My army and I had sieged the enemy stronghold. With three of my strongest soldiers by my side, we kicked open the front doors of their fortress, identified their war commanders and began battle. I raced toward the overlord as my men battled his men. The fight was going as planned and success was easily in my reach, but then a sunken feeling enveloped me as I watched one of my favorite soldiers be brutally murdered by a rival warchief. There was a tangible feeling of sadness that I felt in this moment which encapsulates the power of Shadow of War and my feelings towards the game. It’s not often that I am this impressed with a game’s systems like I am with the nemesis system. Middle-Earth: Shadow of War takes what it established in Shadow of Mordor and goes absolutely insane with it.
You play as Talion, a ranger who shares his body with a ghost named Celebrimbor. That is quite honestly as much as I can really tell you about the main narrative of the game. Tolkien lore is something that I have never actually been into. The story within the game plays off of this lore and as an outsider to the universe, I didn’t necessarily feel welcomed to enjoy the story like a Tolkien fan would despite beautifully crafted cutscenes. That doesn’t mean that there is no value to the story of this game to any newcomers. On the contrary, even though I was lost when it came to the big picture of the story, the elements of war and the narrative splices regarding orcs and uruks caught my attention. The writing for the orcs is phenomenal. Whether it is the Orcs’ roles in the story, random in world dialogue, or their constant antagonizing of you, everything the orcs have to say is enjoyable. This is massively impressive given that the dialogue varies with the countless permutations of the various contexts.
The hands down most impressive part of Shadow of War is its nemesis system which is nearly impossible to fully break down in this review. This is mainly because there are so many moving parts. The nemesis system is Shadow of War’s way of giving orcs in the world personalities, backstories and motivations. It allows orcs to remember the encounters that you have much like in the previous game, however in Shadow of War the system is more built out. Enemies have a larger variety of reactions to you. Sometimes, they hunt you down. There are even more unique characteristics the orcs have than previously. One of the more interesting parts of the system is the aspect of building an army. As may be obvious, in this game you’re often waging war. This means that you need to recruit orcs to join your army. Orcs in this case are almost like Pokemon in their unique characteristics and the fact that you get to pin them against one another and root for your own to secure victory. At times it can feel like there are so many systems at play in Shadow of War that it can get unwieldy. The previous game, Shadow of Mordor, instilled more of a sense of control over the system while in this game, the system feels larger than life which can feel both massively impressive but at times confusing.
A large bulk of the game is spent in combat which is also enhanced by the presence of the nemesis system. The combat is akin to games like the Batman Arkham series and Assassin’s Creed, but because of the nemesis system, you’re not only focused on taking down your enemies. Enemy orcs might sometimes be suitable to join your army. Sometimes enemy orcs may have intel you need to take down a warchief. These types of elements add a level of conscious thinking to your battles along with the strengths and weaknesses of higher ranking enemies. My only complaint with the combat is that when things get overwhelming, the combat can get boring and repetitive as I stuck to safe strategies and repeating actions I knew could defeat my targeted warchief.
The world in Shadow of War is bigger and more diverse than in the previous game. There are more areas to choose from with their own hierarchies of power. Navigating and exploring these areas could sometimes feel boring because there’s a lack of interesting things to discover in the world. Thankfully, the game substitutes realism for player convenience when it comes to movement as you automatically vault large gaps when climbing and running which makes traversal painless even if there are moments of jankiness in the way the animation looks.
Shadow of War is a bigger, deeper, more systems heavy game than its predecessor. This mostly works in its favor. When those unplanned gameplay moments happened as I was interacting with the orcs and overtaking overlords, I was always struck with awe and excitement as one of my own warchiefs betrayed me or a captain that I had murdered hours earlier interrupted me in a crucial moment. Games rarely replicate this feeling of awe in emergent gameplay. Despite being uninterested in the story and some overwhelming design, Shadow of War ultimately delivers in giving players the opportunity to create their own stories in this orc-filled world.