Friday, February 2, 2018

Middle Earth: Shadow of War Review - A Shadow of its Former Self

Score: 7.5 / 10
Middle Earth: Shadow of War
PC - Xbox One - PS4
Developer: Monolith Productions
Publisher:Warner Brothers Interactive
Release Date: 10/10/2017

  • Nemesis system improvements are a big boost and stays as randomized as ever
  • Attacking a warchief with your army is a satisfying chaos
  • Varying skill abilities and legendary sets allow for customization on playstyle
  • A ton of possibilities in your journey to overtake a fortress

  • Overwhelming amount of information at the start leaves new players confused
  • Main mission structure pales to base fortress gameplay
  • Act IV is a true grind for a three minute cutscene
  • Actions in the midst of chaos are hard to execute and control

When I was a kid, I used to like to setup dominoes to fall down together but it always had downsides; The setup process was tedious, sometimes things fell down when you do not want them to, sometimes the domino was not spaced properly to trigger the other one to fall down correctly. Ultimately you finally have it happen. It was quick, but satisfying to watch it all play out, and after the last domino fell and I was left looking at the results I asked myself...was this really worth my time?

That is the same feeling I get when playing Middle Earth: Shadow of War. You spend hours training and recruiting new captains to help you capture a fortress, sometimes those captains betray you, sometimes those captains die in the fight, sometimes those captains get in the way of your fight and you accidentally kill them because targeting friendlies in the chaos of battle is a real thing; But ultimately, the fortress raids that are the prime focus of Shadow of War are when the game is at its best. As the dust clears, and the captains you took over and spent time gathering and farming materials to upgrade suddenly become obsolete, or you move to a new area to start the process anew, you look over your checklist of items to finish and just ask if it is all worth it.

Talking spiders, talking trees...everything talks

Talion went through a lot with Celembrimbor in the last game; revenge against the generals of Sauron that slaughtered his family, establishing his name as the Gravewalker as he slaughtered captain after captain, and ended with an ultimate quest to target the bad boy himself; Sauron. So they decide to do the dumbest thing possible...craft a new ring. This leads you to Shelob who is not just a spider but a sexy lady spider. Also Gollum shows up...for two missions cause....cause reasons. The banter between Talion and Celembrimbor over the morality of overtaking life and their ultimate goal is the only thing that really kept me interested in the story itself. Eltariel is the only new edition that truly sparks interest as she hunts Ring Wraiths for a living, and a cameo character from the previous game is a welcome reappearance. Beyond that, if you are a die hard of the lore prepare to tear your hair out.

The game is split into four acts, and as such, my impressions with this game shifted:

Act 1 is the introductory to the game, and it throws too much too fast. A quick look at the mini map icons that litter your view when you first open the menu you have a slew of options at your disposal with little to no explanation on what each one does. "This is the main mission, this is a side mission, I guess, a captain killed me, he leveled up I guess that happens, lot of inventory, gems too?" With such a broad menu and scope without even touching on domination aspect of the game, I felt like anyone who did not play Shadow of Mordor would be in a total state of confusion as to the pacing of this game. Main quest missions train you in the basics of combat vs stealth, the latter of which is more useful as starting out you are locked out of a lot of moves to vary up your style. The mission structure for the story strips a lot of surroundings and closes off a section of the main world for most encounters, but are pretty straightforward.

Combat is very akin to the Arkham style of play from the previous game. You can hit, eventually counter, strong attack with a glaive; the works. This branches out more as the game progresses, opening up area of effect attacks and elemental attacks. Enemies range from grunts to shield orcs that block your attacks head on to larger troll like orcs that require more finesse to extinguish. Timings and strategy are there so long as you are not completely surrounded, but the stripped moveset early on will become apparent as you vault over orc after orc.

Hope you like to counter, you will be doing it a lot

Act 2 is where you will spend most of your time and where the real game starts to break through as you gain the ability to dominate orcs and captains, setting up ambushes and organizing full on battles to overtake a fortress. Sidequests open up, including a ring wraith hunting mission, as well as new areas to explore from lush jungles to barren winter hilltops. Combat becomes sleeker and easier as you gain more varied executions and assistance with the combo meter, everything just starts to click.

The nemesis system upgrades are standout, and as you put hours and hours into this game, you will still not come across the same orc personality twice. Some are in your face brutal, some are poets, and some are just hilarious moaning entities. Each captain has a weakness and strength, some will block your attempts to vault them, some get enraged if you set them on fire, some get enraged by...everything. It is the randomization and openness in taking a fortress that keeps the game fresh. You can tackle a warchief head on, setup all his generals against him, or have a few captains betray their commanders and infiltrate their keep as a spy.

This part never gets old

This is where the game really picks up, the fortress assaults. You gather your army and charge the warchief's stronghold, boosting attackers with caragors or berserker squads that run headfirst at the enemy gates. A small exchange of dialogue leads to a charge of all of your forces and never loses appeal. Captains overtake enemy captains, archers rain fire arrows, siege beasts attack with poison cannons; it turns into a wonderful chaos. At the end of it all you face the warchief himself. Taking a fortress allows you to assign your own warchief protector and defenses, but those do not come into play until act four. Online missions allow you to raid another player's fortress but it only acts a simulation so no captains really die and need to be replaced.

Act 3 is the essential "final mission" as you charge against Sauron himself in one of the most lackluster mid-game "endings" you could have after all that work. It is not like Mass Effect 2 where building up your army you can unleash all hell on a final fortress, no, it is a single hallway mission...You fight on a bridge with a handful of captains, after which you do a mini fortress invade mission on the original city that was taken, have two uninspired boss fights and fade to the most drawn out part of the game.

Act 4. You must complete ten stages, each with a fortress defense a piece, and multiple defenses on the latter few stages. Defend the fortress from Sauron's army, lose it, and you have to take it all over again. Not to mention there is nothing special about these is quite literally just one high level captain and five lesser. No Wraiths, no hitches...nothing special beyond repetition. Oh you have level 30s in that fortress because you did not have the time to upkeep all the fortresses as you progressed through the game, yeah they are useless now. Maybe explore our lootbox system to up your level? I see what you did there Monolith.

Regardless of the hype, the lootbox dread is minimal here. You can earn all currencies for them in-game, even the coveted gold currency can be earned from daily quests that take maybe 5 minutes to do. It does walk a line of you don’t “have to” buy them, but they help in leveling and restocking your fortress should captains fall. The careful player can balance it so it is never really an issue.

The good news is if you liked Shadow of Mordor you will like this. I was just hoping for more from Shadow of War. More refinement and focus on the missions structure and content, but it feels far too spread out. The nemesis system is engaging, and the fortress attack and defense missions can be fun, but the disappointment of Act 3 and repetition of Act 4 in re-leveling, replacing, and upping lost captains over and over again became agonizing and drawn out. I drilled hours into getting a 2 minute cutscene. When the game is at its best, it truly is enjoyable, but the journey to get to the good stuff feels like an inconvenience. It will leave you staring at dead captains, checklists of sidequests, and as your fortress falls to an orc who friendly fired you, you will step back and say is this really worth my time?

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