Middle-Earth: Shadow of War: Review (PS4)
Over the past week I've spent more time in Middle-Earth than I've spent on actual Earth. As someone who played and thoroughly enjoyed Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, I was looking forward to my time spent with Shadow of War. However, by the end of it I was left feeling disappointed. For the entirety of Act I and the first half of Act II, you are playing what amounts to be a series of tutorial missions which aims to acclimate the player to the gameplay of Shadow of War. While that is a nice touch for players who never played Shadow of Mordor, it felt like a waste of time for those who played the first game to completion.
Shadow of War isn't breaking the mold with their plot but the story is entertaining enough to keep the player interested. You play once again as Talion who is still connected with Celebrimbor. *Spoiler!* Talion picks up where Shadow of Mordor left off as he is in possession of the ring but in order to save Celebrimbor from Shelob he gives up the ring. This sparks a series of quests to assist Shelob who then gives the ring back. All of these events are part of the larger story which is stopping the evil Sauron from destroying Mordor. Because of course Sauron misplaced his contact lens again so he is PISSED! But seriously, Sauron is looking to cause destruction like only he can so it's up to the one man tag team of Talion and Celebrimbor to put a stop to his dastardly deeds. Like I said not a groundbreaking story but the cinematic scenes, voice acting, character and world designs are truly the best part of Shadow of War. The visuals in 4K are stunning and there's a noticeable improvement from Shadow of Mordor. A wonderful cast highlighted by Laura Bailey and Troy Baker give life to their characters. The acting coupled with the stunning cinematic animations deliver cutscenes that feel like they're from a Lord of the Rings movie rather than a game.
The fighting mechanics are identical to Shadow of Mordor and the rank up system is based upon the same exact concept. Missions will give you XP that will lead to your level increasing and you'll unlock a series of skills for Talion to use. You are still tasked with hunting down and either killing captains and war chiefs or dominating them to force them to fight for you against the evil forces of Sauron. A glaring problem is that it is hardly satisfying killing these captains because all the fights feel repetitive. Yes, the captains will have different strengths and weaknesses but there's hardly enough differences to make any of the fights feel truly unique. Also, no matter how many captains you kill more will always take their place, or the ones you kill will come back to life and ambush you at a later time. Those two features leave the player feeling unsatisfied after these battles. Sure you get a moderate amount of XP from each captain kill but it's not enough to really seek out all these captains when you know there's a chance they just come back to life. Another issue is you aren't even able to dominate these captains until halfway through Act II. Dominating captains leads them to join your army and you can use your army to attack fortresses in the new Siege Missions. These Siege Missions do provide a fun new objective and actually give the player a reason to seek out captains to strengthen their army. Like we saw with dead captains coming back to life, the dominated captains can also betray you out of nowhere and attack you. There's nothing you can do to stop it leading to another moment where the game takes an accomplishment away from the player. When you get betrayed by multiple captains who you turned it leads to unnecessary frustration and a feeling of "why bother?" What's the point of going after all these captains if they're either going to come back to life (if you killed them) or they stab you in the back (if you turn them)? It doesn't happen to every captain you kill or dominate but it's happened enough to me to lead me to question the game design.
As mentioned earlier, the design of the characters and the world they inhabit is the strength of Shadow of War. Like the original you are able to traverse an open world environment with multiple regions. The Siege missions serve the purpose of conquering regions. Each region has their own fortress with their own levels of difficulty. Whenever you take over a fortress you then conquer the region and get to promote your own overlord to control your region. Your fortresses are open to attack from Sauron's troops which leads to battles to secure capture points and defeat captains. Siege missions are a nice addition and change of pace from the typical quests and captain hunting, but like the other fights in the game after you do a couple they begin to be repetitive. This repetitive nature plagued the first game and is still a major drawback in the sequel.
When I picked up Shadow of Mordor years ago I did it on a whim. I happened to walk into Gamestop on its release day looking for a new game to play. I asked them about Shadow of Mordor and they gave it their approval (probably to make a sale but what can ya do). I spent a ton of time playing through Shadow of Mordor and had a blast with it. The fights did end up feeling repetitive in it but overall I thought it was enjoyable. That is why I was disappointed with my time spent on Shadow of War. There weren't enough changes to the issues of the original for this to truly feel like a unique game. The best comparison I can think of is how Madden releases a new game every year and more often than not it feels like a $60 roster update. As someone who played Shadow of Mordor, Shadow of War feels like that $60 roster update. If you never played Shadow of Mordor this will feel like a fun, new experience for you. It still has some enjoyable elements of gameplay, the world is beautiful, and the cutscenes feel like they could be an actual movie. If you are a veteran of the Middle-Earth games Shadow of War feels like a big letdown.