Like Shadow of Mordor before it, Middle-earth: Shadow of War is so much more than just another open-world action game with Batman’s combat. Its amazing Nemesis system makes almost every encounter with a named enemy a memorable battle, and the new fortress sieges give it legs beyond the campaign through asynchronous multiplayer.
This story plays just as fast and loose with Lord of the Rings’ lore as the last time. It picks up after the conjoined spirits of ancient elf lord Celebrimbor and Aragorn stunt double Talion forge a new Ring of Power… and immediately lose it. Their beefs with the weirdly sexy human form of the giant spider Shelob, the Witch King, and even Sauron himself (again) feel drawn out and filled with plenty of clunky, derivative dialogue, but there are some strong moments.
Flashbacks to the Ringwraiths’ corruption give the ghostly Nazgul a tragic side, battles with the fiery Balrog are big on spectacle, and witnessing the founding of Minas Morgul (several hundred years later than J.R.R Tolkien suggested) are all standouts – if you can stomach the non-canon version of events. A growing conflict between the stoic and pragmatic Celebrimbor and the empathetic and Gondor-loyal Talion adds some depth to both characters, though with all the setup I was expecting a choice between their philosophies that never came. And there are a few original characters, especially the returning Ratbag, who provide some decent comic relief in the absence of dwarves or hobbits.
The story goes to interesting places – visually, at least. Each of Shadow of War’s five zones looks markedly different, and fast-traveling between the icy mountains of Sergost to the green swamps of Nurnen and the volcanic Gorgoroth gives it a good sense of variety. Each area is full of ruins and other structures to climb on and tunnels to explore, plus an urban Fortress area unlike anything in Shadow of Mordor’s map. On the other hand, that variety is only skin deep: all the locations are functionally identical (there are no effects of heat or cold and no unique conditions) and each one is inhabited by the same types of enemies and wildlife. And their beauty is sometimes disfigured by some nasty pop-in that can leave terrain textures looking almost literally like something out of Minecraft – it’s especially pronounced on stone walls in ruins. (From time to time I’ve also spotted enemies with completely blank faces that pop in after a few moments.)
Each region is a respectable size, which means there’s quite a lot of running from place to place as you chase down quest markers, but Talion’s moves make movement quick and fun. You start with or quickly unlock most of the running powers from the end of Shadow of Mordor, which make you work for your speed boosts by tapping the run button as you vault over objects and leap between handholds on walls. You also get an indispensable new double-jump ability which allows you to leap longer distances and change direction mid-air. I rarely jump without it anymore, even when I don’t need it, because it feels so good to use. The catch is that, like in most open-world games in which you can climb nearly anything, there’s an annoying tendency of sticking to the wrong thing or getting stuck briefly to a ledge when you wanted to roll off of it.
All of these areas are absolutely crawling with uruks, and it’s from encounters with them – specifically their leaders – that the real story of Shadow of War arises. It’s great to constantly run into colorful characters with names like Khrosh the Pickler, Grom the Corruptor, and Borgu the Bard, who serenades you with his lute before he attacks. There’s a remarkable range of voices (I’ve lost count, but if there are less than 100 I’d be surprised) and faces and bodies are modified with a huge number of helmet and armor types and disgusting disfigurements. I’m still seeing new voices, faces, and armor elements even after 50 hours.
Underneath, each has their own random combination of a huge selection of class-based abilities, strengths to counter, and fears and weaknesses to exploit. It’s a far more in-depth system than what we saw in Shadow of Mordor, with everything from being equipped with flaming or poisoned weaponry and flashbombs to more complex and scarier abilities like killing you outright, ignoring the Last Chance mechanic that allows you to save yourself when you run out of health. Some are immune to execution moves or arrows, and some can defy death and come back at you with a second wind just at you think you’ve won. Some become enraged (making them attack with more ferocity and impossible to pacify until they calm down a notch) at certain moves, like vaulting over them or using a freeze power – and some become enraged over literally everything. Some have weaknesses that let you instantly kill them with fire or stealth attacks, others have only slight vulnerabilities to certain damage types. (If the annoying immunity to melee weapons from Shadow of Mordor exists in Shadow of War, I haven’t encountered it.)
