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Middle-earth: Shadow of War is an extraordinary game: in its complexity, in its ambition and perhaps most of all, in its undeniable messiness.

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When Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor launched in 2014, it was a surprise, if not a revelation. Though it appeared in kinh doanh materials & press events lớn be a tonally incoherent cash-in on a beloved intellectual property, Shadow of Mordor introduced one of the most astounding design innovations in the past decade of game development: the Nemesis System.

Developer Monolith Productions has, of course, returned lớn the this brilliant system in Shadow of War. The armies of orcs that would normally be nameless, personality-stripped bad guys are transformed. Enemy captains & warchiefs are imbued with entrancing & often hilarious character. Stories emerge procedurally rather than through cutscenes; each player experiences their own tale about the one Uruk they just can’t keep down, or the enemy whose hand they cut off only to lớn have him return with a hook for a hand.

The Nemesis System was something delightful and totally new in 2014, và it was enough khổng lồ earn the trò chơi a spot on our trò chơi of the year list. Now, it has expanded it khổng lồ include even more orcs of a wider variety of personality types, & more interactions & options for building your personal army. In fact, Monolith focuses in so much on this aspect of the game that it loses the plot in other parts — like, well, the plot.

To tackle a game as big as Shadow of War while acknowledging how beloved its predecessor was, we decided khổng lồ have two editors handle this review: review editor Phil Kollar & executive editor Chris Plante.


PHIL

Middle-earth: Shadow of War picks up shortly after the goofy twist at the kết thúc of Shadow of Mordor. (Spoilers incoming for that game’s conclusion in 3 … 2 … 1.) The undying human ranger Talion and his ghostly elf companion Celebrimbor have forged a “New Ring,” a powerful weapon khổng lồ help them fight back against the dark lord Sauron and his endless army of orcs. Along with a rotating cast of green-skinned brutes, Talion và Celebrimbor team up with a bigger group of allies in this game, including the elven assassin Eltariel and a mystical wood spirit named Carnan.

If you’re a longtime Lord of the Rings fan hâm mộ who found Shadow of Mordor’s looseness with canon distasteful, this sequel is only going lớn make you angrier. It’s closer to lớn the original works of author J.R.R. Tolkien in some ways — while the first trò chơi seemed comfortable existing on its own as some sort of what-if scenario, Shadow of War seeks to lớn bridge the gap between The Hobbit và the proper Lord of the Rings trilogy — yet it manages khổng lồ be more extreme in the liberties it takes with the established lore of the series.

I should probably make it clear here that I am not one of those hardcore fans. I’ve read a few Tolkien books, I enjoyed the Lord of the Ring movies, but the lore stuff doesn’t matter khổng lồ me. If anything, my annoyance at Shadow of War’s storytelling stems more from how self-serious và stuffy it is. Every time the trò chơi gave in khổng lồ goofy, cornball antics — some of the stuff I expect will turn off intense fans — I actually enjoyed it more. Did the story bother you at all, Chris, or were you able to lớn mostly ignore it for the sake of that sweet Middle-earth gameplay?

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Monolith Productions/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment CHRISThe main story is predictable và self-serious, but I appreciate the establishing of stakes. For the most part, I could track why I was required khổng lồ pop orc heads lượt thích thousands of juicy grapes. I need khổng lồ save somebody or someplace or something that, should I fail, will mean doom inherits the land. Unlike so many open-world games, Shadow of War is holistic: Practically everything you vì feeds into the larger quest to conquer evil, whether it’s training allies, grinding resources or toppling effigies.

I bởi wish the plot shared the playfulness found in individual encounters with orc leaders. Even more so than its predecessor, Shadow of War goes out of its way lớn imbue bosses with distinguishable, often likable personalities. Within the first few hours, I’d met a poet, a singer, a pseudo-ornithologist và so many other oddballs.

It feels like magic how each character evolves, depending on whether you make them an ally, humiliate them before their peers, or simply melt off their flesh. I shamed one enemy in combat so many times that he mentally regressed, gradually devolving from an eloquent leader lớn a non-verbal goon, stalking me from one encounter to the next, grunting & barking. Later I turned him khổng lồ my side, then made him my bodyguard. We are friends now.


