Middle-earth: Shadow of War, the follow-up to 2014’s Shadow of Mordor, is in many ways a prototypical video game sequel. Its main goal is simply to give you more. A vastly larger world, a wider range of weapons and abilities, and more ways to interact with the dark realm of Mordor. It’s bigger in just about every sense of the word. At the same time, it retains much of what made the original so good, namely its tight stealth action and unique “nemesis” system, which turns otherwise forgettable orcs into deadly and memorable enemies.
But in the quest to add more, the developers at Monolith Productions have diluted the experience. There are still great moments — ones that even surpass the original in some regards — but they’re buried under a mess of quest markers, paint-by-numbers missions, and other unnecessary additions.
Like the original, Shadow of War follows a pair of protagonists. There’s the human ranger Talion, who can’t die and is on a never-ending quest for revenge following the death of his family. He’s joined by the elf wraith Celebrimbor, who a) is the one who forged the rings of power in the first place, and b) joins Talion in his quest, lending him his ghostly powers. Once again, the game plays fast and loose with the Lord of the Rings canon. At the outset, the protagonist duo are seen forging a brand-new ring that they can use to defeat Sauron. There are other curious changes as well: Shelob, a massive spider from the books, spends most of the game in the form of a young woman in a slinky black dress. Overall, the game’s dark and violent tone feels like what would happen if Zack Snyder tried to adapt J.R.R. Tolkien. The story is loud and bombastic, but for the most part it’s pretty forgettable stuff, with numerous twists that don’t always make a lot of sense.
But that’s okay, because just like in Shadow of Mordor, the best parts of the game are the ones that are unique to you. The scripted cutscenes are just filler: the important part is the nemesis system. Essentially, the idea is that there are certain orcs — captains, warchiefs, and other powerful leaders — who have distinct personalities and, more importantly, memories. When you defeat one of them in battle, or if they defeat you, they’ll remember it.
When I chopped up a low-ranking orc named Tark, for instance, he managed to escape. A few hours later, he snuck up on me as a new man, completely changed thanks to a series of mechanical implants that made him stronger than before. He was also nursing a powerful desire for revenge. These kinds of relationships grow and change over the course of the game, and they’re especially powerful because they’re unique to you; no two playthroughs of Shadow of War will be the same. In my case, the newly mechanized Tark kept beating me, and so I’ve spent a good portion of my time in the game beefing up my abilities so I can finally take him down.
This was all true in the original game, and — at least early on — Shadow of War feels almost identical. Missions generally involve sneaking into an orc camp or base, wreaking some havoc, and then taking down the bruising hulk in charge. The game offers a good amount of freedom for how you do this. You can interrogate orcs to learn about their boss’s weaknesses, or you can utilize explosive barrels or caged animals to thin out the ranks before you strike. It’s a flexible system that only gets more flexible as you progress and unlock new abilities. Just a few hours in, you’ll be able to unleash hordes of killer spiders and pin orcs to the ground with a well-placed arrow. Once you get the double-jump, it feels like you can go anywhere.
Where things get really interesting, though, is where the newly enhanced nemesis is involved. Eventually you’ll get your hands back on that second ring of power, which allows you not only to control orcs, but entire armies. The result is sort of like a game of very violent Pokémon. Those high-ranking orcs you come up against can either be killed or enlisted in your army. You can assign them to important posts within your ranks, or send them to gain the trust of your enemies before assassinating them. You can even pick one to be your personal bodyguard.
It’s a clever evolution of the nemesis system, one that really makes it feel like you’re making a mark on Mordor as you steadily take over more territory and swell your ranks. Each area in the game is also home to a fortress led by a powerful war chief, and your forces can take these over in the new siege battles. You know those massive, sprawling conflicts from the Lord of the Rings movies? Siege battles make you feel like you’re thrust right into one of those epic fights, and it’s absolutely thrilling.
Of course, the addition of armies also makes the already questionable ethics of the game even more questionable. In Shadow of Mordor, you were essentially torturing and brutalizing orcs in an attempt to gain intel and intimidate your enemies. Now, you’re enslaving orcs and making them fight for you. As well-designed and engaging as the enhanced nemesis system is, it’s hard not to feel a bit guilty utilizing it. There are strange moments when Talion will give an inspirational speech in front of hundreds of soldiers that only follow him because he’s beaten them and used magic to take hold of their minds.
The act of enlisting is even more callous: now, when you look at an orc’s skills and weaknesses, you need to decide whether to enslave them or kill them. There’s even an option to shame them and knock them down a rank, if you want to be a jerk. Shadow of War is also still horrifically violent. A typical battle will involve swords shoved through faces, bodies ripped in half, and copious amounts of rolling heads. One of the first things you do in the game is magically pop an orc’s skull after getting important intel from him.
Shadow of War also simply has too much stuff. The map suffers from Assassin’s Creed syndrome: it’s absolutely littered with icons for missions to take on and orc captains to tussle with. Just figuring out what to do next can be a challenge. And for the most part, these missions aren’t that interesting. Often, they’re repetitive battles, stealth missions, or quests to find objects littered around the world. Sometimes you don’t even have to really do anything: one line of quests lets you test an orc’s mettle in a fighting pit, where you’re simply a spectator.
These kinds of boring, paint-by-numbers missions are especially frustrating because they bury the more interesting aspects of the game, yet they’re still necessary. If you’re struggling against a particular nemesis, or you need more powerful fighters for a siege battle, you’ll need to grind through these missions in order to get to where you need to be.
The overwhelming nature of the game’s structure has also diluted other aspects of the game for me. In Shadow of Mordor, I had multiple nemeses, many of whom I felt a real connection to. But because there are so many orcs in Shadow of War, and so much to do in between fighting them, I haven’t had as many of those relationships in the sequel. And for those that I do have, their role has significantly diminished. There have been times when an orc will unexpectedly attack me, furious at a defeat earlier in the game, screaming about all of the horrible things he will do to me… and I don’t actually remember him at all.
That’s disappointing, because it’s those elements that make Shadow of War unique. Without the nemesis system and siege battles, it’s a pretty typical open-world action game that just happens to be set in the world of Lord of the Rings. There are times when Shadow of War’s increased scope is a good thing — when you’re fighting off towering lava monsters or giant fire-breathing dragons, for instance — but many of the additions actually take away from the experience. It’s big for the sake of big. And that makes it harder to truly hate an orc.
Middle-earth: Shadow of War is available now on PC, PS4, and Xbox One.