Though it’s generally easy to interrogate a lacky uruk and learn a captain’s weaknesses, sometimes I prefer to go in blind and discover their traits by trial and error in combat. Other things can’t be predicted as easily: sometimes enemy uruks will ambush you out of nowhere, or they’ll turn on you when you least suspect it. They’re full of surprises and personality, so much so that It’s almost a shame to lop their heads and limbs off with spectacularly animated, slow-motion finishing moves.
Uruk captains are also walking meat pinatas full of potentially game-changing loot, which ranges from a sword that has a chance to set things on fire to a suit of armor that actively heals you while you’re on fire. The higher the level of the uruk you kill, the better the potential of the gear that will drop. That makes it an interesting tradeoff to kill an uruk captain instead of brainwashing him and recruiting him into your army.
Each piece of rare, epic, or legendary loot comes with a challenge to unlock its more powerful traits: for instance, kill X enemies while mounted on a tiger-like Caragor and your sword will suddenly do more damage while your health is low, or throw Y enemies off of ledges to activate your cape’s power to make your allies do more damage in combat. Thanks to these side goals there’s always something new to do as you fight, and there’s always another reward waiting for you. Some of those challenges are built around the absurdly forgiving stealth (you can pretty much run right up to an uruk and stab him to death before anyone notices), but most are active and interesting. There’s also a Diablo-like gem crafting and slotting system, which lets you customize your build on each piece of gear to suit your playstyle with enhanced damage, health, or chances for good-quality drops.
Just like in Shadow of Mordor, individual rank-and-file uruks are so non-threatening they’re basically health pickups. Literally – the quickest way to restore your health is to drain it from an unsuspecting victim (or one of the rats that scurry around in certain areas). But when dozens of them flood the screen at once they’re a force to be reckoned with, and they’ll beat on you if you try to suck the life out of their friends. When a captain enters a fray like that it’s like a scene in a movie in which two opposing heroes spot each other across the battlefield and cut a swath through their armies to fight.
So it’s easy to get overwhelmed, even when Talion is leveled up with ridiculously powerful abilities like teleporting to any basic enemy in sight and instantly killing them with Shadow Strike. The skill tree is impressively flexible, with each of its dozens of unlockable abilities having two or three possible upgrades (one of which can be active at a time) that can, for instance, let you summon a caragor, a rancor-like graug, or even a drake for a mount. You level up frequently enough that there’s always something new to experiment with.
Knowing when to back off and find a way to heal up is key: thanks to Talion’s mobility and most uruk’s relatively slow speed it’s almost always easy to escape when you need to. But especially when you’re in tight quarters, Shadow of War is much better at keeping the pressure on than Shadow of Mordor, and high-level uruks just keep on coming, so its fights never get quite as easy toward the end. Considering it’s actually impactful and sort of fun to die because of the way the enemy uruks rank up, that’s a very good thing. Any nameless uruk who gets in a lucky shot becomes a captain as a reward – and also becomes a great target for satisfying revenge.
It’s true that you could count the enemy types that didn’t appear in Shadow of Mordor on one hand, and I’d have liked to have seen more variety in different locations. But the few that are there do have a major impact: the hulking ologs, which resemble the cave trolls from the Lord of the Rings films, make quite an impression with their heavy hitting blows and the way they’ll snag you out of the air and spike you like a football if you try to flip over them. And when a drake flies overhead, its fire breath changes things up considerably: you have to move fast to avoid the foreshadowed blast zone. When they land, they’re some of the most impressive looking dragon fights since Skyrim, and when you gain the ability to ride them they become some of Shadow of War’s most powerful weapons (unless someone has a fire immunity).
