Middle-earth: Shadow of War
Plenty of social orcwardness
The industry’s foremost orc friendship simulator returns.
This sequel starts off familiarly. As you scurry around Minas Ithil, capturing towers, getting back into the dance of combat, and doing missions for people you struggle to care about, you’ll question whether the Middle-earth series had peaked with 2014 sleeper hit Shadow Of Mordor. But a couple of hours in it reveals a widened web of systems that embed you deeper than ever in the chaos of orcish politics. You see, Shadow Of War really hammers home that this series is about orcs. The protagonist, Aragorn knock-off Talion, and his elf-wraith sidekick Celebrimbor are just a convenient tool for interacting with orcs – dismembering them and pausing in photo mode to see their bewildered faces, building relationships with them through shared conquests, betrayals, and combat, and listening to them as they hurl invective at you.
The orcs are more verbose – some talk in rhymes, others are intellectuals (by orc standards), while others still just scream maniacally. Trolls are now voiced as well, and they too can be dominated (forced to serve you by way of Celebrimbor’s magic). The expanded Nemesis system means they’ll ambush you, they’ll return to wreak revenge, and sometimes they’ll even resist your attempts to dominate them. Even if you do get orcs on your side, there’s always a chance they’ll betray you at a crucial moment.
It feels genuinely intimate, and you’ll be gutted when an orc you were desperate to recruit gets cut down by one of your captains, or when one of your top generals, who you trained up yourself, betrays you, forcing you into a fight that ends with you tenderly cleaving him in two at the waist (why did you do it, Shaka The Mystic, why?).
At the same time as things have become more intimate, they’ve expanded in the way of warfare. You can send dominated orcs to ambush other orcs, backstab warchiefs, and level up by fighting to the death in fighting pits. It’s now a game of scheming as well as excellent, if familiar, hand-to-hand
“In Shadow of Mordor you were building a rowdy gang; here you’re building an army”
combat. Watching one of your prize orcs fight in a pit, knowing they might die, is the most gripping AI-vs-AI spectacle since Football Manager.
Eventually, you build up an army ready to assault one of the major forts across the game’s murky regions (despite different biomes like snow, industrial, forest, and, er, more industrial, Mordor is still a miserable environment). As you prepare for your siege, you assign your orc leaders troops, Caragors and siege equipment, then you charge into battle alongside them to capture points a la Battlefield. Where in Shadow Of Mordor you felt like you were building a rowdy street gang, here you’re building an army.
Combat is much the same as before – a dance of death based on timing, hordes of enemies, spectacular executions, and an awesome sense of panache with deceptively simple controls. There don’t seem to be any significant new animations, while some new moves – like firing arrows in mid-air – have been added, and others removed. The net result is positive, though not in a significant way. More notable is movement across the world, which is hastened by a double-jump and the ability to scale just about any vertical surface without needing ledges. With a bit of timing, you can virtually fly up walls.
There is a plot amid all this, picking up where the first game ended. Talion has forged a new ring of power, which Celebrimbor believes could prevent him from turning into a dark lord. This unfolds over several separate questlines. The ‘Gondor’ questline sees you helping a couple of Gondorian commanders regroup after losing Minas Ithil. A Shelob questline reinterprets the giant spider as a femme fatale who has her own reasons for helping you. Then there is Bruz, a chirpy troll geezer – and best character in the game – who takes you on a comical, violent whirlwind of an adventure.
The decision to divvy the main story up into several disparate fables was a good call, keeping attention away from the mundane dual-protagonist – one of whom moans about his constant cycle of resurrection, the other embittered by a power complex and the fact that his best days are behind him (given that he’s dead and all). There are enough returning characters, comedy moments, and set-piece battles that the main quests are a worthwhile engagement when you’re not creating a Mordor-wide army.
The Mordor merrier
The thing is, running around Mordor and building an army is the meat of the game, and developer Monolith recognises that. The story can end, but your personal conquest narrative carries on, propelled by a stream of eccentric characters, great writing, vicious battles, and a compulsive new equipment system that now involves collectable weapon and armour sets, and special challenges that unlock unique abilities on weapons. The asynchronous multiplayer feeds into this vicious loop, allowing you to earn special equipment by avenging the deaths of other players, or launching attacks on others players’ forts.
There are a few creaky bits. The game doesn’t really show what’s new until a good three hours in, the menu screens are slow and confusing, while the age-old Assassin’s Creed problem of getting stuck to the wrong surface when free-running persists. Another (minuscule) peeve is that you will be blocked by an invisible wall if you try to take the path out of a region (very ‘late ’90s’). It seems that the only way around Mordor these days is fast-travelling from the pause screen.
But these are minor faults in a game that does exactly what it needed to: turn its predecessor’s best idea into a ruthless, rewarding gameplay loop. You’re always anticipating that next betrayal, grooming that next commander, besieging forts, defending them, or levelling up. It’s compelling, attested to by the fact that Warner Bros is cashing in on it with micro-transactions. Ignore those niggling superfluities, though, and become embroiled in its deeper, wider world. Mordor may not be a pretty place, but you won’t want to leave for a long time.
For some inexplicable reason, photo mode is switched off by default, but can be whacked back on in the options.
Each of the game’s five regions has a fort, which you besiege and take over with your regional army of grotesque followers. You can eventually pick up to six assault leaders for the attack, equipping each one with units like Caragors, soldiers, and...