Middle-earth: Shadow of War (XB1) Review

Another ring to rule them all.

The first Shadow of Mordor game came along at an opportune time. It was during the generational shift, and developers were just getting their foothold on the new consoles. At the time, nothing existed quite like the Nemesis System. It was unique, it was innovative, and most importantly, it was fun. Years later a sequel has finally dropped and the developers have expanded upon everything about the original game and packed it full of content. There is a lot here, almost too much, but it all feels so well-designed fans could spend dozens of hours discovering it all.

Being how long it has been since the first game, I really appreciated the recap that plays at the beginning of the game summing up the story from the first game, transitioning right into the new entry. The first title played fast and loose with the Middle-earth lore. The sequel almost tosses it to the side, using names and places mostly as backdrops to tell its own story. Sure fans of the series are likely to have plenty of double takes along the way. Whether it is human-form Shelob or a brand new ring, little about Shadow of War feels canonical.

MSRP: $59.99
Platforms: XB1 (reviewed), PS4, PC
Price I’d Pay: $59.99

I am in no way attached to the Lord of the Rings lore, and even I found these changes not all that interesting. The story missions usually play out as distractions to the world surrounding them. They feel like placeholders to tell a narrative. They were easily my least favorite part of the game.

Did I mention Shadow of War was big? This game takes the first outing and increases in size what feels like exponentially. There is at least 50-60 hours worth of content here. That includes the story missions, side quests, and of course the quintessential open world tasks presented to the player. It is overwhelming. I found myself lost in the prologue for nearly ten hours. Then once the game opened up, I was shocked. The game felt like it had just begun, and I was already almost a dozen hours in.

Instead of a true open-world, the game is broken up into areas. Each one contains plenty of quests and items to find. Moving around the areas became much easier once I unlocked Talion’s movement powers. There are also towers to climb that serve as fast travel points.

Within each area there are story missions, but what makes Shadow of War special is the organic storytelling. The Nemesis system delivers better interactions than any of the scripted material. High-level Orcs are littered everywhere. Coming into contact with one triggers dialogue and players can also hunt down informants to learn their whereabouts and weaknesses. Taking them down breaks down the hierarchy, but as the game progresses players can also dominate them and amass their own army. This is where sieges come into play.

Taking over fortresses are the highlight of Shadow of War. The battles are massive, sometimes featuring over 200 characters. The idea is simple. Take down various points and then confront the warlord. Preparation for these is also a good idea. Taking down the bodyguards or having a mole inside leads to easier battles. The complexity of the system is grand. Once taken over I was also able to place one of my own minions into the castle to defend it. This also comes with its own set of customization options as well as look and feel.

Everything I did in Shadow of War also came with spoils of war. Loot plays a larger part this time around, and is colored much like loot in every other game. Finding legendary sets is great. Players can also socket gems into pieces of gear to give them stat bonuses. Quick tip, max out the Wraith skill tree first. The final power is called Treasure Hunter, and it negates the need to manually pick up every piece of loot. It will take some grinding, but it is more than worth it in the end.

A lot of the talk around this game has come from its paid loot boxes. Players have the option to purchase gold with real world money in order to purchase more boxes. I never found myself needing these boxes. There is plenty of loot to find, and even the end-game legendary orcs are scattered throughout the game. I feel like it is more of a shortcut. Granted it is kind of crappy to have it at all, especially being someone who certainly has more money than time nowadays.

Visually the game looks good considering how massive it is in scale. I am excited to see the upgrades for Xbox One X, but even on the base S model this game runs smooth. I do wish there were a bit more enemy types and environments, but this is Mordor, so I feel like I have seen all it has to offer ten times over.

Shadow of War improves on almost every aspect of the original game. There is so much to do and the systems in place are truly special. The story missions fall flat and the loot boxes are kind of gross, but otherwise this is one spectacular game. Those that enjoyed the original will find even more to love here. I just feel like this game is marred by controversy and a poor release window.

Review copy of game provided by publisher.

Written by
Ken is the Editor-in-Chief of this hole in the wall and he loves to troll for the fun of it. He also enjoys long walks through Arkham Asylum and the cool air of Shadow Moses Island. His turn-ons include Mortal Kombat, Metal Gear Solid and StarCraft.