Middle Earth: Shadow of War (Xbox One Review)
It’s often that we find that games have very apt names–even the most convoluted titles can have a hidden meaning–but rarely do titles work on so many levels that you struggle to put them all together. Yet, we have Shadow of Mordor; a contorted silhouette of Tolkien’s work, a spectre of the open world genre, and a pretender to Assassin’s Creed’s and the Batman Arkham series’ throne.
We are violently thrust back into the boots of the much maligned Talion, a potato-faced everyman with a taste for vengeance, and his tortured spectre in arms Celebrimbor. Much like the previous game, Shadow of War finds itself wedged sometime between the creation of the rings and the start of the Fellowship of the Ring. Which, in turn, means that we kind have an idea of how the game might end, or at least not end, when it paints Sauron as one of the antagonists. From there, you are presented with a series of different threads linked to various iconic characters from both the Lord of the Ring books and some new characters forced into the lore for Shadow of War. It all seems cohesive at first, but as you pull at the threads, the tapestry that would be Shadow of War’s epic pilgrimage to free Middle-Earth starts to fray. Even as somebody with little to no knowledge on the source, it often felt that liberties were being taken with the lore, so God knows how true Tolkien fans will feel when confronted by sexy Shelob. That being said, there are some truly inspired both moments between the tragedy and comedy of a bunch of men called Shag the Destroyer and Ur-Gok the Obvious, as well as the more mythic beasts of Middle-Earth colliding.
Even the structure of the story itself proves to be a muddled mess when you consider the perspective and dynamics of Shadow of War’s map. Fragmented across a large number of different areas, you’ll be forced to continuously bounce backwards and forwards to simply push on with the story. Loading screens for a bite-sized mission can last anywhere between 5 and 10 minutes, meaning that it just isn’t worth the journey. Even though these new areas show that the series can flex its visual design far beyond the muddy palette of its predecessor, it spits in the face of the central mechanics by denying the feeling of a cohesive war fought as a united whole.
Instead these areas present themselves as a facelift of the same dull Nemesis system progression you just faced in whatever ever spot of the map you found yourself in previously. You’ll be asked to build your army by dominating a few orcs, felling a few outlying strongholds, and collecting whatever fluff you happen to find on the battlefield for a much needed experience boost. Eventually working your way towards an assault on that area’s stronghold for a quick game of capture the control point before killing the resident overlord. Then as soon as you managed to topple the stronghold, you are instantly distanced from the army you just created, starting the same process again in a new section of Middle-Earth. Within the second area, I had a very specific bodyguard that opted for guttural screams and yelps over speaking. Every time I was in trouble, a faint wail could be heard on the horizon, slowly growing in ferocity and pitch, as my wee friend would burst onto the battlefield and absolutely obliterate anyone that sought to challenge me. I never learned of his fate after I moved on, but I’d like to think that he found somebody that appreciated his mouth noises just as much as I did.
And that’s kind of the shining beacon of hope in the dark shadows of war. Stories you happen upon thanks to a system that isn’t supported by its structure. Ultimately, all of your efforts are cast aside with each developing area. Relationships that are found at the tip of a blade or at the steely cold centre of it. The Nemesis system has some really promising ideas, which are marred by development intrinsically linked to the idea that you will die a lot. To spice things up, there are now blood brother alignments, and those defiant to the soft whisper of the Bright Lord, but they are only cogs working against a far bigger machine.
Running alongside this giant behemoth is an equally intimidating set of skills. With nearly 130 perks/powers to spend your hard earned skill points on, you’ll need to grind until your fingers bleeds to unlock them all. Thankfully, you’ll be showered with experience and additionally skill points for: completing missions in the past as Celebrimbor; collecting the countless number of Gondorian artefacts spread across Middle-Earth; and by climbing to the top of various towers throughout the land. Although, you’d still be forgiven for becoming so overwhelmed by this horrendous screen of nodes and slightly smaller nodes. But, invest enough time into buying the right perks and you’ll be right as rain. Setting up kills from miles away and cleaving enemies in two as the glistening white Celebrimbor burst forth from your person to aid you in tight spots.
You can even supplement these perks with additional equipment, like the legendary gear unlocked throughout Shadow of War’s campaign or through collecting a series Ithildin to complete an Elven poem, unlocking special gear. In lieu of Shadow of Mordor’s previous equipment system, you’ll find that Shadow of War has opted for more of an RPG-style approach with level and rarity-focused gear. Each loot drop usually falls within a few levels of yours, but rarer loot allows for potential upgrades and holds unique bonuses. On top of that, you are also able to augment each one of these items with a gem, allowing you to boost traits such as damage and experience gain. Although this all serves to establish a terribly insidious mechanic, the terrifying prospect of merging loot boxes with randomised loot. It serves to detract from the bonds we forge with our “one ring” when supposed unique equipment is found with nearly every felled Orc Captain.
Throughout Shadow of War, you’ll earn a currency known as Myrian. Myrian is acquired by dismantling your equipment, completing missions, and through killing enemies with certain perks active. It’s fairly innocuous at first, but when Shadow of War’s minions start to rush ahead of you in power and you struggle to acquire as much gear as you had hoped for, you feel a push towards the market. The market is your one stop shop for all your needs in Shadow of War. You can buy more friendly orcs to replace those lost in battle, risk it all for your chance at some experience boosts, or simply splash a little Myrian on a fancy new sword. Yet, your ability to purchase legitimately great equipment is behind a paywall. Options for higher rarity gear is blocked by the requirement to invest real money. Sure, you can spend your hard-earned Myrian and get a shot at one piece of rare equipment, but you’ll never be able to buy the super extra special series of loot crates that guarantee you one piece of legendary equipment instead. You can take or leave these boxes. I certainly left them, but it is very clear that they are the fast track course to the top and cut out large swathes of the more time consuming and frustrating aspects of Shadow of War.
It’s a shame really, because under a whole load of mess, there’s a game just waiting to be refined and perfected. Shadow of War did in fact right some wrongs, but it lumped them in with some odd choices that really prevent you from investing in a system that they have peacocked left and right. And that’s without mentioning the fact that it takes you nearly 10 hours to really start to feel the benefits or invest the slightest amount of time in the Nemesis system, which was about the same time I considered hurling myself into the smouldering fires of Mt. Doom just to end this painful experience. Thankfully I didn’t, because after the horribly slow introduction there were some truly enjoyable moments. They might have been tonally against the very stern composure of Talion and Celebrimbor, but the silly orcs and their almost Python-esque dialogue were a delight. It’s just a shame that I was so exhausted by the experience that I never actually seen the ending. I was so fatigued by the entire system and how repetitive it could be that I genuinely gave up before the end, but I’ll get there one day and on that day I will have found a way to drag my favourite bodyguard kicking and screaming into the jaws of war.