Triple-A development in recent years has become characterized by big, open-world sandboxes, increasingly with live service business models. Shadow of Mordor was already a step up from the typical Ubisoft-like sandbox game and its sequel is several times bigger in every regard. Sadly, this also means bigger problems, leading to a game I ultimately found to be inferior to its predecessor.
Storywise, the game’s three acts represent three wholly different games. We pick up after the events of Shadow of Mordor and see Talion mounting a rescue after Celebrimbor has been captured by the spider Shelob, who now takes on the form of a beautiful woman. To rescue his ally, Talion parts with the ring they forged together and begins an uneasy cooperation with Shelob. Gondor is now under attack and Talion hopes to use her fortunetelling abilities to defend his homeland.
The entirety of Act 1 is a lengthy introduction taking place in the city of Minas Ithil as it comes under siege and Talion befriends the local defenders. The game plays the same as the first act of Shadow of Mordor and even has you relearn some of your old moves as you level up. Talion’s skillset has been expanded and feels more overpowered than ever before. So much so that I often ended up having to learn moves I didn’t even know what to do with, especially since the old offering still works as well as it always did.
It’s still fun to leap around the game’s environments and Talion is as speedy as he’s always been. New abilities like a double-jump or the ability to summon a Caragor mount add even more to your ability to get around fast. Little has been done to solve the last game’s issues with regards to targeting, though. Talion still misbehaves while doing parkour and will ignore convenient ledges to instead land straight into a cluster of Orcs, or he’ll get stuck while climbing upwards until you wrestle with the controls to get him moving again. The same applies to combat where Talion will still find a way to use drain or executions on the wrong enemies. I’d be looking straight at an Orc captain I could dominate with nothing else on the screen and Talion would somehow still turn 180 degrees to use drain on some random grunt off-screen. Usually these would be small issues, but during lengthy climbs, timed missions, or difficult combat segments, these problems could cause death or big wastes of time.
What did impress me with this opening segment at the doorstep of Mordor is the game’s presentation. It’s a great-looking game on a technical level, sure, but I also very much appreciated the scope it’s working with. It truly feels like you are skulking about a warzone as Orcs occupy camps, patrols march around, workers are chatting it up, and small skirmishes unfold. Minas Ithil constantly had me finding Gondorian soldiers about to be executed or marched around by their captors, which encouraged me to go rescue them. Later areas keep this up and there are some big battles that feel chaotic in a way few other action games can manage.
By Act 2, you regain the ring and, with it, the ability to dominate Orcs and forge your army. The Nemesis System is back in full swing, giving each Orc a personality and traits from a huge selection of options. Some of them feel like proper Orc warlords whereas others are more comedic. Either way, the game still keeps track of them well, so Orcs you have dealt with before will remember your past encounters and reference those. Your own Orcs might even turn on you or one that you thought dead could suddenly return.
My favorite Orc was this random hunter that killed me entirely by accident, but immediately challenged a superior Orc and defeated it, netting him a mount and an epic title. I issued a death threat to this Orc, after which he ambushed me a minute later. He was very strong and actually above my level at this point, but I managed to defeat him on my last inch of health. After that, he came back and was notably more deranged, referring to himself as The Machine and bearing a lot of wounds. I defeated him again, but he returned a third time and was even angrier and more powerful.
It rekindles the fun of the first game, which left me questioning why you don’t get to do it from the start. I like the introduction in Minas Ithil. Lord knows it’s the only part of the game where the story is actually decent, but it’s kind of boring to find all these fun Orcs and only be able to kill them or run away until you can dominate them hours later. This question became even more prominent when I later returned to these areas and found them unchanged since my genocidal campaign in the first act, including the few remaining Orc captains who were 30 levels behind me. All I did in Cirith Ungol for Act 2 was march straight into the fortress and kill the level 25 overlord I couldn’t attack back in the first act.
