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Reviewed by Some Guy
Monolith's New Stealth/Action RPG
Shadow of War is an open world action/stealth game by Monolith Productions. The “open-world” of the game is made up of several areas, all in or around Mordor. You start the game trying to track Celebrimbor’s kidnapper through Cirith Ungol. You may recognize this as being the area from The Return of the King where Sam fought Shelob the Spider and rescued Frodo from the Orcs. After a quick tutorial here, the first real area of the game is Minas Ithil, “The Tower of the Moon,” as you help the Gondorian defenders hold the city against the Witch-King’s forces. And after the first cutscene explaining that… Yeah, you can pretty much do whatever you like, it throws you into a sandbox.
While Shadow of War is certainly an open-world game, it is also a sandbox. Once the initial setup cutscene is done, you don’t necessarily have to do anything. You can wander the map as you like, fighting Orcs at random and doing whatever missions you come across. There’s a huge amount of freedom in this game, maybe even too much. In general, the tutorial level was linear (teaching you how to sneak around enemies) and Act One had some structure. But once you get through the Siege at Minis Ithil and move on to the Sea of Nurnen, the only scripted event is dominating your first commander. After that, the world opens up and you can travel to any of the game’s areas and do as you please.
Enemies, The Nemesis System, and Beasts of War
The Nemesis System has returned in Shadow of War, and it is better than ever. Really, it’s the game’s main selling point. Every enemy within the Nemesis System is unique; each has his own personality, title, and character quirks. My personal favorite was a Captain called “The Singer,” who was scared of Morgai Flies, vulnerable to Stealth, and literally sang to me with the voice of an angel every time we fought. He was awesome, and I made him into the Overlord of the region I found him in once I conquered it.
That brings me to the point of the system: conquering. Each area has a huge number of captains, and some warchiefs. Warchiefs command captains, and the Warchiefs themselves are commanded by an Overlord. The general idea is that, through dominating warchiefs and captains, you can build an army and assault the Overlord’s fortress. The assaults are another high point of the game. After setting up your army with assault leaders and upgrades to their forces, you charge into the fortress, capture points, and then you face the Overlord for a climactic boss battle at the top of his tower. Assaults are easily one of the best things about the game and it does a great job of conveying the scale of the battles.
Of course, there are other enemies besides Orcs. Joining the Orcs in the Nemesis System are Olog-Hai, sun resistant intelligent Trolls. They’re tougher than normal Orcs and can’t easily be executed.
There are also some beast type enemies. Graugs are basically trolls but not called such, being giants who are used by Orcs and Olog-Hai as beasts of burden, carrying siege weapons or just being turned loose on the enemy forces. Caragors are a large, catlike species, similar to the Wargs from the Lord of the Rings movies, that are most often seen as mounts for either you or your Orcs.
A new beast addition in Shadow of War: Drakes. Like fire-breathing versions of the Ringwraith’s flying wyverns in the movies, they’re wild in Mordor but can be tamed and ridden by Talion if you have the right skill unlocked. If you don’t tame them, they’ll attack everything indiscriminately.
And then there are swarm enemies. Ghuls are small, twisted monsters that pop up out of the ground to attack in huge numbers. They are individually weak, but in large groups can kill you as quickly as a school of piranha can strip a cow. There are also swarms of spiders that can appear. They can be crushed fairly easily, but they apply poison. They are much more aggressive than they were in the first game.
Gameplay remains mostly unchanged from the first game. That is to say, you can approach enemy encounters straight on with your longsword, stealthily with your dagger, or from range with Celebrimbor’s bow. You can unlock abilities and powers to augment these approaches. For example, my favorite ability upgrade was the “Brace of Knives” power. It allowed me to interrupt enemies by quickly throwing a knife at them, up to three in quick succession. Some other cool abilities include “Brutalize,” a stealthed assassination attack that scares nearby Orcs into running away, and “Shadow Strike,” where you can aim your bow at a distant enemy and teleport to him, killing him instantly with a decapitation.
Each skill has between one and three upgrades to it. For example, the “Detonate” ability allows you to teleport into a campfire and strike it with Celebrimbor’s hammer, causing an explosion. You can upgrade this with skill points, to cause a Ghul or Spider swarm after the explosion; or you can change the skill so that you only have to shoot a fire to detonate it, not teleport in. You can only have one skill upgrade equipped at a time, though.
Overall, the controls are pretty tight and intuitive. There is one area, however, where the controls are just laughably bad: Dragon-riding. The controls for riding on a drake are just awful. There are buttons for strafing up or down, or to the side, but they just don’t work. You can breathe fire on your enemies, but it never seems to do as much damage as when the Drake was wild. If you build up your execution meter, you can launch a fireball that does more damage, but still not enough to justify having to build it up in the same way as executions. Basically, drake-riding isn’t worth it, and the mission where I was forced to ride one was easily the most annoying mission in the game.
A new addition to gameplay is the loot system. Kill a captain, warchief, or pretty much any enemy with a unique name, and they’ll drop a piece of equipment. A sword, bow, dagger, armor, cape, or ring-rune. These new pieces of equipment increase your damage with the corresponding weapon slot, increase damage resistance, stealth, or focus. In addition, the weapon drops can be fitted with gems, dropped by specially marked enemies. There are three types: wealth, potency, and vitality. Each type can be upgraded once you have enough. These gems will increase your damage output, your health and defense, or experience and rate at which enemies drop the in game currency.
