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Middle-Earth: Shadow of War - title

In a Nutshell

WHAT I LIKE

  • Castle sieges are an interesting variation of base-capture
  • Having to defend bases from counter attack
  • Orc society and culture feels robust
  • Some orcs get death saves
  • More organic interactions

WHAT I DON'T LIKE

  • Campaign is a bloated grind due to micro-transaction economy
  • Siege defense is entirely back-loaded to the end of the game
  • "Arkham" combat system is starting to feel really stale
  • Imprecise controls
  • Universally terrible boss fights
  • Plot is unfocused and uninteresting
  • Shelob is a human sorceress?

Overall Impression : C-
Even discounting its micro-transaction-fueled grindiness,
it doesn't live up to Shadow of Mordor

Middle-Earth: Shadow of War - cover

Developer:
Monolith

Publisher:
Warner Bros. Interactive

Platforms:
PC (via Steam), Android,
PlayStation 4 (via retail disc or PSN digital download) <,
XBox One (via retail disc or XBox Live digital download).
(< indicates platform I played for review)

MSRP: $60 USD

Original release date:
9 October 2017

Genre:
Sandbox action adventure

ESRB Rating: M (for Mature 17+) for:
Blood and gore, Intense violence

Player(s):
single player

Official site:
www.shadowofwar.com/

Dang. I was really hoping to have this out before the end of the year...

Shadow of Mordor was easily one of my favorite games of 2015, and one of my best reviewed games of that year, and I even cited it as an example of successful open world game mechanics. I've praised the game for its tightly-focused design, relatively limited scale, and the fact that it didn't waste the player's time with an excess of meaningless collectible hunts.

"The developers showed plenty of restraint in many areas of design so that they could focus on the innovative new feature that everything in the game revolves around. The design is tight and streamlined. They didn't waste the player's time with an excessively large, complicated map, or a multitude of irrelevant mini-games and side quests."
    - from my Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor review

Yes, the original game did have some collectible hunts. It did have some filler content. It did have bullshit, game-y missions with arbitrary win/loss conditions. But those issues weren't pervasive enough to bring down the game as a whole, and the game generally flowed very smoothly. In their quest to mindlessly monetize the sequel, Shadow of War, Warner Brothers and Monolith have doubled down on both the best elements and the worst elements of Shadow of Mordor, and the result is beautiful when it works, and ugly when it doesn't.

Middle Earth: Shadow of War - defending fortress
You now recruit orc captains to defend fortresses from Sauron's army.

The biggest problem is that the game now feels like a grind. In order to get you to pay for in-game, randomized micro-transactions called "War Chests", the campaign has been needlessly padded-out. Instead of having the option to hunt down uruk captains for the utilitarian purposes of gaining intel or gathering an army of mind-controlled slaves to do your bidding, you now must recruit orc captains into your own army in order to siege and then defend castles and fortresses from Sauron's counter-invasion. In principle, this sounds like a brilliant idea! I've often criticized open world and sandbox games for not having actual threats or consequences that pressure the player into acting. In fact, requiring that the player defend and hold captured strongholds from enemy counter-attacks is exactly the sort of thing that I've proposed as a compelling way to keep the game world feeling alive, and to keep the villain actually feeling threatening and antagonistic.

The problem is that (aside from one scripted castle defense) all the castle defending is back-loaded into the final act of the game. At this point, the plot is basically over, and the only thing left for you to do is grind up your orcs to a level where they can defend the castle. Otherwise, they all die, and you have to go through the tedious process of re-capturing the bloody place.

You are strongly incentivized to gamble away real-life money on the chance of winning a high-level orc defender.

In the meantime, the earlier acts feel completely stagnant, with no back-and-forth between Talion's army and Sauron's. You just capture an enemy fort, install the commander and warchiefs, then forget about it until the very end of the game. At the point when you finally need them to start defending, all your orc captains are ridiculously low-level because they're from the beginning of the game, and they have to be leveled-up to be competitive. Or you can spend the entire campaign grinding up your orcs so that you don't have to do it all at once. Of course, then the entire campaign is a grind, instead of just the final act.

Purchasing micro-transactions allows you to skip large chunks of this grind, as you can pay to immediately gamble on spawning a powerful uruk to defend your holdings and allow you to progress with the campaign, rather than having to go out into the game world and actually play the game in order to earn such captains. The whole second half of the campaign seems designed to feel like a waste of time in order to compel players into spending money on time-savers.

Middle Earth: Shadow of War - legendary orcs tutorial
Orcs are now loot that come in different rarities that you have to grind (or pay) to unlock.

