Like many of you, I suspect, I have myriad games in my backlog. These neglected titles were typically obtained on sale at a point in time when my gaming life was consumed by another game or two. Most times, I even forget about them soon after purchase and only discover them again while auditing my library. Such was the case with Shadow of War, a game that I knew I’d enjoy after playing through its predecessor but for whatever reason never clicked the “install” button.
The original Shadow game, Shadow of Mordor, faced some pretty intense scrutiny upon its 2014 release. Because the game is based in Middle-earth, Tolkien purists were eager to tear the content to pieces as it blatantly ignored much of the canon. Assassin’s Creed developers accused the game of not only copying many AC features but reusing (or stealing) AC code. Indeed, the movement, stealth, and even eagle-vision-like components are all obviously present in the Shadow games. But such similarities in the game industry are often waved away as mere “imitation being the highest form of flattery” offenses, and in this case, it seems as though the inspiration may have been not only imitated but even improved upon.
Shadow of War picks up where Shadow of Mordor leaves off. Half-dead zombie ranger Talion is now deep inside of the dark lands of Sauron, looking to overthrow the big man with his own special brand of justice. One of the first areas to experience is Minis Ithil prior to its falling into Sauron’s hands and becoming the fortress of the nine. In Minis Ithil, Talion meets some friends who will play a role in the remainder of the storyline. And while the story is fine, it’s mainly used as a method to unlock more combat and stealth abilities to enhance the real core of this game: orc massacre.
Combat in Shadow of War is smooth, brutal, and intuitive. In addition to the standard left-click/right-click attack/block mechanic, hit combos build to a massive and violent execution move that will finish a foe in spectacular fashion with a single keypress. Other combat mechanics are unlocked as the player progresses, such as a powerful “elven rage” move that slows time and flings one-shot arrows in any direction when a certain amount of might is accumulated.
Ranged combat options do exist but seem like a waste of arrows unless the adversary is an orc captain with a weakness to ranged attacks. I find that I mainly use my bow to poison grog barrels from a distance, a tricky way to whittle down the number of enemies in a concentrated area. Stealth mechanics are the most reminiscent of the AC games and are especially important during the early game sequences since many of the more powerful abilities become unlocked later on.
Once the player dons the One Ring, orcs can be “dominated.” Domination is a form of mind control that persuades the orcs to become allies and fight alongside Talion. This domination mechanic becomes key as the game progresses, as the recruitment of orc captains is required to enable Talion to overthrow the major keep in each zone (have fun storming the castle!). Dominating certain levels of orc captains is also a challenge fulfillment on high-level gear sets in order to make them even more powerful. Dominating orcs contribute to more interesting attack strategies, such as when a player is able to dominate archers patrolling rooftops and then call upon them to attack from above at Talion’s behest.
Lore hounds will have plenty to criticize about the story elements in Shadow of War, starting with the forging of the One Ring. In Shadow of War, the ring was shown to be forged by Celebrimbor. In fact, the ghostly elf guide refers to the powerful little circle as “my ring” on occasion. But in actual Tolkien lore, Celebrimbor was a master craftsman who was tricked into forging the rings of power, and it was Sauron who secretly created the One Ring with the power to rule over all of the others. It’s kind of a major change.
Celebrimbor isn’t the only one whose story differs from the books. Shelob, the massive spider who guards the secret entrance to Mordor and ends up getting stabbed by Samwise Gamgee in defense of Frodo, has gotten quite a makeover as well. Not only can she now shape-shift into a fairly attractive human form, but along the journey the player is able to uncover bits of Shelob’s memories, which seem to paint her as a more sympathetic character than Tolkien intended. I’m not exactly a hardcore Lord of the Rings lore aficionado, but these were a couple of things that I encountered within the first hour of playing that made me pause and wonder what else had been altered to make the story fit into the game.
As for my overall take on the game, I’ve been very impressed. Shadow of War has all of the polish that one would expect of a Warner Bros. title. While the graphics are starting to show a bit of age, they still hold up fairly well and are at least on par with any modern MMO. The combat, even against multiple enemies, is effortless and natural. Cinematic cuts and occasional slow-motion effects draw attention to the more impactful moments of the battle.
While the zones aren’t enormous, the open-world feel of the game is a welcome approach. If you don’t want to continue to the main story right away, you’re free to complete side missions, hunt down orc captains, pit an orc champion against other captains, or even simply wander around wreaking havoc on Sauron’s home turf. Many missions give the player freedom to choose a preferred strategy for completion, be it stealth, poison, letting loose a herd of caragor to wreak havoc and cause a distraction, or a full-frontal assault.
Shadow of War is Assassin’s Creed in Middle-earth. But it’s also quite a bit more than that. It’s a brawler. It’s an RPG. It’s an orc-slaughtering arcade. It’s an (army) building simulator. It’s even got several types of multiplayer mode. Plus, the nemesis system throws in an element that’s quite unique to the experience. If you don’t get too hung up on how reckless it is with the Middle-earth canon, Shadow of War is a fun romp with a beautiful coat of shiny triple-A varnish.