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.