Middle-earth: Shadow of War Review – Keep Your Friends Close but Your Enemies Closer

The “Nemesis system” is possibly the most intricate and interactive system within a video-game that we have ever seen in the past decade. It is nothing short of an innovative marvel especially when it comes to bringing characters to life that would have otherwise been just some scripted fodder in any other video-game. The system breathes life into these games and gives them so much more sustenance compared to anything else so it is still a wonder why no one is even attempting to replicate it. It might be because of copyright issues or some other convoluted reason but this system should definitely be a part of the games of tomorrow.

Platform Reviewed: PS4
Platforms Available: PS4, Xbox One, PC
Developer: Monolith Productions
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Release Date: October 10, 2017
Price: $59.99
This review is based on a review code provided by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment.

Shadow of War starts out with the deathless Talion and his possessor the creator of the rings of power, Celebrimbor (the Bright Lord), creating a new ring of power so that they could face the forces of Sauron and bring them to their knees. Yet, as soon as the ring was completed it got taken away by an unexpected force. There’s not much reason to immerse oneself with the story of Shadow of War as some of it makes no sense or has a lack of direction; like in Chapter 1 where I didn’t understand why I can’t use Celebrimbor’s branding power because I didn’t have the new ring which was clearly non-existent when I branded orcs in the 1st game. It was also nice to see Talion and Celebrimbor have opposing views on certain matters which adds some depth to their characters. The story also has some really odd plot twists and certain characters bring some unnecessary but refreshing comic-relief to the fold but it is best not to tie the game closely with its source and take it as a big what-if.

Don’t worry though, as the missions are fun as hell and you can even go as far as being like Gandalf and fight the epic Balrog to show Middle-earth which undead is the stronger one, that is to say if you can ignore the fact that you had help from an ancient spirit older than Celebrimbor.

But the main reason to play Shadow of War was never about the story, its main reason was always about the orcs! These brutish, ugly savages are the lifeblood of the game with the Nemesis system being the heart that continuously pumps it. The orcs are varied, funny, quirky, gross, lovable, and sometimes just plain stupid. Each encounter you have with a captain or warchief shows you that, aside from their reason being to stake a blade through you, they have their own stories to tell and there is no better way to show it than through fighting against you together with their underlings who are also trying to make names for themselves.

If you die from a regular orc, that orc is granted a name and a title. It’s a game that really cares about its orcs and trolls (Olog-hai) no matter how big, small, vile, or silly they may be. Each time, the time advances whether through your own volition or through another one of your endless demises, the orcs would be out and about doing something and sometimes they either become stronger or die in the process.

The orcs are now craftier than ever with some of them having bombs, spells, and other things up their arsenal to counter you. Some of them are even better at sneaking up at you and can easily ambush you while you’re scouting for your next victim. I even had a big troll sneak up on me atop places where only archers would be on standby, which goes to show that not even your back is safe in this game.

Be careful though, when you make enemies some of them are as persistent as hell. Some of them can also come back to life many times over; despite all the times you killed them, they can come back even more messed up than when you stabbed them through your blade. Some of them would even go as far as going to a different region just to spite you and in my case, after I died, the bastard went all the way and killed the region’s Overlord and was titled  Overlord despite the big level gap between them. Though it made revenge all the more sweeter in the end since I took everything from him.

Branding isn’t the same as it use to be as you now have a weird mechanic called “Shame”. This allows you to lower the levels of the orcs you wanted so that they could either match or be lower than your level as you can’t recruit orcs of a higher level than you. But be careful though as there will be a few times wherein when you shame them they become deranged and lose their sanity or for better or worse, they become a maniac and level up at a ridiculous degree which makes them all the more harder unless you can gang up on them. It’s also harder to get death threats now as you need those “worm” orcs to send the death threats; and regular orcs are no longer able to at least identify the captains and warchiefs for you. But there’s no need to worry, as there are many of them in abundance when compared to the previous game, and when you get used to it you can just walk up to them and brand them directly.

Loyalty has now become more complex as there will be times wherein your followers would betray you for reasons that are quite orcish in nature. This makes it quite understandable and it can happen whenever you are just minding your own business randomly and also in the main storyline. This betrayal mechanic makes the Nemesis system more complex and adds a lot of depth to it which can always surprise you as you never know who among your followers would stab you in the back; and sometimes they would stab their fellow orcs that you branded as well. There are also times when the system would throw some curveballs down your way and surprise you with their developments which makes for some great individual or group stories throughout your time with the game.

