Middle-earth: Shadow of War is, first and foremost, a sequel. You may be thinking, “Well, Kinsey, that’s obvious,” but this game takes that to the extreme, for better or for worse. Simply put, if you’ve never played the first game, you’re pretty much out of luck for a while. As soon as I booted up Shadow of War, it became clear that I had some serious rust to shake off, and that the game wouldn’t make it easy for me. It seemed to abandon tutorials for tooltips—compared to the first game, at least—which for someone with a memory as bad as mine isn’t exactly ideal. It took me hours before the controls started feeling natural again and I could get through combat sequences without looking at the controls every two seconds. And that’s not even touching on lore; if you didn’t play the first game, there are going to be pretty big splotches of plot that are a mystery to you.
Of course you’re going to recognize some people, and you’ll recognize the general factions. You’ll recognize the Gondorians and the orcs, naturally. You might recognize the Witch-king, and you’ll definitely recognize Gollum (who seems to fade in and out of relevance, and indeed might only be there because he’s a token character and not because of any real plot significance). But you know who you probably won’t recognize? Shelob. “Now Kinsey,” you might say again, shaking your head in dismay, “you must be mad if you think we could forget the giant spider from the movie ‘The Return of the King’.” Well, yes, you would recognize her immediately—that is, if she remained a spider. That’s right; Shelob has fallen victim to one of the most pointless tropes in video games, and has become a sexy lady in a cocktail dress.
Let’s talk about Shelob for a minute, actually. The developers at Monolith, specifically Michael de Plater, looked at this hulking spider, powerful and dangerous and grotesque as can be, and decided to make her a woman with a voice sultry enough to melt ice. They ‘justified’ this new eye-candy form, of course; she comes from a long line of powerful beings able to change their form, so apparently she just appears how she chooses. There’s supposedly this dichotomy between Galadriel and Shelob (the dark lady versus the bright lady) that they wanted to explore as well. Thing is, whenever someone breaks out a long-winded and overly lore-intensive argument as to why a monstrous spider is suddenly a gorgeous woman straight out of a gentleman’s magazine, it’s generally because they figured out how it would work after they made the decision to do it.
I, of all people, have nothing against sexy video game ladies, on one condition: they need to have a good reason for being a sexy video game lady. Why on earth would an all-powerful creature want to become a person? There’s a world of options for Shelob if she really can change shape, from drakes to graugs to her default hulking spider form, that would grant her more power than a twiggy woman in a cocktail dress (and cocktail dresses, mind you, don’t even exist in this universe). No matter how Monolith tries to justify it, the decision to make Shelob a woman can be attributed to the gaming industry’s inexplicable need to give people eye candy, because apparently more realistic, characterized women like Idril and Eltariel don’t cut it (and those two subscribe to their own, equally problematic beauty conventions, but that’s a discussion for another time).
The characters of the story are token but flawed, some only there to serve a single purpose before they fade into irrelevance; Shelob is only one instance of this fault in judgment. The narrative itself has so much potential, but it rests on gimmicky characters; it is already a great homage to the interim between “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings,” but it could be much better. Everywhere you turn, there’s a different subplot with a different quest, and while this might suit a lore veteran it could prove to be too overwhelming for other players. I posit that this isn’t necessarily bad—some might call it realistic, since real-life situations are complicated and don’t have only one facet—but simply not everybody’s cup of tea. I got it down after a while, once I fell into the rhythm of the game.
When I say there’s a lot, I mean a lot. Shadow of War, like its predecessor, is an open-world game, but the environments in this game are more varied. You can direct Talion from the stone walls of Minas Ithil to the caves around Cirith Ungol, or venture through the lush forest of Nurnen and speak to the spirit of Carnan (who, surprise surprise, has the face of a sexy video game lady despite being a massive tree-person). You can trek through the snows of Seregost and fight through the flames of Gorgoroth, sprawled at the base of Mount Doom. The variety in these areas is wonderful, and the environments themselves are beautiful. I have no complaints, but rather a suggestion; functionally, these environments are exactly the same, so it might have improved them to add environmental effects or something of the like. Maybe there’s a heat risk in Gorgoroth, or a freezing risk in Seregost. Maybe there’s a hallucinatory danger in the swampy forest of Nurnen if you stay in the area too long (swamp gas is a thing, right? Right?). Maybe there’s something different, just to make the play experience more unique to each region.
And let me tell you—even though you can ride graugs and drakes that absolutely wreck shop on your enemies, there’s something special about taming a dire caragor and walking tightrope through ruins with those beautiful environments as your backdrop.