All this comes at the cost of a better campaign. Monolith couldn't be bothered to fill the world with anything engaging or worthwhile to do (especially in this final act). There's side quests, but none have interesting side stories going on in parallel that could act as interesting diversions, because apparently, Monolith is more interested in replicating the tedium of Assassin's Creed rather than the more innovative and thought-provoking, context-rich content of The Witcher III and its exceptional expansions. I have a job, a kid to help take care of, and board games that I'd like to play. I don't have time to grind up procedurally-generated orcs in order to retake and hold lost castles. Paying for micro-transactions is an urge that I resist because I don't want to give any more money to multi-billion dollar corporations, but feeling that nagging desire to just pay Warner Brothers to let me just "get on with it already" only served to drag down the entire game experience. In fact, I didn't spend any money for Shadow of War (at least, none that Warner Bros. will see) because I was wary of the micro-transaction economy to begin with and picked a used copy up off eBay from somebody who played the game on release day and gave up on it.

... But most of the game is actually pretty good

The good news, however, is that this really only becomes a problem in the late-game. In fact, you can get to the first of the game's two endings before things get too bad. It's only the second, "real" ending that is locked behind the grind/pay wall. Everything up to that point is actually pretty good, though I feel like it doesn't quite hit that same mark as the first game.

Almost all of the game's systems have been adjusted or expanded. Just like Talion has the ability to perform a quick-time event to avoid death, many orcs now have an inverse of that mechanic. You have to succeed at a quick-time event in order to make the killing blow. If you fail, the orc parries your blow, throws you aside, and the battle continues with the orc now having a second wind.

Middle Earth: Shadow of War - orc death save
Failing a quick-time event allows certain orcs to save themselves from your killing blow.

Orcs will also occasionally ambush you out of nowhere, which is something that I don't remember happening in the first game, but maybe it did. In any case, it helps to keep the player on your toes and to maintain a persistent sense of threat and agency from the enemies. The fact that these ambushes literally appear out of nowhere is rather annoying, and it's unfortunate that Monolith didn't give Talion any major weaknesses that the orcs could eventually learn and exploit.

There's also a lot more opportunities for organic interactions in the environments now. For example, you can poison grog barrels during free play now, instead of having to go into a stupid mission to do it. It's not particularly effective, but you can do it.

Unfortunately, these organic interactions do not extend to story missions. Just like in Mordor, the story missions are completely independent from the free play activities and are not influenced by them. If a mission takes place in or near an orc outpost, you can't clear that outpost in preparation for the mission to try to make it easier. The whole area resets with pre-defined numbers of orcs in pre-defined locations. It creates a terrible disconnect between the story and play, and completely negates the consequences of dying.

Middle Earth: Shadow of War - Necromancer Zog
Boss fights suck.

Boss fights are also tedious and annoying. The bosses are damage sponges who spam unfair attacks that can cancel your own inputs. Each boss fight is also a struggle against the camera. Without a proper target lock-on feature, it's difficult to keep track of the bosses, since almost all of them teleport around the arena or have attacks that tractor Talion to them from a distance. It's also difficult to reliably hit them or use the move that you intended to use because most bosses also come with trash mobs (the fortress overlords' mobs also infinitely respawn) that only serve to get in the way. Monolith also implemented one of the most annoying of video game pet peeves by making bosses immune to any status effects that you can deal to them, and negate most of your most useful tactics. There were bosses and fortress overlords in which I felt that the only possible tactic -- let alone viable tactic -- was to just shadow strike, then roll away, then shadow strike again, and hope I had enough arrows in the arena to finish him off. Your minions and bodyguards are often completely disabled in boss fights, and mounts are often either disabled or insta-killed. Want to bring your drake mount into battle against the Nazgul and their drakes? Too bad, as soon as you summon it, the drake literally just explodes into a fireball.

The boss fight against the necromancer Zog is particularly frustrating. I got so annoyed with it that I lowered the difficulty from hard to easy just to get it over with. It doesn't help that you can't skip the enemies' monologues. That isn't a problem in free play because the game goes on, and each encounter with an orc has unique dialog. If you die in story missions and boss fights, however, you have to restart and listen to the same monologue over and over again.

Waging war against Sauron

Most significantly is that now instead of simply bringing down the orc army all by yourself, you actually have to recruit and maintain your own army. Your dominated orcs aren't simply sleeper agents within the enemy army anymore, you actually recruit them to act as a personal body guard or to defend your own holdings as you wage actual war (as opposed to just solo guerrilla war) against the armies of Mordor. This means that there's multiple region maps with multiple castles and cities, each with their own hierarchies of orc captains. It's a scaling up of the core gameplay mechanics that feels appropriate and reasonable.

