When the original Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor release in September of 2014 the Nemesis system was without a doubt the game’s defining feature. I thought going forward that all sorts of RPGs in the future would either wholesale rip and reuse the system in their game or refine it and use it in other ways. Turns out that no one really did and the system is still unique to the Middle Earth franchise. Thankfully, this allowed me to go into Shadow of War without any type of Nemesis fatigue from other derivative versions.
Shadow of War starts off very strong with Talion, a human ranger, and Celebrimbor, an Elven Wraith (he who forged the rings of power) who currently possess Talion, tangling with Shelob over the new ring. The gameplay, however; is almost indistinguishable from the first game and feels more like a DLC than a sequel. This is still an open world RPG where you’ll travel across large maps that have premarked locations. You’ll also be able to uncover more as you explore. You’ll use your parkour moves to climb the highest towers (and jump off them) and use your combat skills to kill wave after wave of monsters. It wasn’t wasn’t until about 10 hours in, once I reached the second act, that the game and it’s upgraded nemesis system started to stand on its own. You may get to the second act quicker, however, if you spend less time doing side quests, hunting artifacts, and generally having fun.
The Nemesis system is back and it’s great. It really starts to shine when you build your own armies and take your own keeps. You can pit your captains against the enemy captains in nemesis missions. You can then either show up to their confrontation and assist or let them fight it out on their own. You can also send other Uruk you command to assist in your place. You can even send your own Uruk to fight one another with the winner becoming stronger and the loser ending up dead. Which is the way Uruk-hai would want it. You can even go online and try and conquer other players keeps. The players you attack won’t take any damage to their game but you will be rewarded for your efforts. Revenge missions are also in the sequel. This time you can vindicate more than your friends. I was taking vengeance on Uruk that killed people I’ve never met before on PSN.
There is a new gear system which is an improvement over the rune system in Shadow of Mordor. You can equip a sword, dagger, bow or hammer, chest, cape, and ring. You can also upgrade these to each have a gem slot. There are also different qualities of gear; rare, epic, and legendary. Each of these can be upgraded through quests or challenges that are listed on the item. The higher the item quality the item the more it can be upgraded. There are also different sets that come with their own unique set bonuses.
The character development tree has also been revamped. It keeps everything to one page but it can be more confusing at first. Some skills will only open for purchase after you have reached a certain level, completed quests, or collected items. In the end you’ll purchase almost every skill but skills then have certain modifiers and only one can be active at a time. You costs a skill point to buy each of the modifiers. While there is probably an optimal way to skill up Talion these different modifiers allow you to play to your strengths. So while some are better than others in the end it’s your style of play that will dictate which modifier you should choose.
The world of Middle Earth that is accessible has grown in Shadow of War and there is a ton to explore. The world looks gorgeous and ran great on my PS4 Pro. There were times when a lot of fire would be in the area and I’d get some frame slow down but those were few and far between.
The dialogue can be hokey at times but the voice acting in general is very good. In the case of Gollum it is excellent and near to impossible to distinguish from Andy Serkis’ performance as the character in the movies (I looked in IMDB and there is no actor listed for Gollum. Maybe Andy made a surprise cameo). Gideon Emery also distinguishes himself as your bruiser sidekick Bruz the Chopper. Just wait until he sticks his finger in this month and tells you he wants to make their heads pop.
Shadow of War does have a few small quirks that hopefully with time will be patched out. These by no means break the game but they are annoyances. The UI has some subtle issues. The button for options is rotated by 90 degrees and looks like the touchpad, not the options button. There is also missing subtitles. For the Shelob memories and the artifact cut scenes when the narrator explains what you are seeing there are no words on the screen. This is especially annoying because there is a lot of background noise in the game and it’s easy to miss what the narrator just said. The good news is you can always go back and look at the item or the memory and read what was spoken the first time.
I also got stuck in the terrain a few times running from a ledge onto a rope. I’d have to jump around and push at several different angles just to get out of an invisible hole. The good news is after a few seconds I could break myself free. I didn’t have to reset the entire game. Added to the fact Talion steers like a boat at sea and it can get frustrating. Especially when you are trying to climb up a wall and your character jumps to the side or when you try to jump on a wall and he does a somersault into it instead. Also early on there were missions that finished and I lost the items from a powerful Uruk I had killed. Later on you can prevent this with a skill that auto collects items. Earlier on it’s just a bit disheartening when you lost what could have been a decent upgrad.
One new item that to be aware of is the addition of loot chests in the game. I did not find them to be required to complete the game. You can buy loot chests with money that you earn in the game, and you earn a ton from breaking down items you won’t use. You can also purchase these loot chests with real money. It seems like a shame to see a game that sells for upwards of $100 for the gold edition (which contains the future DLC) also contain microtransactions. The good news is it doesn’t detract from the core game experience if you choose not to purchase them.
Shadow of War pushes the Middle Earth franchise forward in a positive direction from Shadow of Mordor. The new iteration of the Nemesis systems shows how the developers can take an already innovative system and not rest on their laurels. While some Tolkien purist will cringe at the liberties the game has taken with their characters Monolith Productions has forged from this beloved IP a great game.
A digital key for the PS4 was provided as a review copy of Middle Earth: Shadow of War from Warner Brother’s PR team.
- Nemesis System is Still Great
- Build Your Own Uruk Army
- The Setting aka Middle Earth
- UI could use some polish
- Character controls don’t feel precise. Talion steers like a ship.