Fans of predecessor Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor will have had an anxious three-year wait for Middle-earth: Shadow of War. But was the latest addition to the The Lord of the Rings franchise worth this wait? For fans of the previous game, SoW will undoubtedly deliver on more of the same. The real question though is whether SoW has, as a stand-alone game, offered up something fresh.
For most, one of the most atmospheric aspects of SoW will be its delicious, dark tone which (alongside its R-rated status) clearly separates it from the family-friendly reputation developed for the TLOTR franchise in cinemas. The fighting is brutal and gory with options to dispose of your enemies in varying degrees of violence. Underlying themes, most notably those of slavery and human greed, provoke some troubling questions (more on this later).
The landscapes you adventure through emulate the bleak ambience of misty mountains and civilisation on the brink of collapse so prevalent in the films. Aspects of this landscape give the raw and vulnerable feel of open-world, as you pursue different quests at your leisure. Yet the game has been structured to its main storyline and is on the more linear end of the spectrum. All of this combined with an epic soundtrack creates a game that is both visually and tonally harrowing – distinguishing SoW as much more than a violent sword-fest.
Gameplay will more than remind players of Assassin’s Creed – indeed describing this title as Assassin’s Creed but in a TLOTR setting would be more than an apt description. This is not bad thing, although those looking for originality in the mechanics of gameplay may be sourly disappointed. Embracing the similarities however, will prove rewarding. There are a wealth of new abilities available for your hero compared to Shadow of Mordor and these are quickly unlocked. The combination of easy-to-execute combat moves, unparalleled scaling abilities and the additional advantages of possessing ‘focus’ (to operate in slow-mo), ‘might’ (to perform Mortal Kombat fatality-style executions) and ‘Elvin Rage’ (just crazy, don’t even ask) succeed in making you feel like a total badass.
In fact, your abilities in combat are so effective it quickly becomes unchallenging – although there is much fun to be had regardless. Players will quickly realise there is little point in sneaking through areas, slowly disposing of orcs and playing by the rules and will charge in with all the weapons available. All this said, SoW has done well to strike that subtle balance of making you feel like you are nailing it even as you get killed by a small grunt orc who had probably never seen combat and whose role previously consisted of stoking the fire whilst complaining about being hungry (clearly not enough man flesh about).
This leads me onto the next feature which is the ‘Nemesis’ element of the game. Previously debuted in Shadow of Mordor, this concept has been developed and has been escalated in SoW with Overlords and their fortresses. For those who haven’t played the predecessor, this feature means that the game evolves around your gameplay – even after you die and respawn – in the form of the enemies who remember you and return stronger with a vendetta against your player if you kill them. Anyone who has ever raged over death-by-CPU in other games, will finally be able to execute that desire to go back and kill the exact orc that cut them down last time. With the added satisfaction of the orc trash-talking you before you take out your revenge.
With clear thought and ambition behind this brutal and satisfying (if a bit repetitive) gameplay, the graphics are a little disappointing. At times, the lack of detail and poor texturing – particularly on the hair, cloaks and ground – corrupt the otherwise impressive atmosphere. Moreover, considering Monolith VP Michael de Plater stated that they considered the ending of Shadow of Mordor too ‘abrupt’, the narrative isn’t the strongest point of the game either.
In a somewhat rushed prologue, our previous body-sharing duo Talion and Celebrimbor forge a new ring in Mt. Doom (as you do) and Celebrimbor is kidnapped by Shelob. Shelob most confusingly, is now no longer a hairy spider but a sexy, semi-nude Liv Tyler look-a-like. She steals your ring off you and says something along the lines of “oh don’t bother trying to get this back now you have bigger issues ahead”. By contrast, the main storyline progresses slowly from the moment gameplay properly starts and becomes far less enticing than the micro-storylines generated by the Nemesis system. If anything, this intro seems ‘abrupt’ and TLOTR fans who are enraged by a lack of allegiance to the mythology of the books will need to let a lot of things go to enjoy the ride.
These gripes aside, SoW is still an incredibly fun game to play and the work that has gone into building on the Nemesis system, providing a greater variety of enemies and fleshing out even more weapons and abilities make it a worthy successor to Shadow of Mordor. What’s more, SoW goes further than a game of physicality and combat with the way it begs the player to study the human condition. Fans of the franchise will at least be rewarded in this sense, in that the same questions about the unquenchable thirst for power that J. R. R. Tolkein put to us in the books – are similarly examined here.
As you take control of the minds of your enemies, demanding they submit and fight under your will, SoW explores the darker side of ‘winning’. Some have taken issue with this element, as if the questionable status of being a hero is some sort of hypocritical oversight. But I think this conflict is very deliberate and, as de Plater points out, this is the emotional battle of the game: ‘You sort of love to hate your enemies and hate to love your followers. They all sort of blur into each other a bit’.
What difference is there between our protagonist and Sauron when both abuse their power to recruit orcs to carry out their will? In this sense, the darkest aspect of the game is the clever dialect that is bubbling beneath the surface. Would you play the game without utilising these tactics? But then, as Boromir once asked, ‘why not use the ring?’