Middle Earth: Shadow of War once against puts us in the shoes of Talion, a ranger on a quest for vengeance against the denizens of Mordor. Starting off, we no longer have the power to dominate the minds of orcs and must make do with sneaking up and stabbing them in the back with your dagger, shoot them from afar with your arrows or simply slice them apart out in the open using your trusty sword. If it moves, kill or avoid it, as there are no such thing as allies in the lands you travel across, only orcs and beasts all too eager to make you into their next meal. These are grim times, and they will only get slightly better once you regain control of your ring through story missions, then take part in the new feature that is capturing enemy fortresses.
As you may imagine, one does not simply stroll into a castle alone and expect the capture it instead of meeting a swift death. You will need men, or more specifically, beasts at your back in order to overthrow the current army occupying it. Once again, there are no allies to be found in Mordor, only orcs who only answer to power and are quick to stab you in the back if they sense any weakness. Your ability to dominate their mind with the ring can only go so far as their true nature is that of chaos, making that current legion you command a double-edged sword that will inevitably try to harm you at times. Brainwashing a bunch of orcs to betray their brethren is all well and good but capturing a bunch of grunts will not lead to much. The enemies you want to dominate are the higher ranked captains, that not only have a name but also strengths, weaknesses, and a unique personality.
Captains will provide the majority of the challenge in this title. One can easily slaughter countless grunts, though once a higher ranking orc shows up, things will get much more difficult. Knowledge will play a key factor as to how easy these battles may be. Brainwashing an informant to reveal that particular captain’s weaknesses can make all the difference in the world. Facing against an orc that has strengths such as being arrow-proof and can’t be leapt over is quite the tricky task, but finding out he has a fear of fire will quickly turn the tides in your favor. What you decide to do when he is on the brink of death is up to you. You can either recruit him into your ever-growing army, or you can simply slay him and in return get new gear to make yourself a more capable foe. This decision only grows more difficult when you encounter an orc that is either of epic or legendary rank, making the dropped gear all the better though at that cost of that powerhouse of a recruit.
It is very addicting to go around whichever of the five areas you are currently in to learn about all the high ranking orcs and hunting them down for either a new servant, some new gear or simply revenge for them slicing your head clean off the last time you met. Yes, due to Talion’s wraith condition, he cannot permanently die and resurrects after some time has passed, all while the orc that slayed you is promoted then proceeds to gloat about it to all his mates. This burns far more than any game over screen ever could and is an ingenious way into getting you invested into both the orcs as well as their chaotic leadership structure. They will do anything for a bit of power, and they kill each other perhaps just as much as you kill them, making the politics of the orcs affairs a complex one to decipher. If you see an orc that you want to add to your ranks, its best not to delay lest he be killed in a power struggle before you get to him or he becomes too strong to dominate.
I’m not too keen on the fact that if you win a hard-fought battle by the skin of your teeth and you have him quite literally at the palm of your hand, having him be even a single level higher than you makes it so he can’t be brainwashed. This also extends to the orcs already under your control. Regardless of how many missions and rival orcs they defeat, they cannot exceed your level for some arbitrary reason. As your forces grow and you obsess over every single stat of each captain, eventually you will be strong enough to have a realistic chance of capturing that area’s fortress. One can either rush it immediately or choose to weaken it from within before your assault. This can be done by killing the warchiefs that man that castle and apply defense bonuses such as catapults or more skilled archers. You can’t just walk up to them and stab them however. To reach them you need to do a mission to draw them out or infiltrate their faction with some of your own men so they can do the job for you.
This upgraded Nemesis system is addicting and will lead to many unique stories as to how you conquered a fortress or got yourself into a massive fight when you killed one of your orc’s blood brothers, and he decided to ambush you at just the worst time possible. It’s a good thing too considering there is not much else to do aside from sweeping up all the collectibles in the areas. One can hardly walk more than a few feet without getting into a brawl, and this nonstop action does get tiring. Luckily, Talion has some new tricks up his sleeve which allows us to maneuver about the place far easier and swiftly than ever before. He can sprint at impossible speeds, leaving his pursuers in the dust, he can also double jump and point an arrow at a far-off foe to immediately teleport there once that skill is unlocked. This allows us to sprint around Mordor and escape having to fight anyone on the way to our destination if you choose to.
Fast travel is another option to get around the area quickly and are unlocked by climbing up certain towers then purifying it from Sauron’s eye. As you explore, fight, and do missions, you will level up, gaining a new skill point to allocate into the massive perk tree. Each primary perk has a few subperks that will further customize Talion to your liking. You can only have a single subperk active at once so say you just unlocked one where you can teleport into an open campfire and cause an explosion. It can then further be customized to either spawn in monsters to add more chaos from the aftermath of that explosion, or you can simply pick a perk that allows you to detonate it without teleporting there yourself, making it perfect for stealth. There is a ton of room for experimentation and better yet, it stops Talion like feeling like an unstoppable force like in the prior game.
Defeating certain enemies might also cause them to drop a gem which can fall into one of three categories. These are wealth, damage and health. Each has a different effect considering on what part of your gear you stick them in be it your sword, ring or your cloak to name a few. It doesn’t stop there, we can then combine three of the same gems to build a single more powerful version and repeat this process several more times to unlock even bigger bonuses such as 25% extra damage. This feature is not so significant that it can’t safely be ignored though it is a nice addition and something else to strive for if you choose. Also found from dead enemies or by destroying gear is the currency know as Mirian that can be used to upgrade your gear, fund your siege equipment, or add defenses to your captured fortress. There are a ton of little things designed to mask the fact that you are basically doing the same thing all throughout and it works for the most part. More on that later.
