Spoilers: Due to the nature of this game review, I will be spoiling most everything about it. Major stuff. You have been warned.
Middle-earth: Shadow of War was released in 2017; a successor to 2014’s Shadow of Mordor; an ‘open-world’, RPG in the Lord of the Rings universe which closely followed a ranger of the Black Gate, Talion, and a quest to avenge his fallen family. Throughout his journeys, Talion is possessed and aided by a powerful wraith, that of Celebrimbor – dead Elf and master forger of all but one of the Rings of Power. Yes, those Rings of Power.
In its sequel, we take over as Talion/Celebrimbor again, utilising powers of the mortal and the wraith to amass an army of Orcs; taking Mordor brick by brick until at last the black land shall be ours – and nothing stands between but the Dark Lord, Sauron. Shadow of War is a direct sequel to Mordor, picking up where we left off; after Talion dispatched of the Black Hand, the final piece behind his family’s demise.
Shadow of War is very much an expansion of its predecessor, building on the pre-established ‘Nemesis System’ which sees the player being able to brand and ‘dominate’ the orcs of Mordor. Lauded in its prequel, the mechanic allows you to pretty much construct your own army; with Orcs displaying a wide variety of personality. Oh, yeah, they’re not just repetitive pixels on the screen. Each orc captain has their own strengths, their own weaknesses, their own fighting styles. In Shadow of War, Talion enthralls them all, conquering even beasts and dragons in the process. As you progress through the game’s five regions/locations, you come toe-to-toe with Shelob, confront Celebrimbor’s past, and make more humane allies to help you in your ultimate quest to vanquish evil. The game is set, as one may assume, a few decades before The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. And yes, the homages are uncountable.
From the get-go, Shadow of War stood out from the rest of the crowd. Open-world, Witcher-style Lord of the Rings games are surprisingly few and far between, and even fewer capture the amazingly complex character of its protagonist, Talion. You’re with him every step of the way, and though at first, he suffers from playable-character syndrome, you become immensely invested in his story. In whom he is as a person; and how sharing his body with the ghost of Celebrimbor changes him.
To some, the idea of exploring Mordor of all places sounds baffling. After all, it’s just barren, grey wasteland, right? In Shadow of War’s case, no. Mordor becomes a testing ground of all types, from luscious green grass to boundless snow and volcanic rock. Act I of the game even begins in a location destined to please many a Tolkien nerd. Minas Ithil. What would later become Minas Morgul. It’s not even in Mordor, but it promises encounters with the nine Ringwraiths before any fighting has even begun. And what an introduction, too. Instead of the boring, repetitive wasteland of Udun in the first game, here you can explore entire cities. Which is a healthy injection of something new. Seriously, the sheer number of regions you can explore is insane; more than utilising the environments and terrains of Mordor. And with the depth in setting, you really feel like you’re creating a legion of Orcs that spans the globe. You can flex your muscles of power, putting anything from Shadow of Mordor to shame. The scale of things clearly became the developers’ primary concern.
There’s also a plethora of content to the game, too; with various storylines branching over different locations, weaving themselves together and fraying once more. Each region is home to its own outposts; with their own captains that you can kill to weaken them. Each region is also home to a stronghold; a real bastion that Talion must fell if he wishes to stake his claim as Lord of Mordor. It combines a different level of combat and size to the game. You lay siege to an entire citadel of Orcs. How badass is that? It’s just one of many mechanics that are new to Shadow of War. Right down to fighting techniques; shooting arrows in mid-air, long-sweeping glaive attacks, raining fireballs down from drakes, double jumping. The developers – Monolith – really got it right this time. Not to say they didn’t before. But this instalment just feels more open. And a Hell of a lot bigger.
Of course, as with any RPG, there’s an awful lot of filler, too; namely in the re-packaged collectibles of Gondorian artefacts, and Shelob’s memories. The former work much the same way as they did in Shadow of Mordor, only with more emphasis on Gondorian history. They’re boring to collect after a while (typically scaling cliffs and caves for hours just to find the well-concealed cranny in which rests a fucking pot), but provide some getaway from the more intense parts of the game; as well as pushing the player toward an ultimate perk, which is somewhat handy. They’re completely optional and give extra lore to those who seek it – but to most, they’ll probably just be something you do when you unlock each region because, like me, you need that 100%. Even if it means digging up some old pipe weed from the dawn of time.
