February 12, 2020 at 10:21 PM #871
Middle-earth: Shadow of War
Rating: 4.0 – Great
The Mordor Monologues
Middle-earth: Shadow of War is the eagerly anticipated sequel to the fantastic Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor from developer Monolith Studios and publisher WB Games.
The game fuses Cinematic Arkham style combat with Assassin’s Creed style movement and stealth, but its claim to fame is the innovative Nemesis System, a system of randomly generated orc enemies that gives you an endless variety of orcs with countless combinations of features, abilities, and personalities to interact with.
All this is set within the beloved fantasy realm of Middle Earth, best known from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.
The game ultimately manages to accomplish everything it sets out to do. What it doesn’t accomplish is to improve on Shadow of Mordor in any meaningful way.
I need to start this section by saying that this is a fantastic game. Much of what I have to say about the game here will be negative, but that is only because most of the positive things about the game were already present in Shadow of Mordor. If you’ve played that game, you know all the good things about this game already, and there’s a lot of good in that game that carries over to this one. If you played Shadow of Mordor and wanted more, this game will absolutely deliver.
The team faced some design challenges in balancing this game. If there was one problem with Shadow of Mordor, it’s that the main character, Talion, was pretty overpowered. By the end of the game he was utterly unstoppable. There was absolutely no challenge for skilled players. And yet he was still not powerful enough to challenge Sauron…
Most of the design effort in the game has gone into depowering Talion, while creating the illusion of him continuing to grow in power to challenge the Dark Lord.
The primary method they have used to do this is to break up all of his skills into pieces. When you purchase a skill, it will generally only give you a fraction of what a similar skill would have given you in Shadow of Mordor. You now have upgrades to each skill, and you get to choose one out of three upgrades to enhance each skill. All of the upgrades combined, plus maybe an ability or two that is built into a piece of equipment would give you the ability as it existed in Shadow of Mordor. But since you can’t combine all of the upgrades, you can only choose one, your abilities end up being vastly less powerful than they were in the previous game. There are also a few upgrades that give you new powers that were never available before. Choosing a new ability that didn’t exist before means giving up other upgrades, depowering the base ability even further to make it much less powerful.
Maybe you’ll be able to gain a powerful new ability that allows you to execute multiple enemies with a single use a skill that only used to execute a single enemy – but that ultimately comes at a cost of only being able to use the skill once or twice in an entire combat, where in Shadow of Mordor, you could use execute twice in a row, and it only took three attacks before you could build up the power to use it two more times.
This is only one example, but this dynamic permeates every aspect of the gameplay, from combat to stealth to ranged attacks.
The result is the disappointing realization that all of these amazing new abilities that you’ve been looking forward to will never really pan out the way you’d hoped they would. There will always be some frustrating limitation put on every ability to make it less powerful than you had anticipated.
At the same time that they’ve been working over Talion to bring him down to earth, the denizens of Middle-Earth have largely gotten an upgrade. Orc Captains have a whole range of new abilities to make them more diverse and challenging. In a vacuum, the upgrades to the captains are fantastic. The diversity and challenge that these Captains provide is refreshing compared to the dregs from the last game.
However, all the other changes to the difficulty combine to make dealing with everything at once more frustrating than challenging. Nearly every normal enemy is made harder in some way – often in ways that feel cheap and unsatisfying.
The game has also added a new grunt enemy, Olog-hai. They are gigantic, powerful trolls that are much more difficult to fight than any other normal enemy. These trolls are a lot of fun to try to battle on their own – but mixed in with every other enemy it’s nearly impossible to fight them in any skillful way. The game often just devolves into utter chaos when they’re around, and they prevent you from using any meaningful strategy to fight the weaker enemies. You spend way too much dime diving around the screen desperately just trying to avoid the variety of incoming attacks.
Furthermore, ranged attackers seem to have a much better range, and are no longer clearly marked on the map, making them much more difficult to spot. Combine this with massively decreased focus – the ability to slow time to line up ranged attacks – and an inability to replenish your arrows during combat, and you are constantly being bombarded with ranged attacks from off-screen that you cannot realistically prevent, interrupting your attacks and disrupting your attempts to get into a flow in combat.