Outside of siege trolls and sappers, the only other notable new enemies are the Nazgul themselves, who make ghostly appearances for boss fights and each require specific moves to make them vulnerable to attack. Those fights can get tough, especially when they happen in the midst of a larger brawl where it’s hard to focus on countering everything at once.
The biggest new features of Shadow of War are its fortresses, which you can conquer with a large-scale invasion force of brainwashed uruks that you customize and upgrade before each assault. The battles are impressive in that there are probably between 100 and 200 uruks running around hacking each other to bits, but the process of breaching walls and holding capture points tends to be pretty easy: you’ve got an army backing you up, led by your fiercest captains and upgraded with everything from mounted cavalry to siege artillery in support, so unless you’re drastically outmatched by the other side, the first stage of a siege isn’t going to present much of a problem. (I’ve yet to actually fail one of these.) But the battle at the end with the local Overlord and his henchmen is no joke: not only are they generally powerful uruks, but the throne rooms are usually rigged up with flame or poison sprayers, and they constantly throw new henchmen at you to deprive you of breathing room.
Once you’ve taken a fortress, you get to appoint your own forces to defend it against invasions, both as part of the story and in the asynchronous multiplayer where other players can basically download a copy of your uruks to fight (meaning they don’t die if they successfully conquer your fortress). This means uruks you capture are essentially loot, too, with Epic and Legendary captains presenting the most potential for causing trouble for invaders. You can’t expect any uruk force to stop a competent player, but you can sure slow them down, and speed is what you’re scored on when leading a conquest. Leveling promising uruks up by sending them on assassination missions against hostile uruks or in AI-versus-AI pit fights gives them an almost Pokemon-like feeling, except with the added tension of a favorite uruk dying if they lose.
But there’s not enough control over your armies in either invasions or the defenses to make them feel really strategic. You don’t get to position your troops on the map, and you can’t place any traps or anything to funnel the enemy into their doom – defensive upgrades like spouts of poisonous goo or caged drakes serving as flamethrowers are pre-placed. You pretty much just wind up your toy soldiers and let them fight it out on their own – which is plenty entertaining to watch as it happens around you, but not much of a challenge.
These battles and the buildup to them is where you’re likely to spend the majority of your time with Shadow of War. The campaign missions are in the 15 to 20-hour range, but I easily spent that long again fighting uruks to create my armies and doing both campaign and online sieges. On top of that are a good number of challenge missions, presented as flashbacks to Celebrimbor’s heyday, and plenty of collectibles to keep you busy.
The other online feature is carried over from Shadow of Mordor: if you’re killed, other players get a chance at killing the uruk who killed you, and vice versa. Joining one of those Vendetta missions is a good way to make sure you get a proven challenge: usually, if an uruk has killed someone it’s not going to be a pushover. This is a great way to score some of Shadow of War’s somewhat redundant loot boxes, if you’re so inclined.
On that note, a quick word about the controversial microtransactions: you can and totally should ignore them completely. Buying loot boxes is just a way to get loot that isn’t killing uruks, which is the best thing about Shadow of War. It’s especially bizarre that these exist because so much of the allure of Shadow of War is that its enemies basically are loot boxes to begin with. So in buying them, you’d basically be paying to avoid scratching off the metaphorical lottery ticket that is an uruk’s head to reveal the loot you’re about to acquire. On top of that, I’ve had more than enough of the in-game silver currency to buy whatever I’ve needed in terms of upgrades (it’s used to enhance gear or unlock slots captain slots for sieges and defenses), so there’s been no need or even desire to spend a dime.
Similar to the way Batman: Arkham City built on the foundation of Arkham Asylum, Middle-earth: Shadow of War is bigger and more ambitious in scope than Shadow of Mordor, with great results. The way it expands the Nemesis system with far greater variety and fortress sieges makes even better use of the stand-out generated characters, and its battles with memorable uruk captains remain challenging all the way through the campaign and into the clever asynchronous multiplayer beyond.