Middle-Earth: Shadow of War

It is a well-known fact in the video game industry that movies made after video games are often impossible to watch. A lot of legendary game franchises became so popular that it was only a matter of time before they would be shown in cinemas–and turned out to be complete disappointments. If you google the ratings of such movies as “Mortal Kombat,” “Resident Evil,” “Doom,” “BloodRayne,” “Hitman: Agent 47,” “Assassin’s Creed,” and a whole lot of other titles, you will be amazed by how bad those movies can be.

The contrary is true as well: games made after a famous movie, novel, or another source are equally bad. Usually, such games follow up anticipated movies, and their primary (and perhaps only) goal is to earn additional money while the hype train is still there. “Transformers,” “Harry Potter” series of games (oh boy, how bad they were), “The Evil Dead,” “The Matrix,” and many other video game titles could not live up to the quality of the source films. There are only rare exceptions when a game is as good–or even better–than the movie it is based upon. For example, I liked the “Aliens Vs. Predators 2” game much more than I liked the movie (to be honest, I hated it, but the game is a masterpiece). I liked “Star Wars: Battlefront” although I am not a fan of Star Wars in general. And I especially liked the “shadowy” dilogy about Middle-Earth: “Shadows of Mordor,” and the most recent “Shadows of War.” Of the latter, I would like to speak about in more detail.

However, before I proceed to the actual review of “Middle-Earth: Shadows of War,” I feel I need to make a short footnote here. I abstained from buying “Shadows of War” for about a year from the time of its release. The reason I did this was simple: loot-boxes and microtransactions. I am usually okay with both, until they obstruct the gameplay. For example, in my favorite “Deus Ex: Mankind Divided,” you could purchase upgrades for your character for real money. Some people raged about it in their reviews, but the truth is that you can enjoy Deus Ex in its entirety without donating after purchase. Gameplay and game mechanics are constructed in such a way that a player can experience everything the game has to offer, whereas paid upgrades remain a completely voluntary option.

Now, for about a year, “Shadows of War” remained a game almost pushing its players to pay for loot-boxes. The latter contained characters and upgrades, without which completing the game was an ordeal. The final part of the game was designed in such a way that a player either had to do a tremendous amount of grinding to earn in-game currency, or could spare themselves a lot of time and nerves, and buy those pesky loot-boxes for real money. As well as many other players around the world, I cannot understand why I would need to continue paying after purchasing a game–so I decided to not buy it.

About a week ago, I saw news about the patch to “Shadows of War” eliminating microtransactions and paid loot-boxes—rebalancing the game dramatically. I have always been a big fan of J.R.R. Tolkien. I read all the books about Middle-Earth, watched all the movies (even those filmed long before Peter Jackson), and played all the video games based on it. So, I could not help but finally buy “Middle-Earth: Shadows of War.”

And oh boy, what a game it is .

In this review, I will avoid mentioning anything related to the story. Those who played the first game of the series know that “Shadows” is a prequel to the events described in the original novel. The game has little connection to any of the characters you got used to in the movies, and its lore is in fact closer to “The Silmarillion” than to “The Lord of the Rings.” You can find the mentinings of Morgoth–the first Dark Lord, to whom Sauron was merely a servant; of the Second Age, when Sauron was first defeated; of heroes and events that occurred in Middle-Earth long before Bilbo found the Ring. Still, many of the characters and events in “Shadows of War” (except Celebrimbor, the elven wraith you share a body with) are fictional.

So, I will focus on the gameplay. And I could describe it in one word: fantastic. Flexible, versatile, engaging, and adapting to your pace as a player. I could not stop playing it: in about a week after I bought “Shadows of War,” my Steam statistics showed over 60 hours spent in the game. Capturing fortresses, fighting war chiefs, infiltrating strongholds, recruiting orc captains, flying fire-breathing drakes, collecting legendary gear sets–this is just a tiny bit of what you will need to do. But let me be consistent.

“Shadows of War” revolves around sieges. Mordor now comprises five regions: Cirith Ungol, Nurnen, Seregost, Gorgoroth, and one of the Gondorian cities–naming it would be a spoiler, I guess. Four of them are guarded by a stronghold governed by up to six warchiefs, and an overlord. Your goal is basically to conquer all the fortresses, using the whole lot of tools developers grant you with (I’ll cover some of them later). The siege itself is represented by well-known “capture-and-hold” mechanics: your forces must break through the walls and gain control over several strategic points heavily defended by enemy captains and war chiefs. To do this, you must overcome numerous obstacles: poisoned traps and fire mines; enemy catapults wiping out your grunt orcs; beasts and archers defending the city within the walls; boiling oil or poison flowing on the heads of your troops as they try to climb the walls; and so on. As soon as you capture all the points, you will need to confront the overlord himself–and I must say, it can be a challenging task even for an experienced player.

Just as Tolkien wrote in his books, orcs are now divided into tribes, constantly bickering and quarreling with each other. Each tribe grants unique traits and bonuses to its representatives, and the territory under its control will gain a respective distinctive look. Also, each tribe has a corresponding set of legendary armor–the best quality gear you can find in Mordor. It possesses special traits which can complement your playing style and boost Talion’s skills and talents. In order to get this gear, you will have to confront and eliminate the “legendary” orcs–extremely strong captains and war chiefs, which can beat Talion in a couple of punches. So, as always, the best way to defeat them is to learn their weaknesses and exploit them.

