I’ve mentioned in a few of my previous reviews that as I’ve gotten older, I’ve steadily drifted away from the enthusiast video game crowd. That doesn’t mean I don’t play games all the time and love the hobby to death; it means that the people don’t really seem like they’re my people anymore. They’re loud to the point of it being awkward. They’re always angry about something. They never shut up about “the consumer” as if they speak for everyone who plays games. The press is rarely better, going on and on about how Games Are Too Hard Now.
It’s a shame; I used to remember “gamers” as the other kids at the lunchroom who were all excited about the latest release and the games press was the sort of all the hottest news about upcoming game. Later, “gamers” were the other posters on video game forums who’d share tips, who’d chat and who’d in many cases become long-lived friends. These days? I’m a guy who plays video games, but I think I’m a little too chill to be a gamer. Outrage gives me indigestion. Well, unless it’s about crowdfunding, then I’m right on board the outrage train…
Anyway, one of the more recent outrage magnets has been today’s topic: Middle-earth: Shadow of War, the sequel to 2014’s excellent Shadow of Mordor. We’ll get into the “controversy,” such as it is, in a few, but let’s preface the review by saying that you shouldn’t be surprised to find that the awful anti-consumer practices that were railed against in this game are minor and forgettable. The game itself, meanwhile, is well done as one might expect from a sequel to Shadow of Mordor. If you skip this one over lootboxes, you’re cutting off your nose to spite your face.
Just to get this out of the way: I’m not a Lord of the Rings guy. I’m a video game guy. With that in mind, I’m not going to pretend to know every little thing about the lore here. Apparently there are enough inconsistencies that the kind of people you’d expect to get mad about this sort of thing are in fact mad about it. If you’re one of those people, you may wish to keep that in the back of your mind when making your buying decision, as it’s likely to be more pertinently offensive than the lootbox thing.
That said: Shadow of War again follows Tallion, a ranger murdered by the forces of the evil Sauron, and his ghost pal Celebrimbor, who possesses Tallion and keeps him sorta-kinda alive, as they battle Sauron and his endless army of orcs. In the previous game, the pair used Celebrimbor’s power to forge a new Ring of Power, a mighty artifact that would give them the strength needed to turn the tide. We join our heroes about five minutes before the ring’s taken by the spider creature Shelob. The priority list here, then, is to figure out how to get the Ring back, figure out how to use it to battle Sauron, put that plan into action and hopefully claim victory.
The core gameplay of Shadow of War is more than a little similar to the style we’re familiar with from the Batman Arkham series of games. It’s a combination of stealth, ranged combat and fast-paced melee with a focus on countering enemy attacks; Tallion and Celebrimbor feel powerful and it takes a solid ten to fifteen regular enemies before you’re in any danger whatsoever. You’ll cut through the rank and file orcs like a hot sword through something something hobbits. It’s liberating if you’re used to hack and slashers where individual baddies pose more of a threat.
The unwashed orc masses aren’t the focus here, though. They’re the appetizers to the main event: named orcs, trolls and ogres with their own personalities and traits. These are the head honchos in Sauron’s army, serving as Captains, Bodygurds, Warchiefs and so on, and the majority of Shadow of War’s time is spent establishing these guys as your real opposition. Taking out a Captain early on might just amount to a slightly more difficult swordfight, but as the game progresses you’ll need to get into the habit of interrogating especially weak orcs to learn about each Captain’s weaknesses and have a chance of winning. Victory yields experience for character growth as well as loot to improve Tallion’s stats and abilities.
That ties into the Nemesis System, the Shadow series’ premier feature and a twist that I’m surprised hasn’t shown up as a me-too feature in more games. Enemy Captains eventually reach a point where they’re less enemies and more Events. It’s entirely possible that you won’t be able to beat a given Captain when it comes down to it; maybe he’ll run away, maybe reinforcements will arrive and you’ll have to run away, or maybe he’ll just straight up defeat you. In any case, that Captain will certainly be back. He might be a little stronger and wiser for having clashed with you; he might even have a new scar from a well-aimed sword slash. He’s going to remember who you are and make you pay, and you’ll likely run into each other time and time again, with the conflict steadily increasing. It’s entirely possible to have multiple nemeses or one big bad special orc who makes your life Hell on a regular basis, but either way these guys are going to be memorable villains that will stick with you throughout the game.
Around five to ten hours into the game, another wrinkle is added to this system: Tallion and Celebrimbor become able to Dominate orcs. This allows you to take control of Captains and other special orcs, pressing them into your own army instead of Sauron’s; much hullabaloo has been made about the ethics of this, but given they killed Tallion once and consistently try to do it again, I think it’s on the lighter side of gray at worse. Anyway, raising your own army of orcs allows you to siege fortresses, infiltrate the ranks of Sauron’s army and basically cause all manner of problems for the bad guys. It’s a nice touch and it gives Shadow of War a fair amount of replayability as you’re constantly trying to find better soldiers.
We can’t talk about building an army and finding new gear without touching on the real reason Shadow of War’s gotten so much press, of course. Yes, this game has lootboxes; you can pay real money for currency that’s spent on random prize draws, including new orcs and gear. This feature has proven to be yet another example of how divorced I’ve become from the enthusiast video game community at large, I think, because for the many, many words wasted on this subject, the microtransactions in this game are almost entirely forgettable. If you’ve played Dead Space 3 (a mediocre game, but not because of microtransactions), you’ve got the idea; players with less time or inclination to hunt for their own items can drop a few bucks to get a leg up, but those will almost certainly be the exception rather than the rule.
I love outrage. If you’ve ever heard me talk about crowdfunding failures, you know that I can’t resist partaking in a little of it myself. Don’t get me wrong, nothing would make me happier than the outpouring of raw drama that would stem from the lootboxes in this game being the most predatory, game-ruining things ever. I can’t say that’s the case here, though. The system is present. It is also entirely ignorable and the game doesn’t especially work to drive you to it. Even the last parts of the game are beatable without buying a single lootbox and without an especially huge amount of grinding – to say nothing of the fact that the rewards for the game’s most difficult content are minimal at best. This is not the end of the world. The sirens were a false alarm. Please return to your regularly scheduled outrage over preorders or whatever cultural issue of the week is popular.
With that out of the way: Shadow of War is pretty! It sounds good! If you play it on PC it runs well and I assume the same can be said of the console versions! It’s a lot of fun! All of the various gameplay loops fit together nicely, creating, at times, a sort of cross between an action-RPG and a management game. The Nemesis System, itself the subject of much cynical speculation when it was originally announced, has proven itself twice now as a great way to get you involved with the game.
This is, all in all, a solid experience that’s gotten a much worse rap than it should have thanks to the classic angry vocal minority of enthusiast video gamers getting ahead of itself yet again. If you haven’t already gotten used to ignoring those guys, consider this yet another reminder: the outrage of the week rarely ever amounts to much. What matters is the game. Middle-earth: Shadow of War, as it turns out, is a pretty good one thanks to its syrupy mix of content that results in a product that’s more than the sum of its parts.