There will be times when your orcs would just save you despite your impending death and the most memorable personal experience I ever had was when I was out sneaking around and looking for a captain to brand when suddenly one introduced himself behind me and had a surprise for me. He brought with him one of my loyal orcs as a hostage to sweeten the experience and during the skirmish, one of his underlings nearly killed me when suddenly one of my orcs that I didn’t even summon shot him from the shadows of a tree to save my butt. It was such an amazing experience that I couldn’t help but fall in love with the Nemesis system even more.

It’s also helpful if you assign a captain as your bodyguard and they can even go as far as kill an overlord for your sake; and in my case it was an overlord with a “No Chance” perk, which means he could’ve killed me instantly if it wasn’t for my bodyguard stabbing him with his spear. And as my reward for him I made that orc the overlord of the region. In the beginning of the game it won’t be your orcs that save you but random human soldiers who happened to be passing by which makes for some good diversity, at least at first.

The game also has a new feature in which you can capture forts which would allow you to have control of the region to further expand your army. You have to start by thinning the ranks from the captains and then you can go ahead and kill or brand the warchiefs to lower the defenses of the fort. During the sieges, you can change what type of perks the assault leaders would have which can range from using hunting orcs to setting a wild drake loose which is a lot of fun. Once you have captured the checkpoints, only the inner sanctum remains which gives you the feeling of entering an orcish cathedral upon entering. There the overlord awaits with his bodyguards that would constantly refresh as enough of them die out just so they could suffocate you to the point of desperation and if you’re agile enough, you could make use of the environmental fire or poison geyser like floors to give you an edge. After capturing forts, it is also worth noting to strengthen your defenses as you never know when Sauron’s army will come knocking at your door.

The combat has seen some improvement and it is hard to kill, sneak attack, or even brand the trolls. There are also plenty of skills to aid you along the journey, and it is quite versatile with most of them giving you a different strategic output which makes it so much more dynamic. But you’re not the only one as each captain, warchief, and overlord has quite an array of skills and weaknesses as well so each one requires specific strategies. Although it’s also fun to go in blind and do some trial and error, but like any true war game, information is power. Just be careful since some orcs are immune to arrows, sneak attacks, and are quite evasive. The orcs are also quite adaptive as you fall into a rhythm, they will develop an immunity to it which makes for some great dynamic combat unlike any I have ever played before. Elemental properties and skills are also fun to play with and can make some great chain reactions, like poison and fire creating some devastating effects for your victims. As Talion you have poison, fire, and ice but for some reason the developers gave the orcs the curse element which may seem unfair but you’re overpowered enough as it is. Although it would’ve been fun to experiment with the curse element.

It’s also worth commending how large the map is especially when compared to the small map of the 1st game. In this game, the environment is quite diverse and you can even see some peculiar beast every now and then like an elemental Graug walking around or a Dire Caragor. Another thing to note of is that there are a lot of orcs in the whole map, A LOT of orcs. Not to worry though as your skills have got your back as you can just summon a Caragor, a Graug, or even a drake to ease your tired legs from all the spirit dashes.

The microtransactions issue is negligible so there’s no need to spend any extra money for it and some of the loot chests can be bought using your own Silver Mira which you can acquire within the game. Though the gear in-game is pretty good as you can change your appearances and weapons in cutscenes depending on the equipment you’re wearing. The equipment also gives you cool effects like lighting up an enemy with 1/5 of the times you get a headshot or poisoning them with your spectral knives every 31 seconds.

For better or worse, there’s just so many things to do in Shadow of War that nearly every time exploring is an adventure. The orcs all want you and they’re obsessed with you. They’re a colorful bunch and I found the ones with word plays especially adorable like those with the titles of “the Lookout” (all he says is “Lookout, Lookout”), “the Rhymer” (self explanatory), “One Word” (literally just says one word), and many more.

At times it feels like a game where you’re fighting off hordes of your yandere lovers, that it makes me feel more like this system is meant for more than action adventure games and it should venture out to dating sims. One can easily forget the unclear direction of the story to just focus on the high replay value of the gameplay. This game has so much to offer that I can’t help but wonder how much more the developers are able to expand with the already iconic and powerful Nemesis system.

Shadow of War is incredibly ambitious and delivers so much compared to Shadow of Mordor. The Nemesis system is bigger, badder, and more complex than ever.

Middle-earth: Shadow of War - Review
Score Definition
May it be the likes of Shadow of the Colossus or Metal Gear Solid, if it’s quite there but not enough to push the boundaries, it’s still an awesome game.
Revamped Nemesis System
Versatile Skill Sets For Both Sides
More Orcs!
Lackluster Story