And the game gives you a huge… no–ENORMOUS–range of means to do that. Recruiting orcs and making them fight each other was fun, but now there is so much more you can do. Ambushing, fighting in arenas, training, spying and switching sides, leading assaults on fortresses or defending them as war chiefs–your orcs can do all this. If you are about to receive a fatal blow, one of your captains may rescue you, covering you with his body (if he survives, be prepared that he will expect you to reward him). You can be ambushed by your rivals when you least expect it. Orcs can form “blood brother” bonds. Captains you recruited and trusted to defend a fortress may betray you, open the gates to enemy forces, disable your allies, or flee the battlefield. You can punish traitors (or anyone) by shaming them–decreasing their level and possibly making them deranged. You will find yourself abandoning the storyline, because the stories “Shadows of War” generates between you and the orcs are sometimes much more fun.

All this is controlled by the enhanced Nemesis system, first introduced in the previous “Shadow of Mordor” game. I honestly do believe Nemesis is the new word in the video game industry. Each of the hundreds of randomly generated orcs possesses some kind of personality, remembers every fight between you and him, and behaves accordingly. Their characters may not be deep, but detailed enough for you to remember them. This makes each fight more personal than just beating random grunts to a pulp for experience and in-game money. And the fact that you can “write” these stories yourself is amazing.

For example, in the very beginning of the game, I recruited a troll captain, Az-Laar. As he progressed through the ranks, I noticed him developing a sense of humor, and a friendly attitude towards Talion. He never betrayed me. When he got captured by an enemy war chief, I did my best to rescue him (by that time, he was not just a nice chap, but also a high-level legendary war chief). In his turn, he saved me from mortal blows countless times, covering me with his mountain-like troll bulk, ripping off limbs of my enemies. I liked how he grabbed his victims, happily growling “Gotcha!” as he tossed them around like toys. I gave him a gang of personal bodyguards to keep him safe from ambushes, but it did not help. Being mortally susceptible to all kinds of venom, Az-Laar was poisoned in one of the fiercest defenses I had in this game. I avenged his death as cruelly as I could, turning the war chief who poisoned him into a pathetic deranged weakling. Rest in peace, Az-Laar the Limb-Ripper—you were a mighty warrior indeed.

This is not a story pre-written by the game’s creators. This is a story you as a player and any orc captain can develop as you progress through the game. The Nemesis system is capable of creating them on the fly, and I think this is fantastic.

The skill tree has become much more diverse. All of your talents fall into several categories: Combat, Predator, Ranged, Wraith, Beasts, and Story. Each skill in each of these categories has two or three alternatives. Overall, it gives Talion incredible flexibility, allowing you to create any playstyle you wish. Like to stealthily infiltrate fortresses during the night and take out enemy captains one by one? Here you go. Or maybe you like breaking through walls while mounting the mighty graug? How about roasting everyone with flames while flying a drake? Mind-controlling archers and ordering them to fire at will? Terrorize your enemies so they flee in horror? You can play “Shadow of War” in whatever way you like.

I also liked the online part of the game. Traditional vendetta missions, when you must avenge another player killed by an orc captain, are now complemented with sieges. In this mode, you must attack a fortress in another player’s world. You do not fight players, though–just their orc war chiefs and captains. Still, it is fun, as every user builds his or her own defenses, and the orcs possess different traits. Also, it is a nice way to find and capture (or kill) high-level, legendary orcs, which is awesome.

There are several aspects of the game that I disliked, though. The first and foremost one is the camera. It is awful. If you are in the middle of combat with multiple grunts and captains surrounding you, and plan to use your deadly execution to hit precisely–forget about it. Better use an area-of-effect ability, because you will never make the camera aim at the enemy you want to hit. Not in a large battle, at least. If you run past a wall you do not plan climbing on, be sure Talion will grab it and start climbing. I am using Steam Gamepad, but I never noticed such problems in other games.

The other aspect I would like to rant about is the graphics. My computer runs this game at 60 FPS on ultra settings. Nevertheless, the graphics look blurry. Sometimes textures look like they have not loaded completely. Anti-aliasing does not completely eliminate pixel “ladders”–this can be easily seen when you fly towards your fort and look at it from the distance. This, as well as some bugs (I found myself stuck in textures several times) can somewhat spoil your impression.

Oh, and just a couple of words about stealth. I do realize that creating an open-world game inhabited by thousands of orcs required compromising. Sometimes an orc will ignore you even if you are obviously “hiding” within his cone of vision. Sometimes it takes orcs too long to react when you “suddenly” jump out of an ambush and start taking them out “stealthily.” Sometimes orcs will ignore the dead bodies of their comrades simply because they did not see the moment of killing itself. But honestly, this can be annoying. What is the fun in being all stealthy and cunning, when sometimes it is easier and faster to just run in plain sight, grab, or kill whatever you need and escape?

Overall, “Middle-Earth: Shadow of War” is a game that can catch your attention for a long time. The gameplay is extremely immersive and versatile, and the Nemesis system responsible for player-environment relationships works amazingly. After more than 60 hours of playing the game, I have still got things left to do in Middle-Earth, and gameplay mechanics to explore. I strongly recommend this game to everyone, really.

Now, where is that bloody captain who shot my drake?

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