Shadow of War is a game that demands the player’s attention. It is brash and loud, hurrying the player along a path of constant engagement Not a moment goes by without a prompt or an icon or a mission or an encounter with enemies. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I’ve had a great deal of fun playing, but it is utterly exhausting.
The game is so desperate to make sure that you don’t have any opportunity to slow down. Within the first half an hour I had a nigh limitless superspeed sprint alongside a double jump. I could sprint from one side of the (not necessarily small) map to the other in about two minutes. Along the way, there were three types of collectible icon on the map to grab. There were also story missions, orc captain missions, flashback missions and online revenge missions and towers to climb to gain fast travel points. On top of this, every inch of the map was covered in Orcs, Trolls, Goblins and beasts to fight.
There is a paralysingly huge amount of things to do in Shadow of War. On top of all the above, there’s an inventory system that constantly encourages the player to upgrade their gear. On top of that again is an enchantment system that can be used to personalise that gear.
It’s a smorgasbord of content. I find myself forced to set manageable goals just in order to keep check on my game time.
In this session, I will go and capture/kill these five orc captains. Then next time, I can clear the outposts and grab a few more captains. Session after that, a story mission so I can get a big chunk of experience then levelling to take a fortress siege on.
With all those movement abilities above, I could just go straight from step one to the end. There’d be zero downtime. It’s possible to just dash to mission start points without a fight.
Except then it’s four AM and all I’ve managed to do in seven hours is turn one of the game regions to my side. I haven’t even gone for collectibles or side missions. As above. Exhausting. Fun enough that I’ve lost track of time, but draining nonetheless.
The game is gluttonous for the player’s attention. In some regards, this is fine. Losing yourself in a world is perfectly reasonable as long as you’ve nowhere else to be. It would just be nice if it didn’t feel so inconsequential in the face of the game’s vast horde of map icons.
The core of the game is the same as it’s predecessor Shadow of Mordor. Go around Mordor, kill orcs, complete missions, mind control orcs into fighting by your side. Straightforward stuff.
The combat is very simple, with one button attacks, stuns and dodges. The countering is as satisfying as ever, with quick time lite prompts allowing for brief animations of swordplay.
There’s just more of everything on top. More controlling orcs, because now you need to build an army. More swordplay, because now you have so many more missions and orcs to fight.
Even more combat options, as skill upgrades allow the player to personalise their styles with new finishing moves or techniques.
Once again, this isn’t a bad thing. If you liked the first game, you’ll probably like this one. There’s just so much that it can get a little overwhelming and paralysing in choice.
The game is huge. It wants to be. Where Shadow of Mordor was a surprisingly good game that no one really expected, Shadow Of War is trying so very hard to be grand and impressive.
In certain sections, Shadow of War manages to use it’s own bombastic tone and structure to really do something interesting though.
The Fortress Sieges are straightforward, but enjoyable. They’ve clearly been modelled on Helms Deep and Minas Tirith from the films. Grand displays of warfare with siege engines and hordes of troops.
If the player has put the time in to preparation, they’ll have taken control of the region’s orc captains. They’ll then have used those captains to ambush the castle’s main defenders. By removing those, each castle loses a special defensive bonus like extra trolls or special weapons.
Then comes the siege itself. The player and their army charge forward, sappers exploding gates or trolls battering down walls. A swarm pours in, with the player forming a dervish of blades and counters and magical attacks. Around them are Allied Captains, selected by the player, each supporting the assault and engaging their opponents in their own style.
Should any enemy captains remain, they’ll appear now. In the maelstrom, as the player tries to capture key points, the yell of “Tark/Ranger/Gravewalker/Manfilth” will go up. The Captain cutscenes will play out. In some cases, this will be a long reckoned rematch. In others, your ensorcelled allies will swarm and end them. On a few satisfying occasions, I’ve even managed to capture a captain mid siege, only to turn him on his troops.
Finally, siege won, the player enters the hall of the Overlord. From there, a punishingly hard bossfight awaits. While randomised, these orcs have incredibly strong skills, with minimal weaknesses. Death is likely.
Luckily, Shadow of War can’t stand the idea of the player having downtime so the mission skips straight to the final duel if and when the player restarts.