More troubling is the fact that enemies spawn quite close to you. Even in an area that is generally clear of enemies and has no alarms, if you get into a fight and you don’t finish off all the enemies within a few seconds, more enemies will spawn and enter the fight. This is especially problematic with ranged enemies, who can spawn within distance to start shooting at you, so even if you thought you had eliminated all of the ranged attackers, a new Archer can spawn up on the rooftops 50 feet away and start shooting at you again with absolutely no notice.
This problem extends into Captains as well. Monolith has obviously made a concerted effort to make sure you encounter Captains more often. Captains with their cool personalities are the driving force of what makes the game fun. But Captains will often show up and attack you every few feet as you’re trying to make your way through the world. They show up and ambush you constantly.
It’s nice to have these difficult pitched battles every now and again, but you seriously cannot get anything done in the game at times because you’re getting ambushed by a captain every few seconds. They don’t even wait until you’ve beaten one captain before the next shows up. It’s extremely common to end up battling 3-4 captains all at once – along with countless grunts – every time you try cover a distance of a few hundred feet from point A to point B.
During one mission I had a captain that jumped me, and after a difficult fight I started to get the better of him and he ran away. I just wanted to get to where I was going, so I decided not to give chase and let him escape. 15 seconds later I was ambushed again by the same fricken captain! Literally 15 seconds. I recorded it and went back and checked to see how long it took.
And then there are the monologues…
Monolith is obviously very proud of the voice acting in the game. And they should be. It’s fantastic. But nearly every one of these orcs who attacks you will drone on and on about all the random things they’ve been doing. And when you get jumped by three orcs in rapid succession and every single one of them has to stop the fight and spend 3 minutes droning on about how Susan from accounting stole their yogurt at work – or whatever inane thing it is they’re talking about – you just want to scream at them that you really don’t care how their day went and you’d like to just get back to playing your video game without any more interruptions!!!
And it’s not just when they show up that they spout off. It’s every little thing. Before a battle they monologue. After the battle they monologue. When they first see you they monologue. When they decide to run away they monologue. When you kill them they monologue. These monologues are way too long. Stopping to hear a one line quip every time you see an orc is acceptable. Listening to them drone on and on, stopping the entire battle for minutes at a time, just gets ridiculous.
And it’s not just annoying. This has serious gameplay consequences.
I used my Wrath – a powerful attack that takes a dozens of kills to build up your power meter for each use – in a fight against 3 orc captains that had jumped me. I killed the first orc immediately …and he started talking. He talked and he talked and he talked about how I was killing him and how he felt about me killing him and what he had for lunch and what his bowel movement was like afterwards (I assume, because I wasn’t actually listening, because how long can you really be expected to pay attention to what a dead orc has to say, while your precious Wrath meter is emptying out beside him while he’s talking!!!), and by the time he was finished talking my Wrath meter had run out and my special attack that I so desperately needed to get me out of this bad situation was wasted.
This is an unforgivable design flaw…
Sadly, for all their attempts to rebalance the difficulty and add new features to the game, nothing that was a problem in Shadow of Mordor seems to have been fixed. It was a fantastic game, but like every game it has its issues, and no effort has been put into addressing those issues.
In Shadow of Mordor you would occasionally get caught up on a piece of geometry where Talion couldn’t handle going up a 3 inch platform to perform an attack during combat. There were only three or four places in the game where it was a problem.
In Shadow of War, not only is this still a problem, but there are obstructions and small platforms like this all over the game. Sometimes an orc will go up on one of these small platforms, and you absolutely cannot fight him unless you join him on this platform. When you do, the camera is so close to the wall that you cannot see anything.
Also – in this game that relies so heavily on dominating and controlling orcs, they have not addressed targeting issues. Talion attacks whatever orc is closest to him, regardless of the direction you press – friend or foe. I know the game is capable of discerning friend from foe, because Talion will not aim attacks at human allies. But it is impossible to get Talion to reliably aim his attacks at an enemy if their is an allied orc – like your bodyguard – close by your side.
This was a problem that really needed to be addressed if they were going to make a game that centers around fighting along side controlled orcs, and they did not address it.
Lack of attention to some of these types of very core deficiencies that were so needed to cull the chaos of the enormous battles is really the thing that brings this game down from the level of masterpiece to merely a fun addition to the franchise.
The game can be incredibly fun and rewarding at times – especially when you figure out a new combination of abilities and/or equipment that allows you to find a useful strategy of combined skills.
However the game systems are very complex, and for every strategy you devise there is some combination of orcs that is capable of derailing that strategy, and due to the complexity of the game you will often have no idea why your strategy has stopped working.
