Released earlier this month on October 10th, action adventure role-playing game Middle-Earth: Shadow of War enters the market just before the holiday season in which several other triple A titles will be released. Does the game live up to its hype and the fans' expectations?
Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is the direct sequel to the 2014 hit game Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor and as a result continues the previous game's narrative set between the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings movies.
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The game features several new additions, including an updated version of the "Nemesis System" that can and must now be used to recruit followers for your army, a day and night cycle, a weather system, updated AI and updated graphics.
It also features a new "Social Conquest mode" multiplayer component that is rather limited in the sense that it only allows players to invade and conquer other players' fortresses.
There is quite a lot that can be said about the game's storyline, especially if you are a lore fanatic who enjoyed The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings movies.
There are a few included characters and events that just don't make sense in the grand scheme of things, but this can also be considered as one of the game's strengths because of its ability to sometimes surprise and confuse.
Does it detract from the overall experience? Yes and no, as it largely depends on how invested you are in theTolkien lore. Otherwise, the storytelling is superb and can be compared to that of its movie counterparts.
For me, the most memorable scenes are those with Bruz the Chopper because the character's writing and accompanying voice-over are able to continuously delight the player by bringing wit and charm to the game whilst also acting as an unintrusive Army and Nemesis System tutorial.
Other than Bruz the Chopper most characters don't leave a lasting impression and because of that the story feels somewhat average. Some optional quests that are not linked to the main narrative also feel a bit repetitive.
User interfaces are sometimes confusing and not well-thought-out. This is particularly noticeable with the bottom left part of the HUD that features several bars but is never explained to new players, which is surprising because the amount of tooltips and hints is through the roof.
The skill point tree is also confusing at first but starts to make sense once you randomly unlock a few skills in the first few hours of gameplay.
Those who have played and are familiar with Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor will instantly recognize the intricacies of the user interface, but new players will have some trouble understanding them.
The region user interface does its job and navigating between quests is fairly straightforward. However, zooming in and out of a region is not as seamless as I would have liked it to be because there is a delay between switching from a region map to the overworld map.
When zoomed in to a region, parts of the simplified version of its environment sometimes don't match that of its counterparts, which can be confusing when you are looking for a very specific location, however, it serves its purpose just fine otherwise.
Combat & skills
Combat is exactly what one would expect from a role-playing game. Every hack and slash feels good because of the cathartic sound effects, especially when fighting hordes of enemies - just like the previous game.
Combat is almost an exact copy of Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, except for a few minor improvements, and this is perfectly fine because if it ain't broken, don't fix it.
However, after the first few hours of gameplay combat does become a bit stale, but this is just because it takes a bit of time to get used to the many skills you unlock as you progress through the game.
As you take on higher level enemies the combat system gets a whole different meaning because timing of attacks and dodges becomes increasingly more important and mastering it can be the difference between conquering or dying.
Not all the skills you unlock are as useful as I would have liked them to be, but it does open the way for gameplay variety and may give you the edge over the Nemesis that you weren't able to kill before.
The updated Nemesis system keeps the game interesting, but due to it being partially procedurally generated the mechanic also loses its charm over time.
That being said, the accompanying character introduction that starts when you face a Nemesis features a decent amount of interesting lines and voice-overs that helps make every encounter feel more unique.
The best way to describe the system is to think of it as a turn-based board game where turns are taken and the consequences of actions are reflected by characters leveling up or getting killed.
The roster changes during story gameplay as fights can also happen between characters themselves. You can even specifically choose to join their camp raids and executions if you make your way to one of these events on the map.
The way you interact with followers from the moment you face them to when you recruit them and give them orders changes their behaviour in the sense that their dialog may change depending on your commands.
You can command your followers to take out characters, infiltrate a warchief's ranks and give training orders. Once you capture a fortress you must promote one of your followers to Overlord, which will then also be reflected on the roster and sometimes change their behaviour.
While the system adds an interesting new mechanic, it certainly isn't for everyone. Those who are only interested in playing through the main story may consider it be more of a nuisance than a welcomed addition, even though the additional quests do bring variety. Those who are really into managing their army will easily spend countless hours doing so.
Overall the updated system introduces more role-playing gameplay mechanics and provides more personalization than the Nemesis System of Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor.
All of the explorable terrain featured in the game is breathtaking, especially Gorgoroth and Minas Morgul because of the awe-inspiring lighting effects used.
The one bad thing about the game's environments has to do with the way traveling between regions works. Players are expected to unlock Heidir by purifying them, which are used for fast traveling and advancing time.
While this system is fine and serves its purpose, there is no way to cross region borders without it. This gives a feeling of being boxed in a certain map until you open the user interface to load another. Not including a more immersive way to cross region borders seems like a missed opportunity.
