It is impossible to discuss Shadow of War without first addressing its predecessor. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor was one of the best and most ground-breaking games of 2014, and rightfully received a plethora of awards. The game was gorgeous to look at, fun to play, and the story was hewn from the Lord of the Rings mythology. It was hailed as Assassin’s Creed in Middle-earth, or Batman with orcs, but the end result was even better than the pitch, a master’s thesis on stealth action adventure that has yet to be surpassed, even by its own sequel. While Middle-earth: Shadow of War builds upon the foundations laid down in Mordor and makes many useful improvements, it ultimately fails to live up to its potential because of a number of predictably, exasperatingly avoidable mistakes.
On the surface, Shadow of War lacks a layer of polish that distinguished its progenitor. The graphics of the Xbox One are notably inferior—colors are pale and washed out, textures are flat, details are muddy and animations are glitchy. Character models resemble plastic action figures more than flesh and blood beings, especially Shelob, who moves and talks like a melting Barbie doll. I also noticed Talion would often execute an orc by simply pushing his entire hand through the enemy’s face. While it was certainly effective, I found it distracting. The first time it rained in Mordor, I stood and marveled at the realism of the water trickling down a stone wall for three minutes. Despite a delayed release, this level of detail is absent from the sequel. However, the banner touting the various deals and bundles available in the marketplace runs perfectly every time you hit pause.
What really set Mordor apart from its peers was the pioneering of the Nemesis System, which procedurally creates all of the orcs you face. These orcs are more than just randomly generated enemies—they have their own goals, friends and fears that govern their behavior. They grow, learn and change from their encounters with the player, and they remember you. If you stab one in the face, he might show up again later with a nasty scar and an appetite for revenge. Orcs that manage to kill the player level up and become more powerful, but will also taunt you the next time you cross swords. The more times an orc survives you, the more dangerous he becomes, and it only intensifies the satisfaction when you finally separate your nemesis’ head from his neck. My nemesis from the previous game, Ukrom the Rhymer, stalked me relentlessly throughout Mordor, always showing up to kick me in the teeth when I least expected it, and always with some idiotic poem about how he was going to murder me, or how easily he killed me last time. No matter how many times I felled him, I never felt safe and always looked over my shoulder. I hated Ukrom with a passion I have rarely felt for a real person, let alone a digital facsimile, and our final showdown was one of the most fun and gratifying play experiences of my life. Shadow of War adds a host of new bells, whistles and tricks, but their haphazard implementation means the gears are constantly showing, making the Nemesis System feel much more mechanical. Early on I faced an orc named Dugz the Ancient One, who claimed necromancers had kept him alive for thousands of years. He cheated death in our first encounter, but the second time I cleaved him in half and figured that was it. Not ten minutes passed before he reappeared, asserting that I would never be rid of him, and for a moment I believed him. I was certain I had met my nemesis, but it turned out the third time was the charm—I’ve played over fifty hours since, and have not seen him again. If these encounters had been spread out over the course of my playthrough, I might have actually been surprised by his resurrection, but since I fought him three times within an hour it felt like nothing more than a prolonged boss battle.
Many new mechanics seem to be intended to add drama to the churning of the Nemesis System, but they often undercut any tension by crashing into each other like clowns pouring out of a car. Dominated orcs now have the ability to rise up and betray you, but since there is no telling what will or won’t turn your follower against you, it feels like a role of the dice rather than a rise to rebellion. The only consistency I noticed was that legendary orcs seem to chafe the most under the player’s control, as I never dominated one that didn’t try to kill me almost immediately. Coincidentally, they are the hardest orcs to find and recruit, unless you decide to open some loot boxes.
Contrary to what the developers would have us believe, the game is absolutely designed to make you pay up. The loot system is as cumbersome and tedious as it is unnecessary—Talion did just fine with one sword, dagger and bow in the original, and the game has not been improved by the addition of thousands of junk weapons and armor to juggle in even more menus. You get enough loot that you will never need to even consider spending real cash, but it’s all rather inconsequential. The enemies scale with you, so you will never have a legendary sword that cuts through orcs like grass, you’ll just notice its taking longer to kill them until you switch to your highest level sword. They even add Celebrimbor’s new ring of power as a piece of gear you can equip, after which you will find enemies dropping higher level rings, which is the most ludicrous example of ludonarrative dissonance I have ever witnessed. Although you can easily complete the main quest without even feeling tempted to open a crate, the difficulty has a savage spike in the final act, where the army you built is suddenly vastly underpowered compared to the never-ending waves of legendary orcs assailing your bastions. I gave up when an assault force of six legendary orcs walked through my defenses like a screen door and put all my best warriors to the blade. It was a massacre, so I decided to open my first and last loot crate. For reasons unknown to me, I was granted a free golden war chest. Inside was a very powerful legendary orc, far stronger than any I had encountered in the wild, so I assigned him as my bodyguard (another fun new feature). The very first time I summoned him, he immediately betrayed me, saying that he had suffered under my control for far too long. When I tried to reassert my dominance I discovered he had become unbreakable, making him immune to mind control, so we had a prolonged fight to the death. If I had paid real dollars for that orc, I would be beyond furious.
Ironically, Shadow of War’s main story campaign is an apt allegory for its own failure, its noble intentions corrupted by greedy ambition. Celebrimbor forges a new ring of power, certain that this one will be pure and untainted, the perfect weapon to oppose Sauron. As the story goes on the elven wraith uses many of the villain’s own tactics—murder, torture and mind control—until he is just as feared as the Dark Lord. Talion is dismayed to discover that he has only traded one tyrant for another. Shadow of Mordor was a truly unique and powerful game, but Shadow of War simply could not resist the monetary temptation of microtransactions. Instead of making it better, they settled for bigger and more profitable. They built the most powerful storytelling engine of the new generation, and the best idea they had for a sequel was to strip it down and sell the parts.