even just forging a new ring seems to be taking liberties but if you’re coming to Shadow of War hoping for an extension of the universe or even that good a story then you’ll be disappointed.
The game is set up as an open world game. It’s not a fully open game in that there are multiple areas that you simply fast travel to from a map but within those areas you’ll see the usual open world fare. Multiple missions will be available for you to tackle, there are a few towers to climb in each area which act as fast travel points and allow you to find and point out collectibles on the map and orc captains populate the area for you to hunt down, or perhaps they’ll come for you.
The missions themselves are rather simple and repetitive, usually involving following an AI with poor path finding before killing a certain number of lesser orcs or a captain. Each mission generally has an optional sub-objective which are fun to go for and make you think a little harder than just jump in the middle of a group and start hacking away and gives you a little reward for doing so. Ultimately though you will complete the main missions as there aren’t actually that many and this is an open world game, checking things off is what you do.
One line of quests is more of a tutorial of sorts and introduces the powers required to play what is actually the main focus of the game, attacking and defending fortresses. This involves dominating orcs over to your side, basically brainwashing them which can be done once you’ve weakened them enough in battle. Each orc has their own strengths and weaknesses which play in the battles with you and the battles that you send them into as your soldier. Some will have elemental weapons, some will be weak to certain elements, others will fear beasts or flee when they see someone else die or become enraged at the sight of cowardice.
It’s the orcs that are the stars really. There’s a large variety of names, classes and tribes which create unique orcs throughout the incredibly long playthrough. Each talks too so the amount of dialogue that’s been recorded is pretty impressive. You will hear the same voice actor, or even line of dialogue a few times which is a shame but understandable. I do find that they tend to err on the zany side more often than not which makes them into comical characters rather than this fearsome threat to the world, but you can’t knock the work that’s been done to flesh out the Nemesis System.
As with the original orcs have their own personalities and react to their interactions with you. If they defeat you they’ll mention it, if they run away they’ll make excuses, if you kill them they may come back and look worse off for it. This unscripted personalisation is a key element of what made the last game so endearing and it returns stronger than before. If a no name orc takes you down then they get promoted to captain, from a generic orc to a named character with traits and skills.
You can dominate someone’s bodyguard and get them to betray their master as you go in for the kill making things easier or on a larger scale you can infiltrate spies into the fortress defences as war chiefs so that when the time comes they won’t help defend but sabotage things in your favour. You can also send them to simply kill other orcs which will level them up if they’re successful, or have them fight in the pits. There’s a lot of different options which makes this element of the game almost management like.
Pairing off your orcs strengths and weaknesses against the enemies strengths and weaknesses is a lot of fun and although I wouldn’t say it endears you to certain orcs you’ll certainly curse ones who are terrified of common abilities making them useless. In fact I couldn’t really name any orcs, I know there was one early on that kept coming back to life after I killed him but I’ve heard a few people mention that, even if they had a different name, which makes it seem less special. The one ‘moment’ I had was when I joined an orc on a mission to recruit an enemy orc and just as I was about to go for the final attack, four, or maybe even five, of my orcs decided to turn up and betray me at the same time. It wasn’t the only time I got betrayed in the game but that mass exodus felt like they’d been conspiring behind the scenes which was both devastating and great. They didn’t survive the fight in case you were wondering and no one tried anything like that again which I like to think meant I sent a message not to mess.
Fights are much the same as before, with Arkham/Batman style combat with simple square button combos and triangle to counter incoming attacks and as you gain new powers combinations of buttons unleash your stronger abilities which are powered by a meter that builds as you land hits. Utilising all of your skills, including stealth and a bow is key, thanks to the orcs special traits. Sometimes getting some space is the best tactic as you can be swarmed by enemies and the camera can have trouble giving you all the information you need. Also the auto targetting can struggle to attack the right enemy with so much on screen which has cost me many times, less deadly but just as irritating is the Assassin’s Creed style auto movement when climbing which, similar to that series, has you climbing things you don’t want to and jumping off to the side when you want to run straight forward and so on. When it works it’s great, when it doesn’t you really feel it.