For a game that primarily focuses on storytelling through countless of close-up camera shots facial animations are surprisingly average. Mouths move when characters speak, as expected, but the rest of their face seems strangely static and emotionless, just like Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor that released in 2014.
This is kind of disappointing because it detracts from the game's superb voice-acting. The death scene of Idril's father Castamir is particularly affected by the issue and pretty much robs the moment of any emotional connection the player might have had.
That being said, the game does feature updated graphics when compared to the previous entry. This is especially noticeable with environment and character lighting, model details and textures.
The game really shines on the PC because of its vast graphical settings and its ability to maintain smooth and steady frame rates on modern hardware, which is increasingly rare for recent PC titles yet oh-so very important. On a single Nvidia 970 GTX graphics card the game runs at 60 frames per second most of the time with all graphics settings on high rendering at 1920x1080 pixels resolution.
A free 4K Cinematic Pack and High Resolution Texture Pack is also available for the PC version, which makes all the difference compared to the default and really should be installed for the full experience because some cutscenes are, sadly, still prerendered.
However, the biggest problem with its graphics settings is that it lacks a field of view slider. Not including this in the PC version and forcing a very low field of view is, quite frankly, unacceptable. Luckily, hackers have already found a way to increase the field of view because the game can be considered unplayable without it.
Oddly enough, the one place where a field of view slider is available is when you activate the game's NVIDIA Ansel integration to take screenshots. The framework has been around for more than a year so it is very refreshing to see more titles utilize it to power community creativity.
Why the slider is available there and not in the game's settings is unknown, but I suspect it is related to lower frame rates as a result of having to draw more of the scenery, something that can be troublesome on consoles but shouldn't be an issue on the PC.
The soundtrack sets the mood incredibly well because it changes depending on the situation you are in. This helps create incredibly immersive combat scenes, especially when capturing forts.
The menu theme that play when viewing quests, inventory, army roster or map locations is very memorable and stuck with me even after finishing the game. The soundtrack can easily be considered one of the best video game scores of this year.
While the new multiplayer component is a fun addition to the game, it can also be considered the most underwhelming. Invading fortresses of other players is fun for a while and the included friendly and ranked settings are the bare minimum of what one would expected.
What would have really made multiplayer a game-changer is if it featured story co-op that allows players to play together with a friend instead of conquering each other's fortresses. Sadly, this feature was never announced nor implemented, but it would have made a huge difference.
Lootboxes & DLC
Lootboxes aren't as big of a deal as the giant horde of angry gamers and bandwagon mainstream media made it out to be before the game launched. Even though the idea of lootboxes in a singleplayer game turns me off, I have never had the feeling I was being forced to spend money in the in-game marketplace during my time with the game.
If anything the lootbox system seems to fit in well with the current market trend where a portion of the playerbase will happily pay extra to compensate for their skill, Quake Champions being a prime example, or their unwillingness to spend more time than required on a game.
That being said, various parts of the story, including the ending, do feature grind to some extent because they are essentially locked behind the army mechanic that requires you to build up your army of Orcs and beasts through random Nemesis missions and by roaming the world.
The idea of having to build up your army isn't even that bad, but one can easily get the feeling that the grind is only included to sell more lootboxes.
When looking at the expansion pass and its included downloadable content publisher Warner Bros. has announced, the idea of including lootboxes becomes increasingly negative, especially when considering that the base game plus its expansion pass costs a grand total of $99.99.
This is already a steep price in itself even though the publisher has yet to reveal the exact contents of the four content packs that will be available via the game's expansion pass. Releasing additional downloadable content packs that include story and new gameplay mechanics seems like a better way to generate additional revenue than implementing generic lootbox systems that few people like.
Having said that, players still aren't required to purchase lootboxes or the game's season pass so both can easily be ignored.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is a must buy for any RPG lover, and a really interesting deal for those just looking for an amazing action adventure game.
Players who pick this title up are in for an adventure to Mordor that is filled with hundreds of quests, awe-inspiring environments to explore, several interesting charaters with accompanying backstories, a good combat and skills system and an incredible soundtrack.
On top of all that, the PC version is actually worth looking into considering it is, for the most part, well optimized and runs at a smooth and stable frame rate. Combined with the extra free 4K Cinematic Pack and High Resolution Texture Pack the PC version of the game is almost too good to ignore with the only major complaint being the lack of a field of view slider.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of War
PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4
Large variety of skills that can change your play style
Nemesis System adds variety and brings countless hours of fun
Combat is just as enjoyable as its predecessor
Small user interface quirks
PC version needs a field of view slider