In case you need a refresher, at the end of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, Talion and his ghost-elf pal Celebrimbor succeeded in getting revenge on the Black Hand of Sauron, but decided to hang around Mordor a bit longer to forge a new ring of power with which to challenge Sauron himself.
This they do, in the opening cinematic for Shadow of War – and immediately lose the damn thing as it’s snatched away by Shelob, of all characters. Long story short, Shelob offers prophetic visions which Talion hopes will guide him to ultimately defeating Sauron – by essentially conquering all of Mordor.
The best way to describe Middle-earth: Shadow of War is that it’s more of the same, just bigger and better. The core mechanics still revolve around assassinating and mind-controlling Uruk-hai captains and warchiefs, but it’s been taken to a whole new level. Here, you’re not simply converting a few Uruks to your cause and calling on them to help you fight tough opponents – instead, you assemble entire armies to capture fortresses and install your own overlords in them. These fortress sieges are the centrepiece of Shadow of War.
It works like this. After you get through the story-driven tutorial bits (which takes hours), you’ll gain access to a huge open world, divided into regions. These regions are guarded by fortresses, and your job is to capture all the fortresses in each region before you can eventually take on Sauron. To capture a fortress, you must assemble an army with a siege score greater than the fortress’s defense score. To acquire an army, you recruit Uruk captains and warchiefs in much the same way as the previous game – by learning their weaknesses, attacking them and “branding” them to convert them to your cause. You assign these captains to your siege team and decide what kind of forces will accompany them (such as defenders, beast-riders and berserkers) when you finally launch your assault.
You can weaken a fortress’s defense score by assassinating (or converting) the warchiefs that serve the overlord, meaning you won’t have to face them when you assault the fortress. Unfortunately, these guys are quite tough, having long lists of buffs and special abilities that make them hard to kill – and they have powerful bodyguards too. Unless you want to take on a super-tough warchief and their super-tough bodyguards at the same time, it’s probably best to get rid of the bodyguards first. Or better yet, kill the bodyguards, then send in some of your own Uruks to act as bodyguards so they can help you lead the warchief into an ambush.
There’s a lot more you can do now with the iconic Nemesis System. You can order Uruks to attack other captains or warchiefs, have them fight in arenas to increase their level, assign them to accompany Talion on missions, and use them to keep track of Uruks who’ve killed you in the past so you can take revenge. I can get lost in the Nemesis System for hours. For instance, I might have to kill two Uruk bodyguards and choose two of my own to pose as bodyguards for a warchief I want to kill. That alone is four separate missions – but I still have to check on another of my Uruks who is embroiled in a conflict of his own, and I want to ensure he survives. While I’m busy with all that, I might be ambushed by an Uruk captain I thought I’d cut in half ages ago – but it turns out his friends put him back together with crude machine parts, turning him into a sort of Uruk cyborg. It’s organic, unpredictable, and fun.
The combat system has undergone a bit of work too. There are now six skill trees, each offering five or six skills which can then be further customised in two or three different ways to suit your tastes. There are all kinds of different ones: do you want to be able to mount a single caragor without beating it down first, or would you prefer to beat one down, and automatically tame all nearby caragors when you mount it so they become allies? Do you want the Elven Light combat ability to freeze, poison or ignite enemies? Do you want the Shadow Strike bow ability to teleport you to enemies – or would you prefer it teleported the enemies to you? The choice is yours.
The free-flow combat, which allows Talion to fight dozens of enemies, has been tweaked a bit. I didn’t like it at first. It feels… different somehow. I take a lot more hits than I used to, and I can’t figure out why – but I’m getting better. Talion now has a “might” gauge, which fills up slowly through combat and stealth actions. Once this gauge is full, Talion can perform a special move in combat, but he can also use it for actions outside of combat.
The game also features loot drops now. Talion can equip different armour pieces, swords, daggers, bows and even different rings of power that offer buffs. They’re the usual colour-coded, tiered, randomised unlocks that’re, naturally, quite well-suited to microtransactions. Sigh. Yep, just like Injustice 2, there’s a microtransaction option sitting there, constantly glowing in the corner of your eye, or waving “SALE” banners at you from the pause menu. You can also get Uruk recruits that way, if you couldn’t be bothered to play the game you paid for and would rather pay to essentially skip ahead.
I have to finish off this review with a mention of the Uruks themselves. These guys are the life and soul of the game, after all, and the developers have gone out of their way to include a huge amount of distinct personalities, lines and jokes for them all. The humour walks the line between witty and forced, sometimes taking a few steps more to one side than the other – but I’m always amused by Bruz, the huge, Aussie-accented Olog who serves as your instructor in all things siege-related. Oh, and when Eltariel (the elven assassin you run into occasionally) asks Talion what it’s like to die over and over, I can’t help but wonder if the game is making fun of me.
I could go on and on about this game, because there’s just so much to it. Everywhere you look, there’s something to do – an assassination to take care of, a new siege commander to recruit, a side-quest to pursue, a collectable to chase. If you liked the first game, you’re almost guaranteed to like this one. Just try to ignore the microtransactions.