We really enjoyed Shadow of Mordor when it launched back in 2014. It wasn't a perfect action-adventure, but the Nemesis system brought dynamics to the table that we'd never experienced before, and really haven't experienced since. Until now, as the Nemesis system that procedurally and dynamically populates your world with Orc captains, warchiefs, and overlords, is back with a vengeance in Shadow of War, expanded and more varied than ever.
But let's begin by setting the stage, Talion and his wraith pal Celebrimbor (the master blacksmith who forged the one ring) create a new ring, one to undo the problems that Celebrimbor's previous rings caused (or something to that end). The only problem is before the game even starts we lose it to Shelob, this sets in motion a prologue or first act, that in spectacular Metroid fashion strips you of your abilities, lets you start from scratch and quite frankly feels a lot like the first game. You won't be dominating captains or setting up sieges here, instead, you're mainly building yourself up and slaying Orcs. It's a weak beginning, and for the first 10 hours or so, we couldn't help but feel a bit disappointed by what Shadow of War offers.
The structure of the game is a bit hard to grasp as you'll switch between several questlines, some clearly more side content, while strangely the main one (with Eltariel) takes a while to get going. The missions themselves, whether part of the main story or the various related branches (Gondor, Brûz, Carnán), are rather varied, and while there is still too much reliance on "follow me" quests, they're not as long as they were in the first one and offer a better mix of objectives.
As is often the case in games of this nature it's not the main storyline that entertains the most. In fact, our favourite questline was the one involving Bruz and the returning Ratbag. From the Beyond Thunderdome inspired reveal of Ratbag to the hugely satisfying finale, the tone and the themes explored in this questline provided a nice contrast to the sometimes dull and serious nature of Talion's other dealings. It should be said that while the main story failed to engage us, it did have a satisfying ending with some neat twists.
It's a much bigger game, instead of two small game maps, we're now treated to five small game maps, but in all honesty, the size of the sandboxes is a good fit with the Nemesis system. Any bigger and the chance encounters wouldn't happen often enough, any smaller and we'd have even more party-crashing Orc captains during encounters. There's a good balance here where you will have fights gatecrashed by a couple of extra captains, but only rarely, and when it happens it feels special. That said, the environments aren't that inspired. The map designs themselves are good, but you'll get a bit tired of all the grey and brown environments over the course of the game, even if there are exceptions to the colour palette. And it isn't helped by the rather poor texture work on display.
One problem that remains from the first game is traversal. It is highly context sensitive, yet not context sensitive enough. This makes for some awkward moments where you'll run up to a wall (pressing X lets you run), only to find that you need to let go of X just before the wall to then press X again to climb it. The same goes for dodge rolling into scenery (also X with a direction). Some of this is down to having learnt how other games deal with this, but it just makes us feel a bit clumsy. Unnecessarily. We learned how to overcome it with time, but it took a while.
The combat itself is deep and highly reliant on reacting to prompts to parry, counter, and dodge. There's depth here, particularly when you factor in your various wraith abilities, but it is perhaps not as rewarding as, say, the combat in the Arkham titles.
We've already mentioned the Nemesis system and that is clearly the big selling point here. At first, you'll likely find it remarkably similar to the first game, but as more mechanics are introduced and greater variation in terms of Orcish traits comes into play, you'll begin to appreciate it even more and see its evolution. It is incredibly satisfying when you're able to exploit a weakness to maximum effect or when you manage to pit a low-level captain against a high level one, but come out on top thanks to favourable traits.
There are more Nemesis missions, and more ways to manipulate them, and humiliations and shaming are a great way of creating storylines with the Orcs. We got into this wonderfully complex situation where we were facing one high-level captain, ambushing him with a follower, only for him to have support by a blood brother of our follower, so he betrayed us when we started attacking his friend. We then dominated our follower again. It was glorious chaos. Online vendettas also make their return and offer interesting scenarios and potential loot. Many of the later objectives you need to clear to level up legendary loot is tied to high-level vendettas.
Speaking of loot and progression, there's a lot of complexity here. First of all, you've got the skill tree, which allows you to gain useful skills early on, only to later mainly provide variation. However, the way you upgrade loot to add perks adds an interesting twist, and grinding for gems also has its charms. Overall, there's complexity here which is a good thing, even if it takes you a while to grasp how to best min/max your equipment and gear.
