Before I tell you about Middle-earth: Shadow of War, let's start with some background information.
Lord of the Rings is my favourite movie series ever. The first one came out when I was 10 years old, so just at the age when I was moving away from "kids' movies" and looking for something more mature. Honestly, it changed my life. It inspired me to be braver and more adventurous. During the release of the trilogy, I started secondary school, which was really intimidating coming from a small primary school. But then I could go home and watch the DVDs on loop, see people facing off against much bigger dangers which put things in perspective for me. 20 years later and I think they totally hold up.
However, this isn't a movie review. We're talking about Middle-earth: Shadow of War, a video game inspired by J. R. R. Tolkien's books. It just gave me an opportunity to shoehorn in some LOTR love. It's a sequel to Shadow of Mordor which came out a couple of years earlier.
Games Of The Rings
Like a lot of movie franchises, video games based on Lord of the Rings have been a mixed bag. I loved the direct adaptations that were released alongside the films at the time because it was the closest I could get to being my favourite characters. Looking back they were fairly shallow hack 'n' slash games. Battle for Middle-earth was a real-time strategy game that I remember being decent, but honestly, if you stuck the Lord of the Rings soundtrack into any genre of game I would have bought it. Shadow of War is no exception.
The two "Shadow Of…" games aren't based directly on the films, but rather the Tolkienverse more generally. However they were clearly influenced by elements of the Peter Jackson films, and he did offer some advice during production. You play as a new character called Talion, a ranger who was part of a squad keeping an eye on Mordor in the years' after Sauron's original defeat by Isildur and the last alliance.
Me and My Shadow
To briefly sum up the first game, Shadow of Mordor, Talion is kind of killed by Sauron's minions but ends up as an immortal half-ghost. He has to share his body with the spirit of Celebrimbor, the elf who created the One Ring. As Talion you roam around Mordor, using his new powers to kill orcs and other bad folk to try and stop Sauron from gathering his former strength.
When I first heard that this was the concept I was not on board at all. To me, even though LOTR is a fantasy, it's mostly about fairly normal people scrapping away to victory. With a little magical help here and there. Playing as a super-powered spirit warrior wasn't what I was looking for in a Lord of the Rings game.
2 Lords 2 Rings
It did get good reviews so eventually, I picked up a copy of the game and thought it was OK. Still a lot of hacking and slashing but in the Assassin's Creed mould - open world, tower checkpoints to climb up, lots of collectables and overall a bit repetitive. After defeating some of Mordor's senior managers, the first game ends with Talion and Celebrimbor declaring their intent to make their own ring of power. It must have sold well, as we're here talking about the sequel, Shadow of War.
They Delved Too Greedily And Too Deep
On release in 2017, this game was pretty controversial. It was full of micro-transactions, around the time of big debates about the ethics and legality of in-game purchases. All this negative press put me off buying it initially, however, after a few months, they actually got rid of all microtransactions. Their main purpose was to give players access to better equipment, but you can now gain access to everything but just grinding (and grinding and grinding…). I'm impressed that they took such a drastic step, as I'm sure they could have continued making a lot of money from microtransactions.
Shadow of More
The core of the gameplay is the same, but I'll discuss some of the concepts with the assumption that you haven't played the first one. A feature in this series that's unique as far as I'm aware, is the Nemesis system. This means that orcs will remember you if you fight them and they survive. As mentioned earlier you are immortal, in the sense that if you die the game world progresses before you respawn. Enemy orcs can level up or be killed by other orcs in turf wars.
This is a cool twist, giving you the incentive to pick your battles because enemies will only get tougher if you lose! It adds a lot of personality to the orcs because if you go looking for a rematch, they'll directly reference your previous fight.
Orcs As Far As the Eye Can See
It feels like there is an infinite number of orc captains that can become a nemesis. When the game starts there are a certain number of them roaming around the map, as well as generic orc footsoldiers. However, if a grunt kills you, he'll get promoted to captain, and gain a title like "Azor the Unwashed" or "Boggle the Dragonslayer". There's amazing variety among the orc captains, with different weapons, voices, and general appearance. Some of them are particularly gross, like one I saw with maggots all over his face. You get skinny goblin-types, creepy shaman-types and giant troll-types. All seemingly with different names and dialogue.
Even in this age of big-budget video games, I was impressed by this. You expect games to have a lot of different speaking characters to interact with, but in open-world games like this, there are always plenty of more bland characters who might repeat the same few lines. The idea that any background can become a more major character is brilliant.