With that note on variety, we come to perhaps the strongest part of the entire game: the Nemesis System. Shadow of War unabashedly leans on the Nemesis System as its primary selling point, as well it should. It’s even better than it was in Shadow of Mordor, if a little more complicated because it now includes the orcs that Talion controls via the New Ring (oh yeah, did I mention that there’s a new Ring of Power? And that you have it? And that you can recruit enemy orcs with it?). The variety of orcs has only improved from the previous game; they have unique combinations of designs, voices, class traits, weaknesses, and immunities. Even their personalities shine bright through Mordor (though this makes the whole morality issue a bit complicated, because the game can’t seem to decide whether or not orcs are pure evil). The interrogation mechanic with Worms is still the same; you can gain intel on an orc Captain to get the upper hand in battle, or go in blind for a challenge and figure out as you go. It’s a joy to experience that only improved from its predecessor (especially when a Captain’s Mortal Weakness is a beast attack, which means I get to grab a caragor—and it’s always a good day when I get to grab a caragor).
The Fortresses are the most notable new element of the game, especially considering how it implements the Nemesis System. It’s a cool thing, really; it’s introduced in Act II, so you’ve got a bunch of time to just play before you encounter your first Fortress Assault. You build up your assault force by recruiting Captains as Assault Leaders and purchasing siege upgrades, which you then use to absolutely lay waste to—or attempt to lay waste to—the enemy fortress and capture it for yourself. You then have to defend it. It’s a very time-intensive system that seems more complicated than it should be, but it’s worth it at the start. As you approach the end of the game, though, you’re basically forced to spend the majority of your time shoring up your defenses and beefing up your assault forces rather than actually playing. It becomes tedious and overused, and you’re likely to be fed up with this otherwise engaging mechanic before the game decides you’re finished.
And finally, finally, we come to customization. If you take the customization levels of Shadow of Mordor and multiply it by itself a few times, we arrive at the customization level of Shadow of War. The skill tree is surprisingly flexible with its skills and sub-skills (and one of those skills lets you summon a caragor mount!). There are varying tiers of gear that you can equip, ranging from Common all the way up to Legendary (which also include the potential for sets that provide extra benefits). You can also equip and upgrade gems à la Diablo. The system is pretty intuitive; you don’t have to sift through a billion stats in order to figure out which weapon is better, or which gem is better suited to which piece of gear. It’s fairly easy to feel your way through the system until you learn it, and it’s definitely worth it to customize; you’ll see the difference when you’re tearing through Captains like butter.
All that loot, of course, has to come from somewhere—mainly drops from Captain battles and Treasure orcs—but it is with an exceedingly heavy heart that I announce the fact that Shadow of War has loot boxes. I suppose that in the Year of Our Microtransaction 2017 it was to be expected, but putting this inherently flawed system in the game was questionable at best. You can get all the game’s content without paying, technically, but it’s so time-consuming that it seems like Monolith wanted its players to pay to skip ahead. The game was supposedly designed without loot boxes as a primary factor, but that seems highly unlikely. With the amount of Mirian you amass as you play, there are only a few places to spend it—fortress upgrades, to name one—but there’s so much excess currency after those upgrades that the game practically begs you to buy some loot boxes. This alone is controversial but ultimately tolerable, since Mirian isn’t hard to come by, but the loot you get from those boxes is barely worth it past a certain point in the game.
Problem is, you need to buy higher-tier loot boxes with Gold, which you can only get significant amounts of by shelling out some real-world cash. It was a real disappointment to see this in the game, knowing that the developers want to dredge more money out of people who already bought the game—and especially knowing that they were willing to force it along by making the game incredibly arduous for those who want to avoid loot boxes altogether. However, it wasn’t surprising, which makes the disappointment even more potent. My opinion? Avoid the microtransactions. It’s just a drain on your wallet for something that you can do by yourself, even if it takes longer. After all, you don’t buy games with the intention of spending as little time playing them as possible.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
I've been involved with games since I was a little kid, when I would watch my father play World of Warcraft for hours—and later, of course, mooch off of his account. I have a cobblestone background of creative writing, newspaper journalism, and multi-platform gaming, and I intend to add more stones to that mix as I get them. Excluding sports, I'm a fairly versatile player and will play whatever I can find, though I have a soft spot for lore-intensive games and fantasy. I'm currently collaborating on writing college course materials about the interplay between history and video games.View Profile