That’s the silly thing: I care so much more about my orc pals that, by comparison, the central characters clog the game with middling cutscenes at best, and at worst, force me lớn participate in stealth missions in which my supposed buddy can’t help but run directly into combat lượt thích a total buffoon. Mercifully, the main characters don’t succumb lớn inane fantasy dialogue, but nonetheless, when they spoke my eyes looked nearly as dead as theirs.

As for the orcs — my sweet, sweet, orcs — I have some mixed feelings about our supposed friendships. I mentioned this with the previous game, but while the mechanic of recruiting a massive army is fun, the idea of enslaving creatures doesn’t leave a pleasant aftertaste, to lớn say the very least. & by act two, enslaving orcs is the staple of this heavy meal. Shadow of War is a trò chơi that works best when you don’t think too much about what it is you’re actually doing.

So khổng lồ get back khổng lồ your question, no, I didn’t love the main story, but the friction between main quests and side quests, humor & horror, is unquestionably baked into the heart of this particular branch of Middle-earth video clip games. A high-stakes world littered with quirky characters — most of whom you will slaughter or lead to slaughter against their will.

Speaking of being all things at once, I sure was overwhelmed by the wealth of skill tree unlocks, weapon modifications, loot, follower upgrades & fortress modifications. Rather than taking a complex system and making it more accessible, the developers have taken a complex system và added layer upon layer. The more time I’ve had to learn the systems, the more enjoyable they’ve become, but I’m curious how you feel. Và at what point does managing so many in-game menus and characters become work?


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Monolith Productions/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
PHILI mentioned at the start of this review that Middle-earth: Shadow of War is a messy game, & that messiness is most apparent in the way it spaces out the introduction of skills and systems, especially at the beginning. The first act is basically just a deluge — a piling-on of every mechanic from the first game, with the assumption that you’ll remember how all of this stuff works.

To Monolith’s credit, I did remember … eventually. It was probably about three or four hours into act two that I finally started lớn feel comfortable with Shadow of War. And once I did feel comfortable, things clicked in a way that reminded me exactly why I fell in love with this game’s predecessor.

Take the orc armies, as an example. Moral quandaries and even lovable personalities aside, there’s an approachable but deliciously meaty layer of strategy to how this part of the trò chơi functions. Each orc you recruit has its own traits — elements that it’s scared of, attack types it’s immune to, stuff that just pisses it off & sends it into a rage. These tidbits build on the orc’s character but also help you determine who’s easiest lớn take down, who’s best lớn recruit for a high-ranking spot in your own army and so on.


Shadow of War’s biggest addition khổng lồ this system comes in the form of fortress sieges. While the orcs in Shadow of Mordor had a hierarchy you needed to dismantle step by step, in this game there’s a physical manifestation of that command line: Each territory has its own fortress ruled by an overlord, who is in turn defended by anywhere from one khổng lồ six warchiefs.

Invading a fortress requires considerable time khổng lồ recruit an army of your own along with strategy in the size of picking the right assault leaders for the job. If you pick an orc who is terrified of fire lớn attack a castle with lava flowing down the walls và fire-breathing drakes circling around it, you’ll struggle. You can try to brute-force your way through scenarios by killing everyone as Talion, but Monolith has exponentially increased the spectacle in Shadow of War, making it extremely easy khổng lồ be overwhelmed by a veritable legion of bloodthirsty enemies. If you don’t plan wisely, you will die. And if you die, the orcs who killed you will level up & grow more powerful, making the next attempt to lớn take a fortress all the more difficult.

The greater meta-strategy trò chơi around orc management & fortress sieging has enough quirks và variety khổng lồ keep players invested for a long time. Monolith seems lớn have recognized this as the real draw of the game; the story takes a backseat through act two, with most of the plot development & cutscenes coming from largely optional sidequests that are scattered throughout the game’s five zones. I didn’t mind. Castle sieges are Shadow of War at its best.


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Monolith Productions/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
CHRISYou referred to the orc swarms as a spectacle, and somehow, that may be an understatement. Dozens of orcs, caragors, drakes and other beasts regularly filled my screen, along with prompts warning of a melee attack, a lethal arrow or just a plain old fireball coming directly for my noggin. Most, if not all, visual prompts (like a flashing triangle button, letting you know lớn parry) can be disabled through the options menu. While that doesn’t scale back the quái nhân gangs, it does at least make individual targets & attacks easier lớn spot and react to.