On Tour In Mordor
To contradict Sean Bean's famous line as Boromir, it turns out one can simply walk into Mordor. You can fast travel between a few separate locations that you might recognise from the movies like Cirith Ungol and Gorgoroth. Mordor is typically portrayed as a barren wasteland with colour provided by frequent volcanic eruptions. However, the game designers have given the environment some variety including snowy and tropical backdrops. It's implied that Mordor's recovered a bit while Sauron's been getting some beauty sleep.
Minas Morgul is also included, but at this point in Middle-earth history, it's still Minas Ithil, a city of Gondor that's under siege by the Mordor scum. This is where the game starts, and it has a great cinematic feel to it, with dozens of men and orcs warring in the streets. It's a drastic change from the first game. It is mostly just you sprinting around rocky plains and occasionally bumping into fairly small bands of orcs.
It's a Regional Dialect
As mentioned these games aren't based directly on the films. There are some interesting quirks, presumably to get around copyright. Remember the wolf-bears that the orcs ride in Two Towers, wargs right? Nope, here they're "caragors". Sometimes you're in a cave, and a large angry beast comes after you. you might think "they have a cave troll". But you'd be wrong, Shadow of War have a "graug".
These differences from the movies aren't really complaints, but as a superfan, I just can't resist commenting. After a few hours, I managed to separate my gaming experience from the source material, and have mostly had a good time. Taken purely as a fantasy action game, it works well. Talion is essentially a superhero, with plenty of interesting abilities to keep the gameplay varied. You can brainwash orcs into fighting by your side, jump from the tallest towers without taking damage and teleport behind enemies to stab them in the back.
Are You Frightened? Not Nearly Frightened Enough
Word has spread in Mordor that Talion is an invincible ghost man. This sets up a world where most of the orcs are pretty scared of you. Some will run away unless they're in a big group. I'm a fan of this premise in video games because it makes sense that enemies would be hesitant of taking on someone who they've just witnessed chopping down twenty of their mates. This doesn't mean the game is easy, because you can be overwhelmed as more and more orcs join the fray, and the captains are particularly tough. But it's cathartic to have moments where you really feel invincible.
Build Me An Army Unworthy of Mordor
Brainwashing orcs becomes a big part of the story. In order to challenge Sauron, you'll have to recruit your own army to bring down Mordor's finest. You do this by duelling orc captains until their health is almost depleted. Then you're given the option to recruit them, or fight to the death. In each map area, you need to recruit enough orcs to take on that region's overlord.
The orc recruitment and management system in Shadow of War is pretty complex. I found that you can mostly muddle by recruiting the first few captains you subdue, with minimal time on menu screens. However, the option is there, if you want to take more time levelling up your captains and ensuring you have a balance of different orc types.
Taking on the overlords triggers some impressive larger-scale battles that I wasn't expecting. Your captains and an army of lesser orcs gather outside an enemy stronghold, Talion gives a generic hammy inspirational speech, and you all charge. You can also spend in-game currency to boost your invasion attempt with upgrades like trolls and catapults to batter the enemy walls. Then the gameplay starts, which is more hacking and slashing whilst you capture sectors of the enemy base, but it has a really epic feel to it.
The Way Is Shut
I was enjoying the gameplay cycle of exploring different parts of Mordor, cutting down bad guys, upgrading my gear and defeating the big bosses. However, I've reached a point in the game where the only way to progress is to challenge orc captains who are at least 10 levels higher than my Talion. Up until now, I've been able to match enemies within 3-4 levels, but 10 is hopeless.
The only way to close the gap would be to spend a long time grinding against lesser enemies. It's a shame to reach such a roadblock because I wanted to see where the story goes. I had been able to pick up and play in short bursts, usually able to complete a couple of objectives each time. However, now I'm hesitant because I'd need to dedicate a fair few hours of repetitive gameplay before seeing anything new.
I Bid You All A Very Fond Farewell
That means this is an incomplete review. You'll need to be my brave hobbit who goes deeper into the fires of Mordor to see this quest through.
Overall Shadow of War has been a fun experience, and it's great to be playing a game with any connection to Lord of the Rings. Also with regards to the micro-transactions, it's a positive example of a game company listening to the players. Strongly recommend if you are a Lord of the Rings fan. Shadow of War is a good action game overall. Just be prepared to grind to make it all the way through. Maybe listen to a podcast or play the movie soundtracks in the background to help the time pass.