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.