Mid­dle-earth: Shadow Of War


PC, PS4, Xbox One

In the end, even the Neme­sis sys­tem has become noth­ing more than an­other check­list

De­vel­oper Mono­lith Pro­duc­tions Pub­lisher Warner Bros For­mat PC, PS4 (tested), Xbox One Re­lease Out now

Well, that’s Shag The Cor­rupt off our to-do list. To clar­ify, that’s an en­emy, not an in­struc­tion – he’s an orc cap­tain, an Epic Cursed Mys­tic As­sas­sin no less. He’s now on our side, in fact: we’ve del­i­cately ca­joled him into join­ing our army, and now he’s go­ing to help us claim an en­emy strong­hold. And to think we knew him back when he was Shag The Gut-Rip­per. They grow up so fast.

In other words, the Neme­sis sys­tem is back. Shadow Of Mor­dor’s in­ge­nious cen­tral idea es­tab­lished a re­ac­tive hi­er­ar­chy of orcs, lend­ing thrilling dy­namism to an oth­er­wise ser­vice­able open-world game. It’s at the heart of Shadow Of War, too, and de­liv­ers many of the game’s best mo­ments: when you watch a per­sis­tent foe rise through the ranks, em­bold­ened by the time he cut you down, and be­lat­edly ex­act your re­venge. Or when you con­vince a ri­val to become your body­guard and he steps in to block an at­tack that would surely have killed you.

They have an even more im­por­tant role this time, as the game’s se­cond act asks you to form an army ca­pa­ble of tak­ing on Sau­ron’s hordes. It’s a while be­fore you get there, mind, since through­out the open­ing hours you’ll be play­ing a game that’s re­mark­ably sim­i­lar to its pre­de­ces­sor. In some ways, that’s no bad thing: it’s a use­ful on-ramp for new­com­ers, and those who sim­ply wanted more of the same are am­ply catered for un­til the game opens up. A clutch of new moves and skills – no­tably, an ac­ro­batic dou­ble-jump that speeds up ex­plo­ration – helps, though you can’t help but wish the game would get to the point a lit­tle quicker.

Even­tu­ally, via a glar­ingly sign­posted re­veal, it does. The world stretches far beyond the bound­aries of open­ing re­gions Mi­nis Ithil and Cirith Un­gol, with one territory even en­joy­ing un­com­monly blue skies and pleas­ant weather – cer­tainly by Mid­dle-earth stan­dards. It bright­ens up in an­other sense, too. An­tipodean ally Bruz The Chop­per adds some wel­come hu­mour to the gloomi­ness, which is handy since he’s es­sen­tially a walking tu­to­rial for the game’s new siege bat­tles, which charge you with sack­ing a fortress, and re­plac­ing its cur­rent war­lord with one of your own.

But first you’ll need to use your Dom­i­nate abil­ity to bend orc cap­tains to your will, at­tack­ing them un­til their health is low enough to prompt a faintly ter­ri­fy­ing se­quence where you ag­gres­sively threaten them into join­ing you. If they’re too pow­er­ful, you can choose to hu­mil­i­ate them in­stead, re­duc­ing their level at a cost of let­ting them flee – though they’re un­likely to put up as much of a fight when you hunt them down. Any new re­cruits can be beefed up by send­ing them to tackle the re­gion’s re­main­ing cap­tains, in raids you can ei­ther watch or help out on. Al­ter­na­tively, you can send them on in­fil­tra­tion mis­sions, prov­ing their worth in fight pits to con­vince en­emy chiefs of their value, be­fore call­ing on them to stab their new em­ployer in the back. Even­tu­ally your col­lec­tive at­tack power will be suf­fi­cient to as­sault an en­emy base and hope­fully claim it for your own.

The slow build-up, and the cutscene that fol­lows your de­ci­sion to at­tack, make your first siege feel like a real event. With trolls smash­ing the outer walls, as you scale the para­pets, slic­ing up archers and leap­ing down just as the draw­bridge is de­mol­ished, Mono­lith ap­prox­i­mates the widescreen grandeur of the bat­tle se­quences in the film tril­ogy. Yet you can’t gawp too long: your job is to seize sev­eral well-guarded cap­ture points be­fore en­ter­ing the keep to con­front the war­lord. At this point your hired help strangely chooses to leave you to it, forc­ing you to fight a much stronger in­di­vid­ual alone. Nat­u­rally, you could go away, tackle some XP-boost­ing side-quests and level up a bit, but in do­ing so you make the first part of a siege laugh­ably easy. Go in less pre­pared, on the other hand, and you’ll find your­self hav­ing to nanny your so-called helpers, re­viv­ing them con­stantly as they get smacked down by su­pe­rior op­po­nents. Or you could spend long hours rais­ing their level through side ac­tiv­i­ties. Then again, it’s prob­a­bly quicker to buy loot boxes un­til you get a rare or leg­endary gen­eral to lead the charge. If you’re not sim­ply fo­cused on story quests, you’ll likely earn enough in-game cur­rency to open a few with­out spend­ing real cash, but you do won­der if the wonky bal­anc­ing isn’t sim­ply a way of en­cour­ag­ing play­ers to splash out just to save some time grind­ing their way to glory.

By your fourth siege, the ap­peal has worn thin, the spec­ta­cle no longer al­lur­ing. Even as the engine im­pres­sively copes with the crowds, you’ll find a num­ber of tech­ni­cal flaws be­sides. Ac­cu­rate tar­get­ing is a crap­shoot: in the mid­dle of a combo, you’ll in­ex­pli­ca­bly turn round and slash one of your own, while map­ping jump­ing, sprint­ing, slid­ing and climb­ing to the same face but­ton in­vari­ably means it picks the wrong op­tion for you at times. Sum­mon­ing spo­rad­i­cally fails with­out rhyme or rea­son, and en­e­mies make in­ex­pli­ca­ble er­rors: Rug Skin-Peeler sounded rather threat­en­ing un­til he wan­dered into a flam­ing hedge from which he couldn’t es­cape.

On and on it plods. Those de­vi­ous early tricks have long since ex­hausted their nov­elty value, and the last mean­ing­ful abil­ity was un­locked some hours be­fore, the skill tree vainly re­ly­ing on light mod­i­fi­ca­tions to ones you gained ages ago to hold your in­ter­est. In the end, even the Neme­sis sys­tem has become noth­ing more than an­other check­list, as you grimly tick off orcs one by one: hu­mil­i­ated, be­headed, died, re­cruited, de­cap­i­tated, sur­vived. A game of this size may please those who equate vol­ume with value, but de­spite a hand­ful of sen­sa­tional mo­ments, Shadow Of War mostly proves that more can be so much less.

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