If Shadow of War does one thing right, it is this concept of taking a bog-standard feature (like "base capture" missions that have become pervasive in open world games) and doing something a little more interesting with it.

Fortress sieges are a much more robust and appealing iteration of industry-standard base capture missions.

While the actual capturing of the fortresses are usually not that difficult, the preparation can get quite involved. This is where the game briefly outshines its predecessor. You can recruit powerful uruks as siege leaders who will fight alongside you during the actual battle (which can sometimes involve grinding Talion and/or your dominated orcs to a competitive level), or you can assassinate the castle's war chiefs in order to weaken their defenses, or you can infiltrate your minions into the war chiefs' bodyguard to stab them in the back (either before the siege or during it). It's all very proactive. The battles themselves can also be quite the spectacle.

Tolkien deserves better, and Monolith can do better

Unfortunately, the upscaling of the game actually hurts the innovative Nemesis system that drove the first game. Personally, I'd rather have seen the same basic systems as Shadow of Mordor attached to a more interesting and well-written story that is better integrated into the core gameplay, with orcs being more robust characters. Instead, the story here has actually managed to get worse. Story wasn't Shadow of Mordor's strong suit -- at least, not the scripted story that was written by the game's writers. Shadow of Mordor's strength was the emergent story that was created by the Nemesis system.

That emergent story has been severely undercut by the fact that you can simply buy the orcs now, rather than having to recruit them in the game world. Despite all the game's efforts to characterize and humanize the orcs, they literally come down to being commodities that you buy and use (and murder when they're not cooperative), rather than being characters with engaging stories and personalities of their own. Not to mention the fact that the game is big enough (and repetitive enough) that by the end, I was starting to see a lot of repeating names, titles, and characteristics in the orcs being generated. Suspension of disbelief: shattered. The expansion of the map and segregation of it into distinct and separate regions also means that I'm never in any single map region long enough to develop much of an attachment to the orcs in that region.

Middle Earth: Shadow of War - map regions
With so many map regions, I don't spend enough time in one place to develop any attachment to its orcs.

And the actual story here is unbelievably sloppy. There's little-to-no sense or reason to most missions, and so many of the game's key plot points are completely contrived events that just happen due to staggering coincidence or because the writers rail-roadedTalion into making stupid decisions that lead to unfortunate outcomes that could have been easily avoided if the decision was left up to the player.

I was more than halfway through the game, playing the end of a questline that was still tutorializing mechanics -- mechanics that already been procedurally introduced to me via the Nemesis system. This begs the question: was I supposed to do that questline earlier in the game? I can't tell. There's no level recommendations to indicate which mission to do next. That's actually fine because Talion's level is mostly irrelevant, and all the orcs are level-scaled to Talion anyway (your actual strength in combat is more dependent on your equipment than your character level). But there's also no logical sense to the game's level progression. We have the main quest about the Nazgul and the Palantir that gets shoved off to the side for most of the game in favor of about four other sub-plots that have bugger all to do with one another and never intersect in any meaningful way.

The mess of a story begins with an entire first act that feels completely unnecessary, ridiculously contrived, haphazardly put together, overly long and shambling, and which bastardizes a character from the books. None of the characters seem to have any clear or consistent motivation. Shelob baits Talion into giving up the ring, only to then give him visions, and then eventually just gives the ring back for no apparent reason. On the other side of the coin, Talion and Celebrimbor don't trust Shelob, then they do trust her, then they don't again, but they still act on each and every vision that she offers. What the hell is going on here?

Middle Earth: Shadow of War - human Shelob
I must've missed the part in the books and movies where Shelob is a seductive human sorceress...

The whole Shelob subplot is just absurd. I'm not an expert in Tolkien's extended fiction (I've never read The Silmarillion), but I don't recall Shelob ever being described as a sorceress, let alone one that can shapeshift. Monolith's flimsy excuse is that Shelob is born of a dark spirit who chose the form of a spider. This presumes that Shelob's mother could chose any form she wishes, and by extension, Shelob should have that power too.

Even if I accept that explanation, it's still a bad decision. An intelligent, giant, talking spider would have been a much more awesome character! This is the kind of move that a movie producer might make because hiring an actual actor is cheaper than elaborate special effects for a giant spider monster, or because you hired an A-list voice talent, and her contract requires that her face be on screen. But this isn't a movie; it's a video game. The character is a 3-D model either way, and what you can put on screen is literally limited only by the imagination of the artists and writers. And those artists and writers chose to just make scenes of a man, a ghost, and a woman just standing around talking and whispering in each other's ears? That was the best you could come up with?