Orcs also have the ability to adapt at random to any of your attacks, so no matter how carefully you plan your strategy, all your planning can go in the trash in a moment if an orc just adapts the ability to be immune to an attack you needed to use on him, or if another orc shows up to ambush you during the fight, which seems to happen over 50% of the time.
The worst thing is when you’re forced into a situation where the only way to win a fight is to exploit the game’s extremely poor stealth AI. Orcs cannot see you from even a few feet away, and will lose sight of you if you move about 100 feet away. You can then just turn back around and run straight up and stealth attack them. Against some captains, this ends up being one of the few viable strategies for defeating them, and that is a real shame. This ends up being incredibly unfulfilling and perhaps the biggest disappointment of the game when an orc forces you into these cheap tactics.
The game has caught a lot of criticism over the story, and I honestly don’t think it’s fair. While the story is nothing spectacular, it more than serves its purpose. The story in this game is easily better than the story in any of the Peter Jackson "The Hobbit" movies. Having a video game with a better story than a multi-billion dollar movie franchise based on the same IP is nothing to scoff at.
The story is somewhat limited by the fact that this is a prequel story that takes place in a world that everyone knows. There is very little that could be done to truly surprise you. There is little room for innovation on the story front, because of the nature and setting of the game. We all know the outcome of this story.
The beginning of the game is overly terse, with the game moving things along a bit too quickly through cutscenes early on without properly explaining character motivations. Within the first few minutes of the game, you go from Talion’s line in the last game about making a new ring, to having made the ring, lost it, and being forced into a new quest devoid of power from having lost Celebrimbor’s power to the ring that you forged.
By the end of the first act the game’s story has settled into a good rhythm, and the events feel meaningful and well thought out. You can see where the game is going by this time. It has purpose and it holds true to the general narrative of Tolkien’s world.
Tolkien purists may have trouble accepting the liberties they’ve taken with some of the characters, but ultimately they haven’t done anything in the game that specifically contradicts the canon of the books. They’ve simply expanded on existing elements in ways that the books never established.
The game looks fantastic for the most part. The environments in particular have had a lot of care put into them. The world is beautiful.
The game performs flawlessly. I’ve never noticed a single dropped frame, or experienced any type of performance issues.
The one unfortunate thing is that Talion himself seems to have suffered from a little bit of a graphical downgrade from Shadow of Mordor. Everything else looks better, except for Talion.
The draw for the game is the Nemesis System, and as such they’ve put much more effort into making the orcs look good than they did Talion. While this makes sense from a design perspective, in practical terms you spend the entire game looking at Talion, so it’s difficult not to notice the discrepancy.
Another annoying graphical decision is that all of the equipment you get in the game changes the way Talion looks in gameplay, but most of the cutscenes are pre-rendered to make Talion look better in the closeups, meaning that Talion will always be wearing different clothes and carrying different weapons in the cutscenes than he is in the gameplay leading up to them. This is much worse than in other games with similar problems, because you really don’t have a choice in changing Talion’s gear. If you don’t pick your gear based on the upgrades and power you stand no chance of being successful at the game.
The menus also bear mentioning. The menu system is a convoluted mess. You cannot go from one menu screen to another at will. Everything changes depending on what button you used to access which menu from where.
You’ll spend a lot of time going out of the menus so that you can go back into the menus from a different place so that you can access the specific menu you need.
Furthermore, they made the poor choice of having an analog cursor on the orc army screen that makes it difficult to move the cursor from orc to orc. Rather than just pressing a direction and moving to the new orc, you have to move the cursor with the analog sticks, and when you release it you’ll snap to the nearest orc. It’s a minor quibble, but it gets annoying when the cursor doesn’t want to go to the orc you’re trying to look at.
On the upside, they’ve added the ability to customize the HUD, turning the entire thing off if you so desire, or keeping only the elements you feel are vital, which allows you to put more emphasis on the beautiful world of Middle-Earth.
The music is well composed and catchy and highlights the game perfectly. It’s really everything you could hope for and continues the trend of wonderful orchestral music in Tolkien projects that started with the Peter Jackson movies.
Voice Acting is terrific, and aside from the overly long and too frequent monologues by the orc captains, there is absolutely nothing about the sound in the game that is anything short of spectacular.
Everything from the music to the voice acting to the chaotic sounds of battle and roars of great beasts sets the tone perfectly, bringing the world to life in spectacular fashion.