So what do you do with these systems? Just what I’ve described really. It’s a weird one. Chapter one doesn’t reveal all of your powers and is over pretty quick with some basic missions but plenty of orcs to fight. Chapter two in comparison lasts forever. Here you’ll gain all of your powers and there are some story missions to complete, and you will complete all the side-threads in chapter two, but the main goal is to take over the fortress in each area. If you play it safe and take over most of the orcs and infiltrate the base then it’ll make your life easier but will take longer. Chapter two is certainly the largest portion of the game.
Chapter three is merely a few linear story missions and it feels like the game is coming to an end. Then chapter four starts and you just have to defend ten stages of attacks to your bases. There are no other missions or distractions really, you just want your best orcs on you defences and hopefully you can drive away your attackers. If you fail they take over the fortress and you need to take it back, do so and the chapter continues. Though not as long as chapter two for the lack of variety it goes on for far too long.
At the end of chapter four I’d played for about 55 hours. There isn’t really enough content to warrant that length unfortunately. They’ve created the Nemesis System and it seems like they’ve struggled to create a game around it and as such you end up with large portions of only interacting with that system with smaller, repetitive and not so interesting missions dotted around. Luckily the Nemesis System is pretty cool so can carry it quite a way but even then by the end I’d repeated the same actions so many times that I was grateful when it was over.
You do get an ending cutscene after chapter four so although it feels like a bonus mode it is actually part of the story, though what your actions in chapter four have to do with what follows I have no idea. It feels like the game was stretched, almost as if there was a reason they wanted you to interact with this mode a lot…
On a completely unrelated note, you may or may not know that there are microtransations in this game. There is currency you can earn in game (silver) and currency you can buy with real money (gold), although you can earn some through daily challenges. The in game currency is used for many things like upgrading you fortresses or armour but you can also use it, as well as the paid for currency, to buy loot boxes. There are multiple tiers, the best can only be purchased with gold obviously, but depending on which one you buy can net you new weapons or armour, orcs, or experience boosts and training orders for your orcs. You collect a lot of gear as you play the game and it has a level as well as a rating (common, epic, rare or legendary) and the same goes for the orcs.
Now, I don’t want microtransactions in my single player games. Hell, I don’t want them in any games but there’s even less reason for solo experiences. So the question is has this had an effect on the game. I completed the entire thing without using a single loot box, paid for with in game currency or otherwise. In fact I had more silver than I needed by the end, easily. That doesn’t mean I don’t think the gameplay wasn’t changed during development to try and manipulate people into dipping into their pockets. Like I said the parts of the game that take the most time are the parts which involve orcs which you can buy with money. I’m not sure it would have really helped me much to do so, the difficulty definitely went up in the final chapter but every time an orc dies another one, probably stronger, takes its place anyway.
Now, there is an online mode which might be where they hope to make their money. There is a mission on the map where you can avenge someone’s death by ‘entering their world’ and defeating the orc that killed them. This doesn’t actually have you interacting with another player, you simply leave your world to fight an orc. Similarly you can attack other people’s fortresses. Again this isn’t actually PvP, you just attack another player’s set up and others can attack yours. You gain loot and chests for doing well and if you kill their orcs it doesn’t actually kill them in their game which is nice. If you haven’t had your fill of attacking fortresses by the end of the game then this gives you an infinite amount of bases to attack, but it’s not for me.
So as a whole package what do I think? I have mixed feelings. I enjoy open world games and this, during the first couple of chapters at least, scratched that itch. The Nemesis System is still great and it’s surprising it hasn’t leaked into other games in all genres. The basic gameplay is okay, the Batman combat is getting a bit stale now and there are issues with the controls that frustrate but in general it’s fine. It’s in the mission structure where things fall down, there are too few actual missions with little variety and then you’re made to repeat the same tasks over and over again with the fortresses that manage to push your initial enjoyment of it to the limit.
Still, when my Middle-earth: Shadow of War save file said I’d spent 55 hours playing it I was surprised. Each play session lasted longer than I’d intended and apart from towards the end of chapter two at no point was I bored. I can’t recommend it unequivocally but there are plenty of people who will enjoy this and you can do so knowing that the microtransactions aren’t necessary to beat the game. Whether your moral code will let you is something only you can decide but it’s an excellent mechanic wrapped in an okay game.
+ The fortress attack/defence is fun, at least for a while
+ Technically runs really well
- The better parts are stretched to breaking point
- Microtransactions, though they aren't required