Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
Middle-earth: Shadow of War is a worthy sequel to the original Shadow of Mordor game in many ways, but it manages to fall short in a handful of others that are impossible to completely dismiss. That is a shame, since Mordor was my contender for Game of the Year when it released, and I had high, similar hopes for Shadow of War that unfortunately doesn’t reach those lofty expectations I had hope for.
At its best, Middle-earth: Shadow of War provides hours of entertainment, mixing RPG elements with Batman-like combat and some splashes of stealth strategy. The original Mordor game did an admirable job of this, even if some of the stealth elements did get on my nerves in those specific side missions. Still, it was a title that got off to a slightly slow start but quickly charmed me with its mixture of gameplay elements and its novel Nemesis system. Middle-earth: Shadow of War manages to take those same elements and improve upon them for the most part while expanding the world and lore (some could and have rightfully argued that in doing so also doesn’t respect the original lore) in the process.
These are all good things as Middle-earth: Shadow of War gets off to a somewhat slow start that it never quite fully recovers from. The introductory segment is well enough crafted as you learn the game’s basics (or just brush up on them if you are returning from Mordor after a couple of years off like I was), even if it lacks some of the emotional charge Mordor had. The problem here is not just the so-so story introduction, but that the limited scope of what you can do turns this into a tutorial-like segment. That would be okay for 30-60 minutes, but you can easily spend five hours in this area, so it overstays its welcome. However, after you finish the game’s early section, which serves as a sort of action-packed tutorial of sorts, Middle-earth: Shadow of War actually is quite interesting early on. The new systems have such as the gem crafting and the strongholds as well as expanded rosters of creatures all help make this world a more interesting one to traverse than Mordor’s was. There is a real sense of exploration and discovery in the middle hours that hold up wonderfully.
Where I think Middle-earth: Shadow of War loses a bit of its soul is in the silly microtransactions that it offers. If these were simply cosmetic or of minimal importance to complete some tasks, that would be one thing, but I know I am hardly alone when I say gamers are really getting tired of seeing these things creep into almost every genre of game. If they were cosmetic or even just perks that would be one thing, but I feel as though they crept into the overall later stage gameplay as well. Combat grows nicely, if in predictable fashion early on (again, very reminiscent of the last game and the popular Arkham Batman titles), but that system has not grown in meaningful ways despite its somewhat frequent use over the last several years. It is still a rock solid one, but a system that nonetheless could use some innovation before we see another ‘Shadow of’ or Batman title of this ilk come out.
More concerning is not just that the combat can grow repetitive, but the way Middle-earth: Shadow of War starts to really grow grind-heavy during its last one third or so of gameplay. Resource gathering, non-fortress assault missions and collectibles gathering all starts to grow redundant, which is a shame. Now, none of the microtransactions are must-haves, I never felt compelled to buy any because I could earn everything I wanted through gameplay, but I also admit that I have a bias towards grinding (blame it on years of JRPGs) that many players might not. I can’t help but feel that the game’s progression curve rounded out a bit to help encourage some spending later in the game, so while the microtransactions never felt in-my-face egregious, I was disappointed that they crept into the gameplay curve, even if relatively gently.
That is a shame, because the Nemesis system is better than ever is once again the star of the show. Some of these orcs are absolutely hysterical with their personalities, and taking on a general never got old for me. Like Mordor, these fights and the results of them were the high point of the game and something I looked forward to throughout. It is also worth calling out that the skill tree has more variety baked into it, which is awesome. You can unlock from a handful of different disciplines, and in unlocking a skill you also tend to unlock a requirement for either an all-new skill or adding modifiers to it later. This really allows you to tailor your character’s traits to your preferred style of play, though there are a few odd inclusions that are later in the unlock line that I almost felt like were requirements to get (like the ability to auto-pick up from fallen enemies) that just make your quality of life that much better.
Middle-earth: Shadow of War is still a really solid game, one that I enjoyed spending dozens of hours with. I love the fantasy setting (even if I’m not a huge fan of the occasional bastardization of the source material), and really enjoyed the parts of the game that saw some extra depth and care added. There are just a few questionable game design choices such as a too-long introduction, hit-and-miss story and the specter of microtransactions that took a bit of the shine off of this sequel for me.Score: 7 / 10