Shelob memories, meanwhile, are largely lacklustre. They’re interactive, with the players having to solve a quick minigame to unlock a two-second clip of a much larger, more expanded, film. But even when you collect them all, and piece together the backstory of Shelob, you wonder what the collectibles gave you that a late-game cutscene wouldn’t. Still, it’s padding to an already expansive game, which is a bonus.
Much like the Assassin’s Creed franchise (of which this game might as well be the Tolkien version), your character can only discover where these collectibles are by climbing atop a region’s vantage point-I mean, purifying a region’s tower, or ‘Haedir’. These quickly become tiresome but are imperative to do (and aren’t that bountiful) – not just for playing Indiana Jones, but in establishing fast-travel points. And believe me, travelling half of Minas Morgul just to find one Orc gets tiresome after a while.
Shadow of War boasts some flawlessly executed characters; particularly that of Carnan who, technically, does not exist in the Tolkien canon. Nonetheless, the voice acting of Toks Olagundoye is downright enthralling, and perfect for the role. I really found her character intriguing, and an excellent force to be reckoned with, a reminder that Talion does not reign supreme here. Zog; an atypical Orc necromancer (the fact this isn’t ridiculous in game has to be mentioned), remains one of the few specific antagonists. You cross paths with him several times; resurrecting dead Orcs before vanishing once more. Until the final fight when he’s genuinely tough to take down. He’s probably more powerful than any Orc should really be, but he was implemented well. You really hate him. And when you drive that sword into him, you feel the sadistic pleasure coursing through your veins like a wraith.
However, some entities didn’t get the screen-time they should have in a game like Shadow of War. Tar Goroth, for example. He is a Balrog. Possible Tolkien’s most iconic creature, and he appears in this game for all of about two missions. Given his nature, I was gearing up for an impossibly Sisyphean task when taking him on, only to find it really rather easy. Monolith went for much the same thing they did with the Black Captains of the first game – less thoughtful use of actions and abilities, more soulless quick-time events or button mashing. It’s a nice idea, it’s different, but makes the thing feel diluted somehow, particularly considering the titan Tar Goroth is. But maybe that’s less down to him, and more down to the length of Carnan’s questline which involves him.
It’s unfair to compare every enemy in Shadow of War to the Nemesis system and its offspring, but it does make you realise what Tar Goroth is missing. Character. The thing about the orcs in this game is that any one of them can become a fleshed-out villain with, crucially, their own weaknesses and vulnerabilities. These can be long in number, or none at all – so you take careful planning in the run-up to taking them out. It feels more individual, unique, and wholly yours when you kill a flame-prone Warchief with a well-placed arrow strike. Not just shooting them in the universal weak spot and calling it a day.
That’s what this game gets right most of all. One captain in particular betrayed me – so I taught him a lesson by shaming him to the point of actual madness, them dominating him yet again, and putting him in charge of a fortress. All while he wailed endlessly into the ether about never wanting a fort anyway; how it was mine. Deliciously cruel; and goes that bit further in establishing yourself as a fearsome opponent of Sauron. You feel yourself slipping further and further into the morally grey – and you love every moment. In Shadow of Mordor, you play the part of the hero. In Shadow of War, you play the champion; whose beliefs and actions don’t always correlate.
While, to be fair, some of the Orcs you encounter in Shadow of War are more intelligent than you’d expect having explored the Tolkien universe in book/movie form, they’re undoubtedly charismatic in their own right. You get Orcish bards, sadistic trolls hellbent on pain and pleasure, captains who cheat death – changing their names and embracing newfound scars – a whole world of variation. The captains stand out; you get to know them. You befriend them. You get killed by them; you overpower them. A deliciously vicious cycle.
