Middle Earth: Shadow of War Review
Monolith’s take on the Gargantuan Lord of the Rings universe pleased both fans and critics alike. Shadow of Mordor, more than its story was heralded for its innovative Nemesis system, a complex AI framework that let you share interesting lore with the enemies in the game. It’s back for Shadow for War and has been expanded upon and developed greatly. Will that be enough to make this one a classic?

Like the first game, Shadow of War plays hard and loose with the official series canon. It feels like a more comic book-y take on the universe, the most prominent example of this as pointed out by other review sites is Shelob, a giant spider in the books that appears as a sensual female character in the game. There are other cameos here too like Gollum but all of them feel random and shoehorned in, meant more as fan service rather than something that is integral to the plot. Speaking of which, the first one did not have an elaborate story but did manage an interesting potboiler none the less, Shadow of War in comparison tells a simpler, more straightforward story one that exists simply to service the gameplay. It reorganises and retells historical events from the universe with a fresh set of eyes, the trouble is nearly all of them fall flat.

On a PC with a rig capable of pushing it to the maximum, the game looks phenomenal. On the PS4, which is what we reviewed the game on, there are obvious visual trade offs. Most noticeable is the sharp decrease in Texture quality and simplified lighting. The real-time shadows take a hit too but all of this to be expected. To be honest, even with an ageing system hampering its visual quality, the artwork and the style still stand out, this is a gorgeous looking game, with detailed character models and stellar animation. The art style captures the feel of Tolkien’s universe perfectly, rendering a gritty, dark world that somehow still manages to have some colours mixed in.

Like the first game, the sound design in Shadow of war is top notch. Everything from the sickening screams from an enemy as you rip his head clean off his torso to the deft more muted ambient touches are expertly handled. Even better are the positional audio effects that consider the player’s movement and position. There is also a grand orchestral score that beats at the heart of mayhem you inflict on Mordor. The Orc’s dialogue that the game relies heavily on, to sell the nemesis system is also a thing of beauty, there are so many lines of recorded dialogue that have been enacted with such care that you never hear the same thing twice, in a game that relies on creating drama through the player interacting with a game system, this is a godsend. The rest of the cast puts in a believable, energetic performance as well, with only a few guest characters missing the mark.

Like the first game, most of the drama and tension is driven by player interaction with the “Nemesis” system. It’s a unique way of letting the player build small personal stories of his own. Each enemy you encounter in the game remembers how well you did when you last fought them, they will taunt you if you fall cheaply or maybe even run away if you defeated them the last time. There is a complex hierarchy within the Orc’s themselves, they are promoted, demoted or even form long-lasting rivalries with you. On top of all of there is a complex conquer mechanism, that tasks you with enlisting orc’s and levelling them up to be your allies or cannon fodder. All of this builds up to a fortress conquest that tasks with capturing control points and eventually take over the fortress yourself.

You also find loot within the game, gear that you use to unlock perks the more you pick it up. Controversially, this part of the game can also be bought using real-world money, i.e. in the form of boxes that Warner Bros. sells you. Thankfully, these don’t break the game, but it is strange to find in a Single player experience. The new gameplay system is complex enough to warrant comparison to resource management games and you will soon find yourself lost in a dozen menus to make sure everything is going according to plan.

Unfortunately, the main quest missions themselves are bland and often copy paste to the point of being boring and tedious. As good as the new Nemesis mechanics are, they are going to overwhelm you after a while and in the absence of good story missions may affect your enjoyment of the game.

It’s good that the game is as polished as it is then. On the PS4, the framerate stays at a rock solid 30fps, only faltering when there is too much happening on screen and aside from a few pop in issues, the game doesn’t seem to have too many bugs or glitches.

Shadow of war is a mixed bag, on one hand, is the brilliant nemesis system that makes each fight against an orc a treat to behold but on the other, is a lacklustre storyline with some truly run of the mill, drab story missions. If you want to do nothing more than wreak havoc in Mordor, then this your next big thing. If you want to experience something deeper, stay away.