Shelob is a much more interesting character (with much better aesthetic design) as a giant spider.

Even a low-budget movie could have made better scenes by having the human character(s) talking to the seemingly-disembodied voice of a monster that silently stalks them from the shadows, keeping their special effects budget down by always obscuring the monster in darkness or mist, or hiding it just out of sight. That at least would have allowed for some creative framing and would have been tense and mysterious, as it allows the viewer's imagination to do all the heavy lifting. Monolith actually does this for brief moments during Talion's encounters with Shelob, which just goes to show how much potential there was for these scenes. Turning her into a woman so she can seductively prance around Talion is just the absolute wrong decision, and the childish writing of the whole scenario just makes it look even worse.

Middle Earth: Shadow of War - Shelob Memory
Shelob Memories are terrible spatial "puzzles".

Seriously, they should have just skipped the entire Shelob thing, as it unnecessarily slows down the game anyway. The siege in act I, along with the loss of the Palantir to the Nazgul, should have just been a prologue chapter, and the start of Act II should have just been Act I. That wouldn't have fixed the story as a whole, but it would have at least cut out the stupidest part of the story and gotten us into the real meat of the game a lot quicker.

On top of that, Shelob is associated with god-awful collectible puzzle hunts. The Shelob Memories are collectibles that require you to solve a spatial puzzle by rotating a shattered image such that it's pieces line up to form the image. It's like someone played the similar puzzles in Hellblade, and then thought "How can we make these worse?" The pieces are really small, there's a lot of them, and almost all of the images are composed of a whole two colors! It's hard to even see what the underlying image is supposed to be, and so I ended up just randomly rotating them until they were solved. It's not a puzzle; it's just a waste of time!

Middle Earth: Shadow of War - artifact
Artifacts do not have text transcriptions
of their audio descriptions.

Other collectible hunts have somehow been made more annoying as well. There's also a bunch of artifacts to find, just like in the last game. Except now, the description of the item's context is read to you via an audio file, but there's no text transcription of any of these audio clips. So if you want to know what the heck this artifact is, you have to sit and listen to the entire damn speech, rather than being able to quickly read or skim the description. It brings the game to a screeching halt for blatantly unnecessary side content.

A less refined experience

It isn't just the story that's taken a step back either. The gameplay -- despite being virtually identical to its predecessor -- just doesn't feel as comfortable or engaging.

Middle Earth: Shadow of War - chasing worm
Extra mobility makes escape and pursuit trivial.

There's a lot of new mobility options that feel like they detract from experience. Yeah sure, it's nice to be able to quickly move around the map, but not at the cost of trivializing large chunks of gameplay. After all, isn't that what fast travel is for? It's trivially easy to get out of sticky situations because you can sprint like the wind out of mobs. It's also trivially easy to chase down escaping intel worms and retreating captains.

I'm also not a fan of the new ledge stealth kills. Instead of Talion simply grabbing an orc and tossing him off the ledge (which was always satisfying in the first game), Celebrimbor will sometimes leap out of Talion's body, onto the platform above, and shank the orc where he stand. As far as I can tell, the player has no control over which of these animation types will occur. In the first game, tossing (or kicking) an orc off a ledge always came with an element of risk and reward, as the dead body may fall into a group of orcs or a patrol, who may then become alerted to your presence. Maybe if this were an optional upgrade, I'd be OK with it, instead of being something that seems to randomly happen outside of the player's control.

The game isn't entirely consistent regarding just what Celebrimbor can and cannot do...

Further, this begs the question of why Celebrimbor can't do this in other situations? There's perks that allow Celebrimbor to jump out and perform counters and sneak kill extra enemies, but there's other situations where this ability would be useful, yet it can't be performed. Why does Talion have to sneak up right behind an orc to perform a normal stealth kill? Why can't he just project Celebrimbor out at a distance to dispatch an enemy while Talion remains safe behind a wall, around a corner, or hiding in a bush? Why does Talion have to expose himself by jumping down from cover for an overhead kill, rather than just dropping Celebrimbor down while Talion remains safe and unnoticed on his perch? Does Celebrimbor have physical substance, or not? The game seems to constantly be waffling on this issue.