Shadow of War falls in the inclusion of Shelob, however; a hot topic for many fans of both the books/movies, and the game itself. For much of it, Shelob manifests as an attractive, quite mortal seductress. Whilst we get glimpses of her familiar eight-legged form, it’s rare, and when she’s in a scene, she basically just strokes Talion a bit and flirts with the man. I don’t really care much for her; but that’s less annoyance and more her subtle impact on story, to be nice. We learn that she worked with Sauron before his inevitably betrayal, and that’s about it. She’s a mere vessel for the plot. In that regard, she’s no more Talion. But far less cool, and with less time to shine.
Fortress conquests show a welcome personality to the thralls of Mordor, though. Whilst you can employ up to six captains in your assault force, two will act as ‘commanders’ in the final fight: giving speech before battle. On one side of me was an Orc nicknamed ‘the Complainer’ who wailed on and on about wanting it to stop. On the other was a captain who responded, ‘Well, that’s cast rather a gloomy spell over things, hasn’t it, boys?’. This kind of stuff happens all the time in Shadow of War. The level of interaction between Orcs is overwhelming at times. And incredibly bespoke to your game.
But enough of the Orcs for now. After all, first and foremost, Shadow of War is about Talion’s quest for revenge, and to stamp out the evil which threatens Middle-earth. Talion and Celebrimbor have never been the closest of friends; even in the first game, the two of you butt heads and clash all the time. In Shadow of Mordor’s sequel, the tension is masterfully done; slight digs at first which soon fester into real confrontation. Talion puts human life above all else, and his homeland of Gondor. The Bright Lord, meanwhile, is driven solely by logic and power. It helps flesh out these characters as two distinct entities, when so often they’re morphed into one.
The various Celebrimbor missions provide a great range of exploration in terms of skills you might not otherwise think to use. And the increased challenge of trying to complete all the bonus objectives was a great one. In Shadow of War, you get to grips with the Elf more than its prequel; both in abilities and backstory. It would have been neat to see the return of hunting/survival challenges, but equally I can see why they were left out. Whilst being a refreshing break from the blood and blade of world domination, they didn’t provide much else.
After the game’s first two Acts, you are presented with the third: Shadow and Flame. Its sole mission is a relentless gauntless of boss fight after boss fight. Just when you think you’ve been let off easy, you face both the big baddies and live to tell the tale. The ‘twist’ of Talion’s character – that Celebrimbor ultimately became too greedy for power and leaves you to die – is one that’s been coming for a while. But when the ranger slips on the ring of a wraith and his eyes burn a violent orange, you can’t help but chuckle at the possibilities. It’s a worthy climax for all the button-mashing, back-stabbing and dominating you’ve gone through.
The hardest part of Shadow of War, however, is yet to come. Behold, the ‘Shadow Wars’. Three arduous missions which involve keeping control of your strongholds and fortresses. To be fair to Monolith, there were originally ten stages to the Shadow Wars, but after a game patch in 2018, it was lowered. And thank God. The Shadow Wars are woefully gruelling. And they’re meant to be. They represent the long endgame of Talion – over ten years of continuous win and loss. But from a player standpoint, it can be incredibly boring. And though the true ending is far from reach, the motivation to carry on after fighting Sauron is lacking.
Stripping your old army in different regions to rebuild them from the ground up is cool at first; but it just becomes the same thing, over and over again. Dominate a captain. Dominate another. Have them fight in the pits till one levels up. My heart wasn’t in this one; I nearly gave up on achieving that 100% multiple times. Not to mention the fact that, by this point, many of the attacking forces are made up of Orc captains ten levels higher than that of everyone’s favourite Gravewalker. Without any other quests to do at this point, levelling is slow. Very slow. So good luck making up for it with captain assassinations.
It goes without saying but no matter how far you into a siege, if you lose it, you lose it. And you have to take that whole stronghold again. I dealt with this firsthand and when the fort became manned by captains who probably stomped on mine for sport, I struggled to push on. Though the wraith in me had gone, my character was in possession of a ring of power. He had defeated the Witch-King of Angmar at this point, and embraced somewhere between the world of the living and the dead. But he can’t take over a fort. Typical.
