If you wanted more adventures in Middle Earth beyond the Lord of the Rings films, then you’ll find some solace in Middle Earth: Shadow of War. Being the sequel to Monolith’s Shadow of Mordor from 2014, Shadow of War improves upon some of the issues of its predecessor, while taking some risks to varying degrees of success. There are some cameos from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings saga, but nothing that will have fans screaming in excitement for any of their favorite heroes or villains. The updated nemesis system and collection of new abilities lend themselves well towards many unique experiences fighting the armies of Mordor, but a few technical issues, difficulty spikes, and poor design choices hold back Shadow of War from being an amazing sequel.
The story of Shadow of War follows immediately after the events of the previous game. The Ranger Talion is bonded to the spirit of the Bright Lord Celebrimbor, creating a new Ring of Power to save Middle Earth from the forces of Sauron. While the beginning acts of Shadow of War’s campaign have an interesting setup, everything slows down and loses momentum by the halfway point, culminating to a less than satisfactory final act.
There are some characters you spend a brief time with besides Talion during missions, but their buildup and climatic moments aren’t as impactful as they should be. By the time the story reaches its end, everyone you cross paths with won’t be memorable beyond their short segments. There are cameos from a few characters significant to the Lord of the Rings mythology, but their impact is short-lived and over without much impact. Since Shadow of War’s story takes place before the events of the Lord of the Rings bigger events, there isn’t much for these characters to do.
Moving around and fighting in Shadow of War is good, but has a few nagging issues. Running across open areas and traversing structures can be quick and smooth, which makes playing through sections that require stealth feel very good. But when things get loud and you have to fight enemies head-on, Shadow of War’s combat can be both chaotic and messy. Targeting a specific enemy while battling a large group can be frustrating, especially when trying to use one of the many unique abilities unlocked from defeating enemies. Countering incoming attacks from enemies is easy, but can at times force you to frequently negate other actions, like executions and combo strings. This makes large scale battles a bit annoying in some missions, but never to the point where it can feel impossible.
The nemesis system from Shadow of Mordor makes a return, with a few adjustments that fit into Shadow of War’s siege battles and other missions. You can still mark off Uruks to kill, as well as use your abilities to dominate them and force them to fight for you instead. This becomes important later in the game during Siege Missions, where you need to gather allies to launch attacks on fortresses and conquer regions, unlocking bonuses and new missions. Hunting down Uruks has a number of benefits, including new gear and lots of experience, but it becomes a lot more important later to turn them into allies during tougher missions and siege battles.
It does become annoying when Uruks you encounter have combinations of abilities that make fighting them feel overly drawn out, such as not being able to vault over them when you need to dodge specific attacks with a vault. This becomes especially troublesome when you encounter powerful enemies that negate your “last stand” ability when your health drops to zero, completely negating all of your extra lives and killing you immediately.
The online store in Shadow of War does offer some options for extra perks and equipment, but you can completely ignore this for most of the game. In later sections of the campaign, purchasing loot boxes can yield new Uruks, equipment, and boosts for your allies; which will help get over some difficult siege missions that feel somewhat unfair.
However, you can still get through these tough spots even without visiting Marketplace. But do the loot boxes available add enough perks to warrant looking into buying them, even if you aren’t having trouble? No, not in the slightest. Does it feel necessary to included in the game? Probably not.
Middle Earth: Shadow of War is more ambitious and offers a lot more content than its predecessor, despite having a few problems that can damper the experience. Possible future updates could help iron out some of the problems, especially with the combat and randomly generated enemies. The Marketplace transactions are unnecessary and add nothing important to the core game. Battling orcs and experiencing a new story set in Middle Earth is great, but can be so much better with a few more adjustments.
This review is based on a digital review code of Middle Earth: Shadow of War for the Xbox One, provided by Warner Bros. Interactive.