The fictional setting of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth is iconic in almost all walks of entertainment, but Monolith arguably took the lead with their hit title Shadow of Mordor back in 2014. Braving an original story that neither rested on the name of The Lord of the Rings nor The Hobbit, Monolith chose to fill the void between each setting. The end result proved to be one of the best games of the year for several reasons, not only because it dared to stand amongst lore that’s cherished by a gigantic fan base, but because it came with a solid foundation that was built on with interesting mechanics and functionality. One stand out feature is the Nemesis System, a system that was crafted in such a way that took revenge and vengeance to a whole new level. It’s a totally unique mechanic that oddly enough hasn’t been imitated by other developers, which according to Monolith is simply due to how complex and intricate the system is. Safe to say that Shadow of Mordor is one of Xbox One’s finest titles to date. Fast forward three years and here we are with the highly anticipated sequel – Shadow of War, a refined experience that not only surpasses the predecessor but offers up yet another fantastic story for Middle-earth fans.
Simply due to how vast Shadow of War is, I’ll do what I normally do and will dance around the plot as much as possible, after all this is something you will want to watch unfold first hand. Taking place straight after the events of Shadow of Mordor, you once again take on the role of undead ranger Talion and the powerful body sharing Elven wraith Celebrimbor. Talion and Celebrimbor have now forged their Ring of Power in the fiery heart of Mount Doom, but, just at the moment of its creation, Ranger and Wraith are ripped asunder. Following a series of unpredictable events, Talion and Celebrimbor set off to conquer Mordor from within. Together they will raise an Orc army, devastate Sauron’s strongholds, command beasts to rain death from afar, forge new alliances and travel to the most unlikeliest of places. If you had any cause for concern (Shelob I’m looking right at you, you beautiful spider-woman you) as far as the plot goes, worry not, Shadow of War may well indeed lightly tread on the lore of Middle-earth, but it manages to catapult a magnificent story that will captivate you and keep engaged until the end-game.
I’m not going to bullshit you into believing that I’m a Middle-earth fanatic, because I’m not. I thoroughly enjoy the movies and have enjoyed each game that is based on the source material equally as much. The reason I point that out is because even for me, a mere novice to the world in the grand scheme of things, I was able to familiarise with much more than I thought I would. It helps that Monolith have crafted this game in such a way that everything intertwines in one form or another. The overall structure of the game is quite simply exceptional and nothing feels out of place or put there for the sake of it. Before we dive too deeply into the experience at hand lets address the elephant in the room, loot boxes. I’m with each and every one of you that believes loot boxes should play no role in a single player game, which is why the inclusion of these in Shadow of War has me confused. Why? Because they truly serve next to no purpose whatsoever. You can purchase loot boxes from the online Market, which contains XP boosts, gear, followers and more. What really has me puzzled is that you earn more than enough money, gear and followers through natural progression that it makes the Market feel instantly redundant. Rest assured, Shadow of War is not going to gate your progression nor require you to grind your heart out during your adventure in Mordor.
It goes without saying that the Nemesis System (or Nemesis System Evolved in this case) is one of the most impressive features in the game. This time the Nemesis System has been expanded with the introduction of the aforementioned followers. These will bring new stories of loyalty, betrayal and revenge. The system will be familiar to those of you that enjoyed Shadow of Mordor, but key changes do indeed stand out and bolster the already impressive mechanic. Before long Talion will gain the ability to convince Orcs to fight for him, and it’s here where Shadow of War really takes it to the next level. Orcs have a hierarchy – Captains, Warchiefs, and Overlords. Using your power of “persuasion” you’re now able to infiltrate the ranks and get Orcs to do your dirty work for you whilst you’re neck deep in some of your own. Overlords are the top dogs and are put in charge of the fortress in each area. Warchiefs serve as an Overlords bodyguard, a status that is highly sought after by all of the Captains. Unlike Warchiefs and Overlords, Captains can be found wandering throughout the land and can be distinguished from other enemy types via their level-indicators. Warchiefs may not be wandering the lands like their underdogs, but they can indeed be drawn out in specific ways.
Throw in the fact that each of these types have their own unique pros and cons, and it makes for a very compelling and engaging experience. It’s imperative that you learn the strengths and weaknesses of each Captain, Warchief, and Overlord, as you’re able to exploit them and shoehorn your way into command. Orcs come in varying shapes and sizes (though all as fugly as can be) and are broken down into classes. This includes warriors, archers, hunters, and so on and so forth. Furthermore as Orcs gain experience in combat they can increase their level and take on an advanced class. Orcs in an advanced class will be gifted with powerful new abilities throughout the classes they adopt, such as assassins, marksmen, commanders, beastmasters and more. There’s no shortage of interesting and innovative ways for you to take advantage of and bring down Captains and Warchiefs, including the notion of interrogation. Once you build an army and begin feeling confident, you can send them off on an assignment to kill other Captains or infiltrate other Warchiefs to earn their trust and snuff them out in a moments notice. On the flip-side these pesky two faced little bastards can turn on you as easily as they joined you, which makes for some very tense moments of play. Let me tell you, being ambushed by someone you’ve come to trust in a time of dire need is a rude awakening and showcases one of the many cleverly implemented systems I’ve seen in a game this gen.
