Game Review: Middle-earth: Shadow of War

Release date: 2017
Version played: Xbox One in 2017

A sequel to the surprise hit of 2014, and once again developed by Monolith Productions and published by Warner Bros. Interactive Studios, Middle-earth: Shadow of War is a third person action game loosely based on J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings universe. Players once again control Talion (voiced by video game legend Troy Baker), a Ranger of Gondor who was killed at the beginning of the first game, who now shares his body with the soul of Celebrimbor (Alastair Duncan), an elf responsible for forging the One Ring. The game is primarily played by battling large groups of enemies with melee combat, with enemy captains randomly generated from a huge database, in order to raise an army of orcs strong enough to challenge for control of Middle-earth.

+ the patented Nemesis System has been overhauled and improved so significantly, it once again is the unmatched and unique highlight of recent video games. Throughout my several hours of game time I only ever had one repeated Orc Captain nickname. The randomisation of character traits, strengths, weaknesses and abilities kept the time between missions fresh, and arguably more enjoyable than the missions themselves. Worth noting in particular is just how good some of the voice-work is from the various captains
+ the story itself originally appears to be somewhat bland, but the longer I played the more I started feeling for all the characters involved. A little twist around the two-third or so mark of the game was very welcome, and even made me rethink moments from the first game
+ there are new ways to traverse the improved and sprawling environments, including a new ‘double jump’ skill. This small addition is enough to entirely change the way Talion moves across Middle-earth, including an increased speed boost with timed button presses. Talion is also (eventually) able to take control of the Mordor drakes, the large dragons used by the Ringwraiths in the films, and flying across the war-torn landscapes made for fantastic visuals – and they were damn handy in a battle, too
+ the combat itself is mostly unchanged, but the Batman: Arkham inspired swordplay was a highlight of the first game. A handful of new skills, including a heavy attacks and chain-variants of executions, stealth kills and dominations. Executions, the finishing kill on enemies, are just as visceral and violent as the first game, including particularly gory dismemberments and one animation that bisects an enemy at the waist

middle-earth_shadowofwar_3
Shelob (Pollyanna McIntosh, The Walking Dead) whispers sweet nothings into Talion’s ear. Shelob’s human form was interesting, but note the low detail on their faces.

– the story, and particularly the cutscenes, are so bloated and long winded it is almost worth skipping them (but only almost, please don’t actually skip them) to get back to the meat of the game, ie. the combat and Nemesis system. In this sort of game, less is more, and unfortunately that is not the case for this story
– some smaller details were disappointing, such as many reused animations and very few, if any, variations on story missions. As much as I appreciated the modified movement, and the new double jump skill, the ‘magnetism’ of going from point to point still feels off, and often I would use the double jump only to end up on a beam or crate off to the side of where I was heading

> While it is not a negative by any means, once again I was reminded of the column I had written a while ago: this sort of combat does not lend itself to boss battles. The same is true here, where bosses turn into strike>dodge>strike>dodge, in a sort of Dark Souls-lite manner

Should you play this game: I was not sold on this game at all during the first Act, as the story continuously got in the way of the enjoyable combat. By the end of Act III, was fully on-board. The combat is enjoyable as ever, and the randomly generated Orc Captains make for as much fun to play at your own pace as the story missions themselves. In the end, I can safely recommend this game for any fans of the Batman: Arkham, Assassin’s Creed or Lord of the Rings franchises – just acknowledge that a lot of the lore is made up.

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