At the deep, nuggety core of Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is one simple concept: killing orcs. Yes there’s a lengthy, and somewhat tortured, story campaign, yes there is bulk loot collecting and RPG elements and yeah, naturally, there are lots of nods and callbacks to the Lord of the Rings movies/books (oh hi, Gollum!) but ultimately SoW is all about killing orcs in elaborate ways. You’ll kill them with fire, you’ll kill them with swords, you’ll kill them with spiders and big caragors. You’ll kill them in castles, you’ll kill them in on hills, you’ll kill them en masse, mate, oh fuck yes, you will!
Happily when it comes to dispatching orcs Shadow of War’s gameplay is fluid, responsive and enjoyable. It doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel first used in 2014’s Shadow of Mordor, but it adds enough new elements and mechanics to feel more engaging then a simple retread. Most impressive of all is the Nemesis system, which makes a triumphant return. For the uninitiated this system means every time you die the orc who killed you gains social status and becomes more powerful. Conversely some orcs survive their apparent deaths or humiliations and will return, bigger, badder and holding a drake-sized grudge.
These weird vendettas held against you by characters with name like Dush the Obsessed, Gurk the Angry and Trevor Maggot Pants (may have made that last one up) gives SoW a dynamic, exciting sense of tension. The same, sadly, cannot be said for the story which is all over the place. Talion remains duller then unsalted tofu and wraith partner, Celebrimbor, is still one Joy Division album away from being the bloke in his 40s who takes the whole goth thing just a little bit too seriously. They’re joined by some new characters this time, such as sexy Shelob (finally a spider character you can masturbate to!) and Bruz the Chopper, an ocker orc who is easily the most interesting character by a fairly huge margin.
You’ll occupy five large landscapes, collecting collectibles, brainwashing captains, taking over fortresses and, yes, killing many, many orcs. You can probably knock the main campaign over in 30-40 hours (which by AAA game standards is pretty damn generous) but then the game pulls some bullshit which you may find difficult to forgive. The last act, titled “Act IV: Shadow Wars”, turns the endgame into a grindfest. All those forts you spent so long taking over? Well now you’ll need to defend them against legions of tougher orcs, through some twenty increasingly difficult levels. It’s doable, but tough, and the Sauron-like spectre of microtransactions enters the proceedings because how much easier would it be to just buy some powerful orcs to buff your forts? Why not head to the online market place and buys some, my preeeecious?
For a lot of people this won’t be a deal breaker, it certainly wasn’t for me, I had a great time with this game, but there is a certain cynicism to the exercise that leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth. Pay to win is a shitty design choice, especially when it locks you out of the game’s final cutscene. My suggestion? Don’t buy orcs, take a little longer and earn them by enjoying the game’s many combat options. Or just stop playing at Act IV and watch the “true ending” on Youtube. It’s a rough business that we even have to deal with this kind of nonsense, but that’s gaming in 2017. Proceed accordingly.
That one nasty little microtransactional caveat aside, Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is a bloody belter of a game. The Nemesis system alone makes it worth a visit, and the sheer joy of chopping up literal armies of orcs is potent and exciting. In short: ignore the cash grab and focus on the killing and you’ll have a good time.