I completed Middle-Earth: Shadow of War just in time for the sequel, and so it’s fresh in my mind what I wanted to be improved for Monolith Productions second outing in to Middle-Earth. Whilst the first game had great ideas and I had a lot of fun with it, it felt as if the overall experience was unpolished and barren.
Shadow of War is a vastly better game in all aspects. A more fleshed-out story with plenty of dialogue, fluid, faster gameplay and traversal, more colour and variety in areas, an improved nemesis and army system, and an added loot and equipment system make Shadow of War a blast to play. Whilst Shadow of Mordor had dull side-missions, I found myself being torn away from the story in Shadow of War to gather all of the collectibles and slay the many orc captains that are roaming the world.
Taking place after the events of Shadow of Mordor, Talion and Celebrimbor forge a second ring in the hopes that they can slay Sauron with it. When Shelob takes Celebrimbor hostage, Talion is forced to hand over the ring in exchange for the wraith’s safety. Talion then decides to work with Shelob as she’s known for letting you know of your upcoming fate – no matter how vague she tells it – as he builds an army to defeat Sauron. It’s shown that a larger part of mankind is fighting for survival and freedom this time around, so the stakes naturally feel higher. The narrative is coherent and focused on in Shadow of War, and the influx of new characters makes it all the more enticing — it’s an undeniable improvement, and one I very much appreciate.
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room before we go any further. You’ve likely heard about the loot box fiasco that has surrounded Shadow of War, but it’s genuinely not a big deal. You can build a better army faster, but there’s nothing stopping you from building an outstanding army with the orcs and equipment pieces available in abundance in-game. I never felt as if I was struggling because I’d chosen not to spend money on micro-transactions, but because some rather challenging orcs just laid me out flat — and because their resistances can be pretty ridiculous.
Whilst the various mechanics from the first game have been refined here, there are a bunch of new features to sink your teeth into. Whilst you could build an army in the first game, it never felt as if it amounted to much. Thanks to the addition of siege missions, you can now go head-to-head against an opposing army as you aim to take over their base of operations — you can do this against other player’s bases, too! Commanding high-ranked orcs to lead your army into battle is important, and you can issue upgrades to them too. You can revive them if they go down in battle, but if you leave it too long then all of your hard work put in to that orc would go to waste.
There are several areas to explore but the way they’re separated from each other means that they never feel overwhelming. You know what’s really cool, though? So, in open-world games it’s a standard feature to have to climb a tower to expand your overview of the map and, if you’re like me, you might have become tired of this. Shadow of Mordor eases the pain by vastly speeding up your climbing speed and, once you’ve reached the top, you can gaze out and spot collectibles. This makes collectibles easier to gather, and I was encouraged to pick them up in each area. The Shelob ones in particular expand on the game’s lore.
That’s not to say it’s all been improved though, because there’s still a stark problem with the nemesis and orc-recruitment systems. Building your army is one of the selling points of the Middle-Earth games but with several more areas to explore, there’s a whole lot more orcs to convert too. You need to make a small army in each area to overthrow the keep, unless you use in-game currency (or real currency) to purchase orcs to put on the board.
You get a fair bit of money, but it goes fairly quickly and you might not wish to spend it primarily on orcs which may, or may not, be any good. My main issue is that I grew tired of building armies around the fourth area of the game, and whilst I think it’s cool as a concept, it’s still something that feels repetitive after a few hours play. It just takes a lot of time and it doesn’t feel any fresher between each area — it’s almost as if you’re starting from square one again.
Orc captains are a real pain, too. Orcs can build resistances, but there’s no limit to this. You could be pitted against an orc with resistances to frost, stuns, arrows, fire, poison, vaulting, combos, stealth, executions and whatever else. These orcs quickly grow in numbers as you progress through the game, and they’re not challenging so much as they’re an absolute bore to play against. You’re forced to whittle down their health slowly, and it’s an exercise in patience. The best thing to do is to send ally orcs to ambush them, but it’s a quick way to go through orcs. I don’t think the loot boxes make this any easier other than having cannon fodder, but there should be a limit on how much orcs can resist, especially when it ends up resisting pretty much all of the gameplay options available. Some of them talk for a good 15-20 seconds before letting you battle, too — when this happens with several orcs in a row, it becomes very boring.
The first game didn’t look bad, but the areas available were incredibly bland to explore and dull in colour. Character models are notably more detailed this time around and the cutscenes in particular look great, and there’s more variety in executions if you’re into seeing orcs’ limbs fly around. Orcs vary in size and shape, and they feel less cookie-cutter than they did in the first game. Seeing the damage they’ve sustained when they return for revenge is still a blast to see, although there’s still way too many orcs for me to really remember my experience with them.
The voice-acting was superb in the first game, and having notably more dialogue and characters lets the voice talent flex their vocal cords more. The amazing Troy Baker reprises his role as Talion, whilst the equally as excellent Laura Bailey joins the cast as Eltariel. Pollyanna McIntosh has her second ever game role as Shelob (having previously voiced a minor character in Dante’s Inferno on PS3), and I’d certainly not be adverse to hearing more from her in future. Voice-acting is stellar all around, and the soundtrack works well in enhancing the game’s atmosphere.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of War bests its predecessor in every way, and I can only hope that we’ll see a third game someday — something akin to The Witcher series would be lovely in that each game flourishes with each installment, and there’s a lot of lore and content that developer Monolith Productions can still tap in to. I understand that you may be fighting an internal conflict on whether or not you want to support a game with such highly-advertised loot boxes, but it’s easy to forget about them as you’re playing. I’d advise buying Shadow of War and enjoying it for the game it is, especially as you can easily avoid spending more on loot boxes – they’re simply not needed.