Sieges are a major introduction that complements the Nemesis system nicely, however, we were a bit disappointed in how little variation they actually offer. We enjoyed jockeying for position and setting up Warchiefs more than actually setting the Siege in motion, and particularly the throne rooms, where you face off against an overlord, felt a bit cheap. Essentially the game locks you in a room where you're stripped of your bodyguard, your ability to use stealth, and you're forced to fight on the overlord's terms after having crushed his defences outside of the throne room. This leads us to the conclusion that the game, in its willingness to empower (and overpower) the player, might need to resort to this sort of thing to provide a challenge, which honestly feels a bit cheap. When you face an overlord without weaknesses and his respawning underlings, chipping away at his health begins to feel like a chore. Defending your fortress is more fun, as you won't have to bother with the throne room bit. If you enjoy the sieges more than we did you'll be glad to know that much of the end game revolves around it, and it actually gets more interesting then.
Shadow of War is a more fleshed out game than the predecessor; it simply offers more to do. We've spent upwards of 40 hours playing the game and there's still more to do once you've finished the game's storyline. Sadly the content is a bit uneven in terms of quality, so not everything we've been given is an improvement over what was in the first.
It is obvious that Monolith has put in some serious work in creating more standout set pieces in Shadow of War. You'll be fighting a Balrog a few times, you'll be flying on Drakes (or Drake-equivalents), and fight plenty of Ringwraiths. Sadly, many of these moments come off as disappointments due to their rigid designs. Flying a Drake in the rather small maps with invisible walls lining the playable zones felt awkward at times. The Ringwraiths are pretty much immune to most of your abilities and skills and the way to combat them is to simply parry, their attacks, counter, rinse and repeat (with some variation on that as you face different Nazgûl). Maybe in an effort to try and provide variation, we simply wound up with an experience that is a bit too uneven quality-wise.
In terms of audiovisual quality Shadow of War provides a bit of a mixed bag, particularly the technical aspect of the visuals is underwhelming with plenty of clipping and unimpressive textures. The design of the world, while suffering a bit from the dull colour palette should be commended and there are some gorgeous vistas to take in. We also quite enjoyed the Orc designs and were impressed with how the various tribes, classes and traits worked together to form cohesive characters in the Nemesis system. The soundtrack and score provide a solid and suitably foreboding background to the game, while a special mention should go to the various Orc voices that actually never felt repetitive (even if we feared the intros would get stale and repetitive at first), what was repetitive though was Celebrimbor's mutterings. Playing the game on PS4 (Pro), we also noted the extensive use of the DualShock 4 speaker, something that's not too common these days. Another thing that should be commended is the rather extensive options the player is afforded when it comes to the user interface, by default the screen is littered with prompts, objective markers and hints, but you deactivate most of it for a cleaner look once you're comfortable with the combat system and game structure.
One major controversy ahead of the release of Shadow of War was the inclusion of loot boxes in what's primarily a single-player game. And at the end of the day, while it doesn't ruin the experience, you can tell that to some extent it has informed the design of the loot system in a way that's not entirely optimal from a player perspective. You'll have lots of loot to sort through, most of it useless and, outside of loot boxes, everything you get with the in-game currency is so cheap that you'll never feel the need to save up to unlock things. Furthermore, the option of buying extra captains and inserting them into various regions feels an awful lot like cheating, and we would have rather seen more meaningful ways in which to improve and train your Orc captains. It's unfortunate the desire to create a reason for microtransactions prevented a better, more enjoyable system from being put in place. How about specific missions to send your captains on to secure flame weapons or new traits instead of opening war chests for these items? Maybe recruitment missions?
Once again it's the Nemesis system to the rescue as it will provide the most memorable moments of your experience in Mordor. It will create standout moments, rivalries, comedy, and at times frustration, but without it Shadow of War would have been an underwhelming game. There are bright spots in some of the storylines, and there is decent depth in the combat system, but overall we would have hoped that Monolith would have been able to step it up a bit more on all fronts. As it stands, Shadow of War isn't the evolution we were hoping for, rather it feels like more of the same, and lots of it. Instead of a third game starring Talion, we hope Monolith will explore something new with the Nemesis system next time around.
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