The game is significantly longer than its predecessor. You’re easily looking at 40 hours of quality content in the main game alone.
The nemesis system provides countless hours of additional enjoyment. With all the variety of characters and randomized activities, you can spend as much time as you want enjoying this game without it ever losing its footing.
The developers also put up daily and weekly challenges that you can do to earn rewards. These are a fun way to get a little more enjoyment out of the game, and can draw out the experience considerably with additional goals and rewards.
As much Mordor as you want – you get. You can continue playing the game until you’re ready to move on to something else without ever running out of things to do. Hunting orcs in the nemesis system is an endless source of entertainment.
The end game provides a reason to use the Nemesis system, with a 4th act that is centered around fighting and recruiting orcs. There is an overall story reason for doing this, but the entire act is nothing but the Nemesis System, defending and capturing castles in fully randomized battles full of randomized enemies.
You have to finish this "Shadow War" to get the true ending to the game, which reveals the end of Talion’s story and how it ties into The Lord of the Rings Trilogy.
You can spend countless hours on this War, finding and configuring your army in countless inventive ways – or you can just go for the throat and finish it.
How much play time you spend is really up to you, and just depends on how much you’re enjoying the game.
This game has received more than its fair share of controversy. The most notable unresolved controversy is over Microtransactions.
The game features a marketplace where you can purchase loot boxes with real world money that, when opened, provide you with random orcs and equipment to shore up your army and help you with the game.
The concern is that the game will be unplayable, or will require an unrealistic amount of grinding to get the orcs and equipment you need to progress through the game, in order to try to entice you to spend more money in the marketplace.
This is absolutely not the case. In fact, if anybody has any cause to be angry, it’s anyone naive enough to purchase these microtransactions, thinking it’s going to help them through the game easily. Rewards from the boxes are tied to your current level, so if you buy a box full of stuff, it’s all going to be at your current level. Orcs that you recruit yourself are actually going to be much higher level, as you can get equipment that will raise the level of every orc you personally dominate by 5 levels or more. So stuff you get from a loot box is always going to be significantly weaker than anything you find on your own.
Additionally, you’re going to continue to level up, so after a couple of hours of play you’re going to have gained some levels, and all that stuff you got in that Loot box you spent $6 on is now drastically underleveled and completely useless. Spending money on those boxes is just like throwing your money away. After two hours of gameplay you’ll have nothing to show for your money, and be no further ahead than if you had saved your money.
The only place where the microtransactions could be useful at all is in the end game, once Talion is approaching the level cap. But by this time in the game, you’re pretty much just doing this because you want to keep playing the game. The game is over.
You can finish up the Shadow Wars pretty quickly and easily if you just decide to go do it, since Talion is immortal and there’s no penalty for dying. Spending money to help you quickly get through an optional part of the game where there’s no penalty for dying and you can go as quickly or as slowly as you want seems like a waste to me.
I do have to say that the pre-order bonus for the game only applies to the PSN account it’s redeemed for, and even then I never got the full bonus I was promised even on my primary account due to seedy microtransaction rules. There are some shady policies going around in terms of their online marketplace. But nothing in the marketplace is required to play the game. Nothing in the marketplace really even helps all that much.
While the game features graphic violence such as beheading and dismemberment, the orcs involved are generally monstrous enough as to not come across as bearing any human resemblance to children. It just seems like mindlessly fighting ‘monsters’. The game may be too graphic for very young children, but I would think it would be appropriate for anyone in middle school or above, and even late elementary school level children should have no problems with this game.
Anyone who enjoys Tolkien’s works should check out this series, as it is one of the best representations of Middle-Earth to date.
Anyone who played Shadow of Mordor and was left wanting more should definitely play this game.
However – be prepared for a challenge. This game is much more difficult than Shadow of Mordor. The game does feature an Easy mode for people who can’t handle the difficulty curve. I haven’t tried it, so I can’t say how much of a difference it makes. It also features a hard mode if you’re just that awesome and the difficulty increase on normal is not enough for you. But try it on normal first.
If you haven’t played Shadow of Mordor – play that first. The story picks up right after the events in Shadow of Mordor, and you definitely need to have played that game or at least watched through the story to get much out of this game.
Additionally, Shadow of Mordor is simply a better game for less money that you can use to gauge your interest in the next installment to see if it’s right for you.
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