No Such Thing As (Having) Too Many Orcs
HIGH The Nemesis system is bigger and better.
LOW Lots of endgame grinding.
WTF The last three missions of the story campaign.
I’m not a big Lord of The Rings fan. I barely watched the first film and only read The Hobbit once in middle school. I don’t have any strong attachment to that world. Yet, when Shadow of Mordor was released in 2014, it ended up being one of my favorite titles that year because of the incredible Nemesis system. Shadow of War expands this system in smart ways, but also expands the rest of the game as well — perhaps too much for its own good.
Like the its predecessor, Shadow of War is an open-world action title where the player explores large maps containing orcs to kill to and quests to complete. To anyone who’s been playing games over the last few years, most of the mechanics will be familiar — the combat feels like it’s straight out of the Batman: Arkham titles, and moving around the world feels a lot like the free-running in Assassin’s Creed. While these aspects of the game check off the necessary boxes, the real draw to this series is the thing that’s uniquely its own — the Nemesis system.
This system allows hundreds of randomly generated orcs to populate the land. Some orcs are big and mean, others are fast and ugly, and some will even sing a song. Each of these orcs have strengths and weaknesses, along with different personalities. It sounds fine enough, but the hook is that orcs who escape or get killed often return stronger, with new skills and new traits. For example, I once burned an orc to death, and when he revived, he was covered in hideous wounds and sounded like he was in constant agony. Another time an orc went crazy after I defeated him multiple times. Thereafter, he stopped talking and only screamed and grunted.
The Nemesis system also makes the player’s death more important (and entertaining.) For example, If a random orc minion kills Talion, they rise up in the ranks, possibly becoming a captain or powerful overlord. When this happened to me and then I finally killed that orc hours later, the victory was one of my favorite moments in the campaign, and it was entirely unscripted. The stories created via the Nemesis system are unique, and vastly more interesting than the actual narrative of Shadow of War — easily, its weakest aspect.
The story starts with the main character from the first game, Talion, making a new ring with the wraith Celebrimbor, who is the elf that forged The One Ring. However, this new ring is pure and can be used to defeat the dark lord. The moment after its creation, a spider being known as Shelob takes it, provides Talion with some visions, and… lots of other things happen. There are Nazgul, a balrog, Gollum is present, and more. Honestly, the script feels like bad LOTR fan-fiction come to life. A narrative this outlandish and so filled with iconic Lord of The Rings moments and characters isn’t inherently bad, but none of these events feel properly connected.
Putting the weak storytelling aside, the main gameplay loop in Shadow of War is attacking forts and building them back up. Using the ring they forged, Talion and his wraith buddy can dominate orcs to add them to the player’s army or force them to give intel on other orcs. It also allows the player to see the orc hierarchy of a particular fort, allowing Talion to target the warchiefs. These high-level orcs give the fort bonuses, so taking them out before an attack is extremely useful. For example, killing the boss in charge of the hot oil vats perched on a castle’s ramparts will make breaching the wall in that area a great deal easier. Removing chiefs in control of dragons or archers are a big boost to the player’s troops, as well.
After building a sufficient army and successfully taking a fort, players can add upgrades like spiked walls or deadly monsters guarding the gate. Players also get to choose which of their orcs will guard the fortress. Once they were a part of my force I ended up caring about some of them, even remembering their names and quirks.
As Talion captures more forts and dominates more orcs, players will earn XP and skill points. However, Talion is already a powerful supernatural warrior at the start of the game, and by the end, he’s basically unstoppable. As I was getting close to wrapping things up, I had already unlocked nearly the entire skill tree and still had points to spare. I wish there were more skills to unlock, or more ways to upgrade those skills.
Once the main campaign is done, Shadow of War starts a new endgame mode called “Shadow Wars” which has Sauron attacking Talion’s forts. At this point it becomes more important to have powerful high-ranking orcs, which meant many of my low-level troops were worthless, and that I needed to grind to level them up — it’s a slog.
This slog becomes even more apparent if the player engages with the online conquests. Here, players attack other player-controlled forts. In order to make any headway even more grinding was required.
Before release it was something of a controversy to find out that Shadow of War has loot crates which can give the player a leg up when it comes to the orcs. I opened a few using the gold provided to me at the start of the game, and the orcs I got weren’t much better. Some were downright awful, having easily-exploited weaknesses like “vulnerable to arrows.” Perhaps I didn’t spend enough to get the good drops, but between the randomness of the loot crates and the endgame grinding, I walked away from the game with a sour taste in my mouth after dozens of hours of enjoyment.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is a massive game that feels a lot like its predecessor, but now it’s filled with even more things to collect and more missions to finish. But when does a game contain too much? As I reached the end of the campaign, the good times I had turned into a series of chores. Luckily, players can avoid most of the busywork by not worrying about the online conquests or the endgame, but for those that do? Be prepared to grind for it.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Monolith Studios and published by Warner Bros Interactive Entertainment. It is currently available on PS4, Xbox One and Windows PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Playstation 4 Pro. Approximately 21 hours of play were devoted to the game, and the game was completed. Multiplayer is a separate mode where players attack other player’s forts. Approximately 4 hours was spent in this mode.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated M. It contains Blood and Gore and Intense Violence. Throughout the game Talion will dismember and decapitate orcs, with every detail shown in slow motion. Players can also stab, burn, slice and explode orcs and other creatures.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: Subtitles are available to the player. Audio cues aren’t required for play since the game uses multiple onscreen icons to indicate attacks, counters, incoming arrows, etc.
Remappable Controls: The controls are not remappable.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.