Like most relationships with mobs, mine is complicated. On one hand, the trò chơi achieves a sense of scale that, while it doesn’t reach the level of “war,” certainly depicts sizable battles. When the original Lord of the Rings trilogy arrived in theaters in 2001, much puff was made of its computer animation tricks that phối massive digital armies in head-to-head clashes. I think Shadow of War achieves a similar accomplishment for games. While the game’s world often looks like a high-resolution version of the previous generation of Assassin’s Creed games, it’s filled with more enemies than any of its contemporaries. & while it doesn’t really feel lived in (what vị orcs vì when they’re not drinking và killing?), it does feel realistically populated.

All of those baddies serve as fleshy targets for the player’s many weapons and violent abilities. At their best, enemies’ unexpected reactions are their own stories with highs và lows, tiny failures và tiny victories. One memorable fight began with me stealthily poisoning the grog of some relaxing orcs, but once they spotted me, a group of caragor-riding minions chased me up a tower. They had the upper hand, until I brutally carved their leader like a Thanksgiving turkey, sending a couple dozen orcs sprinting into the sunset.

On the other hand, the orcs are so abundant that fights regularly feel too crowded. In the previous game, I rapidly mastered the bộ combo system. But in Shadow of War, big combos have come less frequently, usually interrupted by an arrow from a far-off, unseen enemy or a band of orcs lunging into the fray all at once. More attacks & abilities help knock back groups of enemies, but 15 or so hours in, they feel unreliable và underpowered.


Shadow of War’s double jump makes zero sense in the realm of physics, but who cares when it feels so good?

Maybe this is the game’s way of letting me know I’m under-equipped for battle, but I don’t think so. Whether I was new lớn a fortress or had enslaved all of its captains, fights continued to lớn feel claustrophobic & busy.

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When I do find myself evenly matched, though, wow does this game make me feel lượt thích a brilliant phối of assassin and barbarian. I can’t believe we made it this far without talking about the double jump, which makes zero sense in the realm of physics, but who cares when it feels so good? The second jump magnetizes khổng lồ roofs, walls or wires, và can be interrupted midair with a volley of lethal arrows. Enemies drop loot that can grant special buffs, lượt thích making it more likely that an enemy is poisoned or that their head will explode in a mist of gore.

The tăng cấp tree, while complex, grants some hilarious powers. In one fight, I knocked back enemies by throwing five daggers at once, let loose a drake, shot said drake in the mouth until it submitted khổng lồ my greatness, then teleported onto its back, covering the fortress & all the stunned (and presumably impressed) orcs in flames. This is how you’re meant to khuyễn mãi giảm giá with the intimidating hordes of enemies. The trò chơi wants you to think. & when you do, you’re rewarded. So I’m torn on what frustrates me because it’s the game’s fault, versus what frustrates me because my style of play is sometimes at odds with what the game wants me to lớn do.

Which brings me khổng lồ the endgame. Phil, you’ve conquered all of the fortresses, slaughtered who knows how many bad dudes, and plodded through so many menus. Does the trò chơi get even more complicated? Does it find its chill? What should I expect as I move forward?


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Monolith Productions/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
PHILThe endgame of Shadow of War is … it’s a lot, Chris. Upon finishing the previous game, many players talked about how they wished there was more to vì chưng after the story’s completion, how they’d love to lớn just stick around & build up orc armies and clash them against each other. Monolith clearly took these conversations khổng lồ heart when coming up with the new game’s fourth act, Shadow Wars, which serves as an ongoing finale.

I won’t spoil the plot — which has some hilariously goofy twists và turns near the end — but I will say that Shadow Wars takes the siege gameplay and flips it around. You’ve conquered all these orc fortresses, so now what? Naturally, you need khổng lồ defend them against invading armies of ever-increasing difficulty.

From the outside, Shadow Wars is a legitimately inspired idea. It provides an endless playground & plenty of motivation lớn keep raising và upgrading your armies, replacing your allies with bigger & better alternatives, & slicing down floods of enemies. It’s also a great time to fiddle with the game’s asynchronous multiplayer, which allows you to lớn go on vendetta missions khổng lồ take out orcs that killed other players, or even siege another player’s fortress for loot.

