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Middle-earth: Shadow of War Review: Its own nemesis

Talion and Celebrimbor return in Middle-earth: Shadow of War, the sequel to Monolith’s successful Shadow of Mordor. Set in the universe of Lord of the Rings, this new iteration comes with eagerly anticipated innovations and enhancements to the game’s infamous and unique Nemesis System. Those enhancements could have been the reason why Middle-earth: Shadow of War was delayed from August until October, and truthfully, they could have used a little more polishing time.

Shadow of War is an expansive RPG set within a storied franchise, filled to the brim with rich characters and storied lore to draw from. The Nemesis system only expands that, slotting in a never-ending series of Orc Captains to slash your way through. Talion, with Elf Lord Celebrimbor in tow, is on a mission to save the world from the evil Sauron. Talion can’t be a lone wolf; dominating and gathering opponents to serve in his own personal army is necessary to battle the forces of evil.

Your army is key to besting new Strongholds found dotted amongst Gondor’s landscape. Talion can move allied pawns (let’s be honest, that’s what they are) against enemy Captains, killing them and weakening the power structure of the Stronghold itself. Defeating bodyguards and lesser Captains makes it far easier to then defeat Chieftans. Doing that, of course, helps to wrestle control away from Sauron. Enhanced skill trees provide Talion the tools to maim and sneak with ease, offering many different ways to tackle any given situation. Climbing up and surveying the nearby area, Assassin’s Creed-style, helps to assess and plan.

While this sounds amazing – and will, no matter what I write, to fans of Lord of the Rings – much of Shadow of War is half-baked. On Xbox One at least, Shadow of War looks decidedly last-gen, with simple character models fumbling through awkward animations. One-button, one-move combat, ripped from the easy-to-perform, hard-to-master school of the Batman: Arkham franchise, flows well, but Talion’s final blows are shown in slow-motion. There, you can see where corners have been cut in terms of animation – Talion’s sword “spins” around his open palm in about four distinct, jumpy cuts, lacking any semblance of smooth, skilled swordplay.

Shadow of War dives head-first into franchise lore, spewing out names, locations and incidents with confidence over long, drawn-out cutscenes. A casual LotR fan, most of that went over my head – but thankfully, I was never confused about Talion’s short- or long-terms goals. Halfway through the game, intentions firmly understood, I began to skip these cutscenes – imbalanced, they truly felt like time-wasters rather than exposition-givers.

This sense of wasted time permeates through Shadow of War, and a glitchy Nemesis System is the biggest culprit. As in Shadow of Mordor, so many systems depending on one another can mean that things often go wrong, and quickly. In the midst of a stealth mission, an Orc Captain with expert detection skills managed to spot me – quite literally – from halfway across a gigantic castle. As he was a high-ranking member of Sauron’s army, the camera zoomed into him so he could deliver a 30-second soliloquy. As my mission threw up a fail state – I was spotted after all – I sighed and decided to make the best of the situation, moving in and fighting the baddie.

I used my Elf Lord powers to quickly move across the huge area and began to lay into the hunter. Parrying blows, leaping over the backs of Orc underlings and stunning those within reach, the battle was going well. As I whittled the Captain down, chaining together attack after attack to then launch into an assassination animation, the game’s camera pulled out and ripped me from action. Another Captain had wandered into the frey, so he had to be given ample time to talk about how amazing he was. Before I had the chance to finish off the first Captain, a third came into view, delivering a speech worthy of inclusion into one of Shakespeare’s famed plays.

I just wanted to fight the damn guys.

Worse yet, I experienced glitchy Captains all throughout my playthrough. In an arena instance, a Captain introduced himself – and gave different variations of his same damn speech – three times in the span of five minutes. The third monologue? “So, we meet again. The last time we saw each other was long ago and far away from here.”

No joke.

While others applaud the Nemesis System, let’s describe it as it truly is: a random number generator. You take down a power structure, and RNG builds it back up, just like it gives me a Powerful Engram in Destiny 2. Maybe this new Captain deals in poison, or in arrows, or can’t be killed by an assassination attempt, but his ‘unique’ set of talents is nothing more than an algorithm pulling attributes from set skill trees. He’s most likely wearing the same horned helmet as the last three Captains you’ve taken down. It’s not exciting. The system doesn’t give me any sense of connection to an enemy’s character, nor any investment in its defeat.

That’s just me though. I realise that Lord of the Rings fans will eat this up, as will those who like to delve into a game world and walk away, hours and hours later, without ever coming closer to completion of a main quest mission. If you can ignore all the glitches and bugs, this game is for you. While ignorance is bliss, there’s only so much of that I could do – having to restart a mission three times because the game fell over and caused my quest-giver to stand around and do nothing sucked, even if said quest-giver was Gollum.

Shadow of War is Shadow of Mordor 2.0. If you liked the first, you’ll like the second – though hopefully you’ll be provided with a day one patch to smooth off rough edges. Though that’s highly unlikely — the issues I encountered in my playthrough are exactly the same as my colleague described in the original. Just, you know, enhanced.

7 out of 10

The good

  • LotT fans will gobble this up.
  • A solid core.

The bad

  • Not so solid implementation.
  • Looks last-gen.
  • Lots of time-wasting stuff.

Middle-earth: Shadow of War was reviewed using a promotional code on Xbox One, as provided by the publisher. Click here to learn more about Stevivor’s scoring scale.

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About the author

Steve Wright

Steve's the owner of this very site and an active games journalist for the past ten years. He's a Canadian-Australian gay gaming geek, ice hockey player and fan. Husband to Matt and cat dad to Wally and Quinn.