Battle finally won, all that’s left is to hold the castle with your own troops. And you will have to hold it. The final act of Shadow of War is a long form campaign of war. You’ll be required to level your troops and castles in order to hold them against counter attacks. It feels grand in scope, with genuine anger as treasured captains are killed in defence of the walls. Some of the best moments in the game come from desperate fights where the player cannot afford mistakes, battling alongside Orc Captains that they’ve trained.
The huge scale of the Sieges is only half the joy though. It’s the captains and orc Lords that really makes the Sieges, and truly the whole game, fun.
The Nemesis System from Shadow of Mordor was perfectly fine. Repeated run ins would result in procedurally generated Orcs challenging the player. They’d recall their previous fights, even their previous deaths. They’d learn and gain strengths and weaknesses.
Shadow of Mordor improves on this in two ways. Firstly, it diversifies the type of opponents. Now there are trolls and orcs alike, from varying clans and classes. A mystic (tribe) troll (species) warrior (class) is very different to fight from a machine orc defender.
Considering there are a lot more captains, this variety helps make the actual act of engaging them a great deal more fun. Each variation influences a change in how they fight, whether it’s a style of weapons or a debuff they apply.
Especially so as they adapt on the fly. Now trying a dodging trick against a captain too many times runs the risk of having them suddenly stop falling for it. The orcs adapt, and the player must suddenly switch up their tactics mid fight.
However, as fun as the combat is, it would be nothing without the new orc personalities.
They are gloriously pantomime. Ludicrous threats, long winded speeches, diatribes about how much pain you’ll be in soon. The player will hear them all. Each is influenced by the factors above like tribe or class, but even within those conditions, there’s still a great deal of variety. I adored this system. It does create an unusual sense of twistedness as you carefully enslave and then train orcs, raising them up through the ranks to be capable and powerful captains. It’s especially impressive as you’ll be dealing with dozens of Orc captains over the course of the game’s five regions.
Special commendation should go to the visual work for the orc captains. They are grotesque and alien, yet always feel perfectly suited to their very humanesque personalities. As for voices, a blend of various Northern England, Australian and New Zealand accents lend a real variety to the mix.
In comparison to these personalities though, the rest of the games writing and plotting is grimly boring. The Elf Wraith Celebrimbor is still possessing the undead Gondorian Ranger Talion. Both still want revenge against Sauron. Both are still miserably dour and self serving.
It’s a very Tolkien themed plot of trying to accomplish Good, but being seduced by power. Nothing special.
Now though, there’s a whole host of other characters involved too. Some are vaguely interesting like the Gondorian captains Ithil and Baranor, trapped behind enemy lines. The Nature spirit Carnan gets extra credit for the team because they’ve tried to use Old English Speech Patterns for the character. They know their Tolkien. Orcs and Humans aside though, I barely care about the story or the characters. Now, I’m not saying I would want to see Tom Bombadil, but there were plenty of spaces in between on that scale of fun characters. The story shift as the game enters the fourth act was an interesting design decision as well, but it gets lost in the change in game format to defending your fortresses.
There are just a great many creative decisions in this game that feel odd and at odds with the Lord of The Rings. Some of those are clearly decisions that were made for the sheer coolness of what they could have happen in the game in set pieces and enemies.
Once more, the game is more interested in never letting the player stop chasing the next bigger and better thing on their map.
Shadow of War is very much a fun game to play. The sequence of taking control of orcs, encountering captains, fighting across the world is still solid. Everything that the first game did well, Shadow of War does equally if not better.
There’s just so much of it in this game. Even the most enjoyable moments start to wane when you encounter your twelfth orc captain in a region. When you complete your ninth flashback mission or discover your twentieth artifact collectible. The game encourages you to rush and play and never stop moving. More than anything else, Shadow of War hurts itself through it’s own design. The game would stand up perfectly well if it just encouraged the player to enjoy the game at their own pace.
Instead, the breakneck pace it encourages results in players just having too much to process in a short time. There’s a solid base to the game in the combat and Sieges and orcs. That base is just being buried under the weight of the rest of the game.