With its recent release we jump back into a series with one of the most ambitious attempts at game play of the last 10 years. Ladies and gentlemen let’s look at Middle-earth: Shadow of War.
I am the first to admit I was a nerd in school (and some would say even now. Hell I am reviewing video games as a hobby) but Lord of the Rings was one of those things I didn’t get. This was quite possibly because the first movie wasn’t released until 2001, two years after I left high school and before that fantasy wasn’t my forte for reading, I preferred the Star Wars extended universe or biographies. However, that’s neither here or there; to say I am a fan of the universe these days is an understatement. I devoured Shadow of Mordor when it initially came out but by the time I finished the main story I was ready to be done with it. Sure it was fun but the end game didn’t hold my attention. But when I heard Shadow of War was being made I couldn’t help by get excited; three years of development can do a lot for a game engine.
I will get into details of the story shortly, but the main focus of this game should be the technical aspects of it. Monolith has been pretty cagey about what graphics engine the game is running, however, there are tidbits around from various interviews that suggest it’s the same base engine that ran the original Shadow of Mordor with a lot of tweaking. It now includes 4k and UHD rendering for people with machines who can handle it. My review rig runs an i5 6600k 32 GB of RAM and a Geforce GTX 1070 and the graphical detail on the game is simply amazing. You lose some detail during gameplay but you only notice that if you go looking for it. In saying that, it is playable (while not pretty) on a mid-range system with the minimum requirements being a GTX660/AMD HD 7870, core i5 2300 and 6 GB of ram. Being that its based in Mordor the development team was able to get away with using a lot of muted colours due to the setting, so get used to lots of browns, blacks and greys while running around killing the muted green orcs.
Building your forces is a needed aspect of the game but sometimes you just have to kill some orcs.
The graphics are only one part of the technical brilliance of the game and not the one everyone raves about. I am speaking of course of the Nemesis Engine. If you don’t know what that is and you didn’t play Shadow of Mordor, here is a quick rundown. You are in the middle of a fight with 10 odd enemies, not too unusual for an open world game. All of a sudden you are knocked down and a random orc kills you. This orc will be promoted up the ranks of the army and develop characteristics along the way. Not only that, but he will have a name and will remember you, maybe harking back to some incident from the past in his opening monologue. His skills will also adapt to your past actions, so if you liked jumping over the top and attacking from behind he may develop in a way to stop that happening. This is a bad thing if you keep losing or don’t behead him to ensure he stays dead as he may develop enough skills that the only way you can beat him is a knock down dragged out brawl of lots of counters or by blowing up barrels around him. Good example of these is tearofgrace on youtube and his Shadows of Mordor series, one of the most hilarious things I have ever watched on youtube. Look out for giggles if you watch it.
To say the Nemesis Engine has been ramped up would be an understatement. Orcs can now evolve mid fight. I have had a number of named orcs develop a leap blocking ability, one of my favorite moves, meaning I have to develop strategies on the fly to keep going forward. With the Nemesis Engine tweaks and the graphical engine tweaks we have a game that now delivers fully on what it promises; middle earth army combat. In my screen when attacking the one fort I have counted over 100 individual NPC’s in my army alone, not taking into account the enemy NPCs. That’s an impressive count. These NPCs are controlled by dedicated engines so that you as the player are not taken out of the game by having to focus on the overall picture and instead you can focus on what directly affects you and those in close proximity.
The sound itself hasn’t changed much. The music is still that Lord of the Rings inspired style of music and the sound, particularly through a set of sound deadening headphones, is deep and meaty. The voice acting which I will speak more on further down is of a high quality and worth every minute I have listened to so far.
Everyone wants to ride a dragon, but is it actually fun?
There has been hype leading up to the game on three major aspects; the RPG element, the open world fortress taking and the drakes. The weakest of these is the RPG element; it is essentially just a re-branding of the rune system from the last game with the new ability to customize (via the leveled gear) how Talion looks and what weapons he uses. It is fun but you can see where the developers wanted to go and expand on it but weren’t able to.
The open world fortress taking however does get to where the developers wanted in most respects. The fortresses involve a battle with a number of control points to capture and aspects to take into account such as war chiefs and their abilities. Do you take out a war chief before trying to take the fortress or do you infiltrate his ranks with spys that will turn the tide of battle. I haven’t yet found out if I can turn someone who will betray the overlord, however I hope that this is an aspect you can do later.
Finally, drakes. Everyone was excited about the chance to fly on the back of a drake, but having experienced it, it’s not worth the wait. The best way I can describe it is that it is like trying to fly in an online game of grand theft auto and being constantly targeted by other players. It’s a similar experience.
Celebrimbor about to strike his new ring of power.
What I would like to finish off talking about is the fantastic voice acting with some returning alumni doing just as well here as they did in the previous game. Troy Baker and Alastair Duncan are still the perfect team for Talion and Celebrimbor with Talion now sounding like he has grown weary of his continued life until he finds a new purpose and Celebrimbor being the ever ongoing harshness in their relationship. Liam Obrian could make you think it was Andy Serkis playing Gollum in the game with how on point he is mimicking Serkis. There is another returning actor in his previous role but I will let players discover that one for themselves. These awesome performances are joined by the likes of Pollyanna McIntosh as Shelob. Her work I haven’t heard prior to this, however she gives light to the age old quote, “’come into my parlour’ said the spider the to fly.” Her voice work draws you in and entrances you as the listener. Gideon Emery, who has worked on shows such as Teen Wolf, had me cracking up as his character of Bruz, essentially the ratbag of the game walking you though your first time using the higher level skills and your taking over of the first fortress.
Some of the “rewards” from microtransactions.
There was one aspect I wasn’t sure if I was going to cover here. However, to not do so would mean I am not giving you all the information. As I have mentioned in one of my other reviews we see the worrying problem of micro-transactions making an appearance in this game. Now first off I want to preface this with notation that there is no online pay to win game here, the only interaction you have online is in a single player aspect, you are not taking on other players directly. In saying this I have purchased a micro-transaction so I could give a complete review and found it to be pretty worthless for what I spent. They are not pushed into your face but you know they are an option. This may be a breaking point for some people and personally if it wasn’t for other factors I would have skipped this game due to the inclusion of micro-transactions. I feel if we are buying games with these as an aspect after paying full retail we are setting a very dangerous precedent, however monolith and WB haven’t made these a required aspect and so you can complete the game without even looking at them.
Overall the game is fun, if not for everyone. I would recommend giving it a go for anyone who played the first one and at least enjoyed it and maybe even if you hated it and want to give the series another chance. Yes, there are some deficiencies in the game, micro-transactions being chief among them however there is nothing game breaking about them. I would give this a solid 7.5 out of 10.