Swords and Face to Face Fighting
In straight combat, each hit builds a combo. In the first game, this would build up to an execution attack. But building combo no longer has any real bearing on charging up finishing moves. Executions are tied to a separate meter that builds as you hit enemies (and, with an upgrade equipped, as you get hit, or as you get more stealth kills). So there’s not really any point in the combo number, getting a higher combo doesn’t give you anything unless as a bonus objective on a mission. It’s essentially there just because it was in the first game, and building an execution meter takes much more than eight hits, or even sixteen. You can boost how much might you gain with each hit, but it doesn’t have a real noticeable effect. In short, the sword-to-sword combat system is more cluttered and should have a meter OR a combo counter, not both. In addition, once you have your execution meter charged, you can perform a one hit kill on a single enemy. Great, right? But to do so, you have to aim with the directional input. I couldn’t count the number of times I would build my execution and try to use it on the boss I was fighting(captain, warchief, graugs, and trolls, etc) only to have Talion run around the boss I wanted to attack and kill some random that wasn’t even bothering me.
Another system tied to combat is the Elven Rage Mode. In the first game, you had a bar that filled as you killed enemies. If your weapon was fully upgraded, you could activate it for unlimited executions in combat, or turn invisible and have unlimited stealth finishers if you were using the dagger. This state would last until the meter ran out. Shadow Of War sees the return of this sort of “super-mode” with Elven Rage. Each kill builds your rage meter, a blue half circle mirroring your health. Once full, you can activate it to turn into Celebrimbor’s Wraith, gain unlimited combat finishers and arrows, and basically just spam attacks on whoever you happen to be facing. When I used it I tended to turn a circle while firing out hundreds of arrows. It’s a really fun and satisfying way to fight large groups or particularly beefy and challenging bosses. There’s a very appropriate balance between the effort it takes to build Elven Rage up, to how much punishment you can dish out once it’s activated. Unlike the combo/meter/execution mess I mentioned above.
Sneaky Assassinations and Stealth
Stealth play is amazing, if slightly overpowered. Except for captains and chiefs who are immune to stealth, there is literally no better way to approach the game than by sneaking through the camps and assassinating or dominating any enemy you find. Now, I mentioned it’s overpowered. It is. Often, it’s so over-powered it’s funny. And it’s so OP because the Orcs and Ologs in the game, pretty much every enemy except the Caragors, in fact, have literally no peripheral vision. They will never see you unless you’re right in front of them. And even then, it takes them so long to register that you’re an enemy that you can just run up and assassinate them anyway, with no consequences. As I said, it’s a lot of fun, but it can be a bit immersion breaking. It never bothered me, though.
Bows, Arrows, and Ranged Combat
The third type of combat is ranged combat. Talion can access Celebrimbor’s bow and slow time to a crawl to easily kill multiple enemies. The slowed time comes from your focus bar, which thankfully refills automatically. In theory, you can increase your focus by equipping runes to your Ring of Power, but I have yet to actually notice a difference.
You can use your bow for more than just shooting enemies, though. You can use it to poison kegs of grog, or to initiate shadow-strikes, or mount graugs, caragors, and drakes. There’s not much more to it than that. It’s much more of a support weapon than a main means of battle.
There are a few new characters in this game. First and foremost is Shelob, also known as the nightmare spider from Return of the King. Granted, she’s a Liv Tyler lookalike here instead of a spider, but… The character grew on me as the game advanced, which I did not expect. As disgustingly sexualized as the character is physically (scantily clad, bends over a lot in her scenes, is Sauron’s former lover…), she managed to be the only character in the story that I actually liked, the only one who seemed like a real character with a multi-faceted personality. Which is ironic because in the books she has probably the least amount of characterization of all the characters. But I digress.
Of the numerous other characters appearing in the game, none had an impact on me. The Gondorian characters’ story, while meant to be touching, didn’t have an effect because they weren’t very well fleshed out. That’s a big problem with this story: I didn’t care about the characters. Talion and Celebrimbor are both just angsty, dark and edgy people, although in fairness this game does much more to differentiate them than the first one. There’s an Elven assassin that shows up. She’s dark and angsty about her light and goodness based powers. There’s a mysterious tree spirit that has a major questline. She’s rumored to be more powerful than Sauron (why can’t she just beat Sauron herself, then?), but in practice she’s an angsty tree that exhibits some of the most annoying behavior for a follower NPC I’ve ever seen (she’s the source of the afore-mentioned Drake flying mission). The Ringwraiths show up. They’re pretty cool, and fighting them is a distinctly different experience from the normal boss fights.
Basically, the Orcs and Shelob are the only really interesting characters to me. Shelob because of her motivations, opinions, and interactions with both Talion and Celebrimbor; and the Orcs because the Nemesis System is actually that amazing.
Look, I personally didn't like this game. I made it halfway through and had to return it because of a combination of loot boxes, ads in the pause menu, absolute disregard for Tolkien's world-building in favor of spectacle, and a weak story and characters that took a backseat to just messing around with the Nemesis System.
But I'll give it this: it's damn fun to play. Monolith has added a lot of sub-par things to this title, the aforementioned loot boxes being the worst. But it's also vastly improved on all the good things from the previous game.
In the end, I'd definitely recommend it so long as you promise not to use the market place.