The nemesis system is expanded with new options and not just in regards to the Orc randomization. You can now appoint an Orc as your bodyguard, which comes with a host of new events and possibilities that could unfold anytime you call on him. And, while Shadow of Mordor just had you seize control of the Orc command structure for a big final battle, Shadow of War is all about sieges. Each of the game’s areas has a fortress that you must storm with the most powerful Orcs keeping certain defenses running. You muster up an army, equip them with siege weapons, and take the place over, optionally after you have tactically eliminated the defending Orc captains beforehand.
All of Act 2 is about capturing all the forts and manning them with your own dudes, which seemed like a cool idea. However, there is very little point to this. The siege battles quickly reveal themselves to be very repetitive and, while they do look cool, they are plagued with technical problems and AI fumbling. Afterwards you get to put your own Orcs on the defense. Making your forts siege-resistant is the biggest moneysink in the game and it’s completely pointless. There are only 2 sieges during the game’s story campaign and one of those doesn’t even use yours Orcs or defenses at all, so unless you want to grind out repetitive end-game content, you’re only spending all that money and time for the amusement of online jerks who grind your forts for lootboxes and exp.
I had a lot of fun for a while, until Act 2 began to seriously drag itself out. Capturing all the forts in Mordor is important, yet there are also story missions to go through that still have you escort slow NPCs and solve menial problems. The whole nemesis system is detached from the game’s narrative and that’s why these story missions feel so underwhelming. They will also be heresy to anybody who has an ounce of care for Tolkien’s lore.
What completely sapped my interest and turned my opinion on the game sour is how these story missions are blatantly padded out. Carnan has you go around purifying necromancer totems, the Elf assassin has you kill groups of Orc captains, the Bruz story sees you escort a slow character to short combat encounters. It’s all repetitive and pointlessly overlong. Problems that could be solved in 2 fun missions are instead resolving in 6 or 7, each of which has you do the same tasks and lets you get an inch closer to the permanent solution.
This carrot-on-a-stick approach to storytelling also extends to the main plot, which tediously has you duel each individual Nazgul before it suddenly gives up and just lets you do a series of pathetically easy final missions. The siege of Mordor saw my horde of level 40 Orcs cut their way through captains half their level before you face off against two easy bosses. If you thought the final battle of the last game was hilariously easy, wait until you play this and see yourself stunlocking the most powerful forces of Middle-Earth to death.
The longer Shadow of War went on, the more its structure began to unravel, so a final boss you just mindlessly wail on for 5 minutes was a perfect representation of that. Shadow of Mordor wasn’t always ideal, but it at least felt like a solid game with good systems, whereas here I found myself hoarding skill points because I had nothing to spend them on and having to routinely waste half an hour to clear out all the trash item drops and upgrade all the gems that drop like rain.
Shadow of War has a lot of problems and systems that don’t feel finished or are actively broken, with the most frustrating being the fight pits. You need to do these 1v1 fight pits to promote your Orcs up the command chain or to level up your overlord, but they are complete random. Almost every fight would see one Orc spam his attacks without opposition while the other stood around doing nothing. I have literally seen a level 25 EPIC Orc die to a level 4 scrub as he just stood still getting repeatedly hit by the same cinematic attack for an inch of his health. You can’t do anything to influence this and Orcs that lose in the fight pit are permanently lost.
My frustration with all these problems came to a boiling point around the 30-hour mark, after which I abandoned every side-quest and rushed through the main story. I tried 2 of the post-game siege defense missions and uninstalled the game immediately after. I praise the game for its presentation and I hope Monolith gets to work on something that allows them to expand these siege mechanics, but Shadow of War was overall a bad time for me.
Its story has some highlights and I did like several characters, but it’s an overextended and deeply-flawed game. The nemesis system is too detached from actual story campaign, the RPG mechanics are amateurish, and the game asks you to waste a lot of time on busywork that doesn’t get any pay off whatsoever. As fun as the game sounds, I’d sooner recommend a second run through Shadow of Mordor.