Middle Earth: Shadow of War builds on almost every facet of its forerunner carefully - and the result is generally very exciting, if uninspiring.
Back in 2014 when Shadow of Mordor launched that game proved to be something of a revelation. Most of the shock around its sheer quality was down to one thing, the enticing 'nemesis' system that saw you build dynamic relationships and rivalries with boss characters out in the world. It became a proper 'water cooler' video game in that no two experiences were exactly the same. Instead, players would end up trading stories about particularly crazy orcs they encountered or moments when rivalries compounded to make for unique twists in the game's tale.
Honestly, I think this system and the charm it oozed from every pore saved Shadow of Mordor from simply being considered a decent licensed game - it became something special. Toss in tried-and-true, counter-heavy combat borrowed from the Batman Arkham games and it wasn't too surprising to see Monolith Studios and Warner Bros. have a hit on their hands.
Shadow of War builds on those foundations as smartly as a sequel can. All of the things that made Shadow of Mordor great are present here, turned up to eleven. That's the good stuff - these mechanics are still exciting and fun, and the changes and additions make them even more potently so.
"All of the things that made Shadow of Mordor great are present here, turned up to eleven."
The sequel's big catch comes in areas that gameplay can't quite save. The game seems to give way to some of the worst excesses of Tolkien's storytelling but without the richness of theme. This is something the first game struggled with too, but Shadow of War seems to plod along with hefty amounts of exposition that never feels very interesting. There are a fair few examples of this in the first twenty minutes as embedded in video form above, but this problem seems to run right through the game like a stick of rock. Even if something changes in the final stretch I'm yet to see, I spent way too much of the game hovering with my finger over the 'skip cutscene' button, desperate to press - but I never do because when reviewing you should really see it all. If I weren't I'd skip, though, and that's damning.
It's just stodgy, and I don't get the impression that being a hardcore Tolkien nerd will particularly help matters, especially since my understanding from friends who are more lore-dedicated is that this game plays extremely fast and loose with the source material. Oh, and: Talion is a boring, unlikable lead. There. Story gripes over.
But then a lot else is good. A lot is brilliant, in fact. The army building mechanic seems satisfying and interesting, there's a great deck of now tiered RPG gear and loot to work with. There's a strong list of RPG skills on a decent branching skill tree to inject a little more choice into matters, and your move set generally feels more advanced than in the previous game. The combat has that same bite that the Batman combat has always had, but in a world like this it actually feels even more dynamic.
The map feels dense and busy, and all those other things you'd want from an open world environment are executed well. The world feels a little on the bland side but to its credit it also feels real and lived-in, something that in this sort of world can be difficult to achieve. Most of the personality comes from the orc inhabitants, with the different tribes and class of orc all having unique things going on.
"The siege battles feel properly epic. The game comes alive here - even its drab world seems to roar into something more exciting once a large battle begins.."
Shadow of War is at its very best when you're preparing to properly assault a fortress, working out the weak points by assassinating, interrogating and recruiting enemies to both weaken the fortress and provide intel. Once you're ready for the showdown you're treated to massive battles that try to give you your very own Helm's Deep moments - and it all feels pretty fantastic. I hate to use this word, but, deep breath - the siege battles feel properly epic. The game comes alive here - even its drab world seems to roar into something more exciting once a large battle begins.
Not all of the story is a swing and a miss, for the record. There's some raucously funny orcs, and many of your orcish companions have not only brilliant personalities but interesting, worthwhile stories. All of this folds into the nemesis fortress sieges described above, too, as you'll not only be worrying about your objective but also about ensuring some of your favourite orc allies both get a chance to kill and make it out alive.
I'm really torn on Shadow of War right now, then. The core of the game, its heart, its gameplay, is brilliant. There's a lot of top notch stuff going on, and the systems that were so popular in Mordor prior are even bigger, better and smarter here. Sometimes that's a problem, with systems feeling bloated or half-baked, but generally speaking it works excellently.
There's a lot of weird stuff dragging those positives down, though. The narrative difficulties are one thing, but then there's the weird loot box marketplace thing, with chests containing random gear, XP boosts and followers in exchange for in-game or real-world cash. I want to note that these chests feel unnecessary, but there's no doubt going to be a lot of discussion about their place in a single-player RPG going forwards. They just feel weird.
Even with all these problems noted, when Shadow of War shines, it shines bright. The mechanics that power the game serve to make it more than the sum of its parts in the face of some baffling, disappointing stumbles - and that alone makes it worth a look.