However, Shadow Wars is spoiled by two major issues.


First, it’s not just postgame content. While the main plot of Shadow of War wraps up in relatively tidy fashion before act four begins, Monolith has confirmed that there is a second ending unlocked by completing Shadow Wars. (The developers are calling it a “bonus ending.”) I love the idea of offering dozens of hours of grindy yet fun nội dung for players who really adore this trò chơi to sink their teeth into. But that works better as an option rather than a looming obligation for completionists. Having the game’s real finale locked away behind those dozens of hours — hours that, while fun, are devoid of story missions, side quests, cutscenes or other distractions that help mix up the pace — is a disappointment.

Will I return to mess around in Shadow Wars some more? Almost certainly. But I have no plans to ever see that final scene outside of YouTube.

The bigger và more pressing problem with Shadow Wars is that it’s the main home of one of Shadow of War’s more controversial additions khổng lồ the first game’s formula: microtransactions. Technically, you can jump into the marketplace và purchase loot chests earlier in the game, but there’s really no pull to vì chưng so during the main campaign. You can find plenty of nice armor và weapons và all the orcs you need by playing regularly.


In Shadow Wars, however, things get more complicated. With all other side content drained, the only thing left to vày is khổng lồ play fortress defense missions (and collect more orcs to lớn help with more fortress defense missions). Finding powerful orcs becomes the be-all, end-all focus of the game, and the easiest way to find powerful orcs is, cynically, to lớn purchase them. The cheapest chest on the marketplace (which offers the barest guarantees on the chất lượng of allies you unlock) can be purchased using the in-game money Talion picks up. That money also buys upgrades lớn your fortresses, though, và between the two I spent all 60,000 or 70,000 coins I had gathered over the course of the chiến dịch in a few hours.

When you run out of in-game money, you have two choices: Make a huge time investment by hunting down orcs in your trò chơi world và earning chests via vendetta missions, or spend some real money to lớn get the more powerful orcs you need now. Does the game ever force you to lớn spend money? No. I’m sure you can get khổng lồ the end of Shadow Wars without spending a dime, as long as you’re patient & persistent. But locking progress through this mode (and, again, toward the game’s secondary ending) behind either spending more money or doing tons of tedious busywork feels at least greedy if not predatory.

WRAP-UP


If you can get past the microtransactions, Shadow Wars seems set to lớn provide a much meatier extended playtime than Shadow of Mordor ever offered. But more than anything, that’s my biggest disappointment with Middle-earth: Shadow of War: Everything about it seems khổng lồ come with a caveat, some small annoyance or two that you need to lớn dig past to get to lớn the still-very-fun trò chơi underneath. The Nemesis System is still a wonder that has yet lớn be replicated. The movement and combat are thrilling.

CHRIS

There’s so much to lớn do! But also, there’s so much to lớn do. The line between work & play is a thin one that runs directly through Middle-earth. & so I feel torn. I really had a wonderful time throughout this trò chơi that regularly made me feel frustrated or icky or simply exhausted. It’s a truly inspired exercise in design, one that seems OK with numerous flaws so long as they allow for its complex systems khổng lồ be prioritized above all else.

PHIL

Shadow of Mordor was unrefined but in a way that was ahead of its time. Playing it felt like glimpsing the future of big kích hoạt games. Monolith’s attempts lớn build on that vision in Shadow of War are often successful, particularly where the deeper Nemesis System is concerned. But other pieces of this sequel feel undercooked, getting in the way of what should be a great time. Shadow of War provided plenty of fun in the 30 or 40 hours I’ve spent with it so far, but somehow this future seemed so much brighter in 2014.

Middle-earth: Shadow of War was reviewed using “retail” PlayStation 4 download codes provided by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment. You can find additional information about grimaceworks.com’s ethics policy here.


Platform Win, PS4, Xbox One advertiser Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment Release Date Oct 10, 2017 PS4 Score 7.5 Developer Monolith Productions
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1 update made lớn this story
Updated on October 8, 2017

In the original version of the review, the ending of Shadow Wars was described as the “true ending.” For clarification, we’ve changed the description.