The controls in general just feel a lot less responsive and a lot more error-prone this time around. Talion often targets the wrong creature in combat. He climbs or jumps when I don't want him to. He overleaps or underleaps when I'm trying to stay up in the rafters or towers. He also routinely gets stuck on scenery. One particular frustration is when moving between tightropes and watchtowers. Talion often gets stuck on the end of the rope where it meets the corner of the watchtower. I never had this sort of problem in the previous game, which just leads me to believe that the devs put less care and attention into the newer game.

There's also the combat engine itself, which is copy-pasted almost verbatim from Shadow of Mordor (which itself was copied almost verbatim from Batman: Arkham Asylum). This system works fine, but it's definitely lost its "wow" factor. Heck, even Assassin's Creed is abandoning its similar combat system in Origins in favor of something that looks like it will be a little bit more in line with Dark Souls. Even by Shadow of Mordor, this combat system was starting to feel stale, and Shadow of War does virtually nothing to rejuvenate it. There's an extra sweeping attack that can be triggered by holding the attack button, but I think that's pretty much all that's new.

Middle Earth: Shadow of War - battle with allies
Talion bouncing around during combat looks especially silly when juxtaposed against other allied soldiers.

The way that Talion jumps and bounces around is starting to look really silly. It worked fine in Shadow of Mordor because Talion was isolated and alone within hordes of enemy orcs. But now, he's participating in large siege battles, and his movement in battle looks silly and off-putting when juxtaposed against the friendly soldiers that he's fighting alongside. This aesthetic foible turns into a mechanical frustration when the imprecise controls and uncooperative camera lead to Talion dealing friendly-fire in the midst of a brawl.

I even tried playing the game on the "Nemesis" (hard) difficulty because I had experience with Shadow of Mordor, and I wanted a more challenging experience. But instead of doing things like improving the orcs' awareness so that I couldn't run right up in front of them and stealth kill them, or making them more aggressive, or making it so that grunt orcs have to be weakened to be dominated, or anything else like that, the game instead just increases enemies' hit points, decreases Talion's, and tightens the window for death saves and quick-time prompts to a ridiculous level. The extra precision necessary to fight in that mode only exacerbated the imprecision of the controls and lead to frustration. I really wish there were a difficulty setting between Normal and Nemesis because I never die on Normal (outside of story quest boss fights), but I get too frustrated by the controls on Nemesis to enjoy myself.

A mere shadow of Shadow of Mordor

I feel much the same way about Shadow of War that I felt about Batman: Arkham City: it's a bloated, unnecessary sequel that fails to capture the "magic in a bottle" that was the original. Except Shadow of War is even worse. Batman: Arkham Asylum used a brand new, experimental combat engine. By the time of Arkham City, that combat engine was still fairly fresh, and there was a lot of room for refinement -- seriously, how did Batman not have smoke bombs in Arkham Asylum? Years later, with the release of Shadow of War, that same combat system is mature and stale, Shadow of War has done nothing to really improve it in any way, and has even done things that make the combat system look laughably silly.

There was so much potential with the system pioneered by Shadow of Mordor. The sequel could have given us an even more sympathetic and humanizing characterization of orcs and their culture. It could have had Talion ally with a faction of orcs that are already rebelling against Sauron. One of the sub-plot questlines actually does this, but it feels vapid and unnecessary and doesn't really use Talion as a vessel to tell interesting stories about those orcs. It's just an excuse for more boss fights. At the very least, it could have treated more of the orcs (beyond just Bruz) more like characters with actual arcs, and less like commodities to be bought and used.

I can't recommend Shadow of War. Virtually everything that was likable about the previous game has been transferred over, but with a cold, cynical detachment that just makes the whole game feel stale and uncomfortable. Things that have been added for convenience only serve to highlight how much of the game boils down to busy-work and grinding. The story is even weaker and less focused than the previous game, and the campaign is severely undercut by the nature of its micro-transaction-encouraging gambling grind. Save yourself $60 (and the headache of dealing with micro-transactions), and just play the original Shadow of Mordor again on a harder difficulty setting.

Middle Earth: Shadow of War - murder all the orcs
So much effort is taken to characterize and humanize the orcs,
only to treat them as cannon fodder, slaves, and loot -- commodities to be murdered, bought, and used.

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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Uncharted 3 meets expectations, but not much moreUncharted 3 meets expectations, but not much more12/06/2011 Has it already been two years since Uncharted 2 was released? Wow, I suppose it has. Doesn’t seem like two years. But I guess that’s partly because Uncharted 2 is a game that really sticks out in your memory when you play it. It doesn’t go away. It doesn’t stop feeling new and impressive. Uncharted 2 is one of – if not the –...