For much of phase three, I ended up letting the bastards take my forts. And that’s because it’s far easier to take a fort, than to keep it. Taking out each and every warchief behind an enemy-owned fort is much easier; and much more rewarding. I found myself needing to use wit, weaknesses and different lures; not just throwing myself at an unstoppable barrage of black flesh. Seeing the level of an Orc-held citadel drop and drop as I masterfully slew its toughest defenders proved incredibly satisfying. And from there on, retaking them was easy. The game would accept this in lieu of the original defense mission, so the 100% was still within my reach. And what’s more, I didn’t feel like battering my head against the controller.
I can’t imagine how things were pre-patch, when taking over forts took forever. It’s obvious the Shadow Wars acted as a ploy for Monolith to get players using their in game, micro-transactional ‘Market’ system. Thankfully that was subsequently removed after intense backlash from players. I’m glad I never got to see Shadow of War pre-patch. It’d be like seeing a cathedral in the middle of Sheffield. Such beauty, but surrounded in such ruin.
I applaud Shadow of War in its use of pyrrhic victory, though. Unlike the first game, it lacks an explosive climax, instead opting for something that fizzles out. But lore-wise, it makes sense. At this point, Talion has lost Celebrimbor; the whole reason for his still being alive – and donned a ring of power which will corrupt him from the inside out, until nothing is left but greed and evil. He’s going to become one of the nine Nazgul, and that’s final. You have no hope of stopping such a destiny, you can only hold it back. And you can hold the forces of Mordor back, too, keeping the region in a continuous state of conflict so that the Men of the West can prepare for the oncoming storm. Talion gives up everything he has to save others. It’s a mighty send-off.
It does, however, mean saying goodbye to Celebrimbor – our accompaniment for whole days of playtime in both Shadow of War and its progenitor. All those snidey remarks, and shouting ‘Ochadin Valainnor!’ at any Orc we slap in the face are gone. But it gives Talion a chance to shine on his own, with badass dialogue, badass looks and his own, unique abilities. Such as raising the dead.
It’s just a shame it takes so much trudging to get to this point. But please, I beg you, do stick with the game. God knows I nearly gave up again and again, pushing for the 100% over the actual finale at points. But it’s worth it. The cutscene that greets you upon completion is both beautiful and tragic.
For decades, Talion succeeded in his lone quest to keep the realm of Mordor at war; battling fortress against fortress, brother against brother – while the Men of the West prepared. In time, the ring of power Isildur once bore corrupted our ranger, eating him whole. As was destined, Talion gave in to the Nine. He had no other choice, accepting the Ringwraith within him. There’s a nice touch in placing him as one of the riders tracking down Frodo and Sam in the Shire; and atop a Fellbeast in the final battle of Middle-earth. When Sauron is defeated; when the One Ring is plunged into the fires of Mount Doom, Talion’s life is extinguished for good.
But that’s what he deserves. It means he’s finally free; shuffling off this mortal coil and returning to where he should have been. No wraith or Dark Lord deciding his fate for him. I forgot how much I was invested in the character of Talion; given how little of his character shows through at points. But I’ve played him for two whole games. Hours’ worth of effort, emotion and enmity has gone into the Gravewalker for me. And when at least I saw him tear off his armour, blue-eyed, and walk off into the quiet valley of death, I nearly cried. I’m not afraid to admit that. In the end, Shadow of War had the perfect ending. The journey there was paved with troubles and poor choices. But it really was worth it.
Shadow of War entertained me; it enraptured me, it angered me. But that’s all you can ask for in a game. I was invested time and time again in pretty much every aspect of it, from its diverse bestiary to the fantastic views. Orc captains, warchiefs, Balrogs, skill trees, allies, minions, cutscenes… everything Shadow of War gave me, I heartily devoured. And even when the game slowed to a snail’s crawl by the end, I pushed on. Looking back, I don’t think I would have if it was pretty much any other game. And when at last I saw the fate of our Talion, I nodded in silent admiration. Middle-earth: Shadow of War is a more than worthy slice of Tolkien. And even though I’ve spoiled pretty much all of it for you, I still implore you to pick up the sword (controller) and give it a play. No matter what kind of gamer you are. It stays with you.
So long Talion, and thanks for letting us fight alongside you.