That’s not to mention the limited time Nemesis and Vendetta missions, in which you can take on enemies that have wronged you in one way or another to get a sweet slice of revenge. That however is a two way street and you’ll find that you’re constantly challenged by enemies that you have wronged too, sometimes even hours and hours after your last encounter. This collectively puts the emphasis on the titular War, endlessly pushing you into being vigilant at all times. Nevertheless Shadow of War makes you work hard for each and every victory, be it on the plains of Mordor or the middle of a siege as you overthrow a fortress, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Backing all of this up is a solid movement and combat system that’s tethered to a decent and varied ability pool that you can work towards and unlock. The amount of options at your disposal across the skill trees will strengthen and further your chosen play-style as you progress deeper into the game. It can be somewhat confusing and maybe even overwhelming at first, but as soon as you get to grips with the nature of play, Shadow of War opens up into an immense and satisfying adventure that will reward you for your time and effort. Climbing can be achieved with ease as you seamlessly ascend and descend most surfaces with the touch of a button, whereas stealth will enable you to bypass enemies and even dish out powerful sneak attacks.
On top of this you can unleash Elven Rage via building up your Wrath, which you’ll gain with every enemy that you dispose of. Elven Rage will allow you to cause massive damage to anything that stands in your way and will make easy work of offing grunt Orcs. Ranged Mode will gift you with the ability to strike your opponents from afar and can even be used whilst sliding. Time will slow down during Ranged Mode so long as you have enough Focus built up, Focus recharges over time but once it runs out time will reset to normal. If that wasn’t enough action for you, you can break certain beasts and then mount them. Tamed beasts will fight at your side once you have dismounted, but will also aid you via a chain of commands whilst you’re in control of them. This all goes hand in hand to produce some of the most action packed memorable sequences that will stick with you long after you put down your controller. Though much of this would mean absolutely nothing if it wasn’t for the newly implemented loot system. Talion’s arsenal of weapons will expand at a generous rate as you get deeper into the game, allowing you to equip him with swords, daggers, bows, hammers, armour, cloaks and new runes for Talion’s ring – enhancing his power in the process.
New gear can be obtained via defeating specific Orcs, whereas defeating Epic and Legendary enemies will drop items that collective offer up sets. High end gear comes with challenges which will reward you with additional buffs once completed. Community challenges will task you with objectives that are limited time only, however for your hard work you will be granted a special chest in return that typically houses several kinds of goods. Daily challenges are much more accessible and can be taken on at any time you choose, your reward for completing these will include Mirian, Gold, Spoils of War, Gems, or Gear. Monolith have certainly gone that extra length to ensure that you’re getting a steady payout, regardless as to what you’re neck-deep into. Shadow of War doesn’t end when the credits roll, not by a long shot. Shadow Wars is and end-game activity that instantly turns the tables, being that you’ll have to tackle a wave of pissed off Orcs. This form of assault will move across the map, forcing you to shore up your defences against each antagonising foe that’s challenging you. Only by completing this content will you unlock the real ending of Shadow of War, so as far as end-game content goes, this is imperative.
You can also connect to the net and engage in some online activities too. Online vendettas have made a return, allowing you to aid a buddy to get in on some shared rewards. Online conquests on the other-hand are more invasive, enabling you to attack another players’ fortress in return for higher ranking and more fabled rewards. Again I reiterate that there’s no shortage of content in Shadow of War, this game will easily see you sinking tens of hours into it before you even feel like you’ve scratched the surface. It has to be said that the voice acting is outstanding and although some characters can come across quite dazed, I felt that most of the cast delivered a meaningful representation of their respective character. Visually there’s very little that I can knock this for outside of some low-res character models and (at times) awkward animations. That’s not to say that Shadow of War doesn’t look stunning, because it most definitely does, but there are times in which I sat back and saw the occasional kink in the proverbial armour. What steals the show in regards to the visuals is the design and the atmosphere within. The world is so well realised that you actually feel drawn in and it’s detailed extremely well, serving fans with a large variety of wonderful and interesting locations to traverse throughout.
Shadow of War is one of the best games of the year so far, and if anything will rival it it’s the upcoming Assassin’s Creed Origins. The story is well struck and strengthened by great voice acting, added lore and heaps of dialogue for players to soak up. The combat and movement is fluid and paced magnificently, further bolstered by a generous pool of abilities and gear. Shadow of War comes with a massive amount of longevity that’s present not only in the core experience, but via added modes to keep the game going in the long run. The expanded Nemesis System is one of the most robust features I’ve ever witnessed in a game this gen, with clever implementations that keeps you hopelessly engaged and on your toes throughout. This is all held together by the excellent visuals and design, giving players a constant and varying treat through the entirety of play. The controversial Market is hardly a distraction nor a barrier, but it does feel out of place and tacked on, which may turn some away from the otherwise sensational journey that sits on top. Needless to say that if you enjoyed Shadow of Mordor, you’re going to love Shadow of War.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.