So you’ve up and done it. You’ve built a force to be reckoned with, conquered the fortress and in turn the entire area, as well as got quite a bit of XP. Now what? Well, you can either go to another area and repeat the whole process again, upgrade your defenses for the online component in where other players see if they can take your fortress, or finally you can send your orcs to a gladiator-like fighting pit. The latter I spent quite a few hours of my life on. It is a ton of fun to send your top fighters into the pit for entertainment or a risky way to level him up and just sit back to witness the outcome. You can not interfere in these matches so think twice about who you send and against who they are fighting. All of the opponent’s stats are fully viewable, allowing you to make an informed decision as to who you send out to fight based on strengths and weaknesses. It is basically a hands-off Pokemon with orcs, and it is glorious.
Your orc’s level does matter but only to an extent. Sending out a captain that is 20 levels higher than his opponent does not guarantee a thing, and you can very easily lose him if you get cocky. At times it may be due to the AI having a brain stroke, though on most matches it is a heck of a battle to behold, especially against evenly matched foes. There is one big problem here that significantly decreased my enjoyment of this new feature, and that is once again the orcs being unable to level up past Talion’s current level. Sure my level 26 underdog that has fought dozens of matches may have a chance of defeating a random level 47 warrior, though it is still unlikely and also leads to yet another problem. After you’ve followed the decent story and conquered all five areas, it is now time to defend what you have captured. Yeah, remember that early area with the level 26 orcs that you arbitrarily couldn’t level up any further? Well, now they are up against an assault team of captains over level 50. We may as well save everyone the time of day and give them the keys to the castle if we don’t want to spend a ton of time leveling them up again or restructuring your army with new blood.
The game was stretching itself thin well before the endgame in where our forts can now be taken, and this section was what utterly drove that sense of repetition to the forefront. It’s not just a couple of sieges to worry about, it just keeps going on and on to the point where I nearly wanted to bail on the game entirely. I’ve honestly considered it multiple times as the sieges while cool at first display three of the game’s most fatal flaws. The first is that each and every orc you encounter on the battlefield feels the need to freeze time somehow, just so he can introduce himself. That is even if ironically enough, all he has to say is that you two should stop talking and get to fighting. This happens over a dozen times each siege as you encounter the enemy captains and it quickly gets tedious. Add the fact that a cutscene will play out any time one of them gets enraged, captures a checkpoint or simply dies. You will spend half of the time playing and the other half watching utterly pointless cut-scenes while simply waiting to play again. It is disorienting, it is tedious, and this could have been very easily solved if we could skip/disable all of them.
So that’s one flaw. Unfortunately, I have two others I have to address. Its second flaw lays in the fact that the combat system simply wasn’t designed to take into account your allies. Talion just flails his sword around as if he was trying to swat at a fly and we end up attacking our own orcs just as much as the invading faction. The magnet like Batman combat that pulls you into the nearest enemy at the press of a button works well enough when every orc is an enemy, and friendly fire isn’t an issue. Once you add your own orcs to the mix, combat feels neigh broken, and we fight like we are in a mosh pit striking at everyone without discretion, instead of a battlefield with orcs you’ve painstakingly trained. The only way around this is to use nothing but your bow and since some enemies are immune to arrows, good luck helping your faction take down a high leveled rival without also nearly slaying them in the process.
Its final flaw is that it does feel like a hamfisted way to get you to consider purchasing loot boxes, as you will inevitably suffer some causalities among your ranks and it is time-consuming to rebuild. This makes it all too tempting to simply buy some new, legendary orcs and be done with it each time you lose some fighters during the countless sieges. We can buy a simple silver loot box with the in-game currency, while the rest of the content that guarantees better stuff can only be purchased with gold that needs to be bought using actual cash. The silver box does at least ensure one epic ranked orc though this is something I still can’t commend that. They have designed the end game to be such an unbearable grind, to the point where one is actively tempted to stop playing the title as it was intended and simply solve your problems by embracing their loot box marketplace. To further add insult to injury, its ending was incredibly underwhelming for all that effort and if you want to find out the fate of a certain character, then buy the DLC.
As hard as Shadow of War dropped the ball at the end game, it still doesn’t turn it into a bad title. I’ve enjoyed the heck out of my time exploring Mordor, making new enemies, and butchering countless orcs in the process. Summoning a dragon and soaring across the skies simply because you couldn’t be bothered to walk is just as awesome as it sounds. There are so many good points to this title and they usually tie back into slaying more orcs. Yes, it is great fun and is bigger, badder, as well as better than its predecessor in every way I can imagine. If you decide to pick this up, you will likely spend many hours enjoying every second of it. Slowly but surely, that inevitable sense of repetition starts to crawl in as this game is massive and then it ultimately shoots itself in the foot with the endgame. Even then, the journey there and all the fun it carried with it, far outweighed the end of that long road. Shadow of War still manages to be a good purchase and will have you joyfully chatting with your mates about all the unique things that occurred throughout.