The new “Lord of the Rings” game, “Middle-earth: Shadow of War,” is fine.
Not in the ’90s sense, but in the literal sense. It’s not a terrible game, and it’s not a great game. It’s fine.
I’ve spent around 15 hours murdering orcs and arguing with the ghost inside of the game’s main character. What I’ve found is an aggressively mechanical game with a nonsensical story that’s as fun to play as it is rote.
These are the highs and lows of “Middle-earth: Shadow of War.”
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It probably goes without saying, but I'm going to speak explicitly about 'Middle-earth Shadow of War' -- this is a review, after all. If you don't want anything spoiled, turn back!
'Middle-earth: Shadow of War' is a third-person action game set in the 'Lord of the Rings' universe.
To be clear, 'Shadow of War' is a game about killing orcs by the wagon-full -- thus the grisly creep you see above. The 'Lord of the Rings' scenery and setting is merely a backdrop. Though it can feel overbearing at times, 'Shadow of War' is not a game strictly for 'LOTR' superfans.
If you're looking for a complex tale of adventure and sacrifice set in J.R.R. Tolkien's classic fantasy universe, you're barking up the wrong Ent. 'Shadow of War' is rife with 'LOTR' references and characters, but dialog and story contrivances had me rolling my eyes from the first 10 minutes.
For a game that's so nakedly about the interplay of video game-centric systems, 'Shadow of War' is bizarrely overloaded with needless storytelling. Can I get back to sneaking up and killing orcs?
The core conceit of 'Shadow of War' is systematically dismantling a complex orc bureaucracy through murder and subversion. But mostly murder.
The guy above is an orc 'Captain,' meaning he's more powerful than the average grunt. You have to figure out his weaknesses -- or simply overpower him -- in order to take him out. In order to do this, you can 'dominate' an informant grunt, who will supply you with knowledge of his superiors' weaknesses.
And taking out a Captain makes the bureaucrats above him in chain of command more susceptible to demise.
The best moments of 'Shadow of War' are entirely unplanned. Here's a typical encounter in 'Shadow of War':
-I'm sneaking around, leaping from rooftop-to-rooftop, when I spot a Captain in the courtyard below.
-I leap down onto him, sometimes successful, with a sneak-attack from above.
-He recovers, screams in my face, and talks a bunch of mess. He's almost certainly got a Cockney accent, as so many orcs in 'Shadow of War' do.
-The game pauses to focus in on him, offering his name and a bit of information about his immunities.
-If I'd found an informant beforehand, I'd' know his weaknesses as well. Sadly, I don't in this case, and that can mean the difference between a quick fight and a quick death.
This base cycle is the core gameplay 'loop' of 'Shadow of War.' There are main story missions, which tend to be middling at best, but the orc bureaucracy is massive and ready for the dismantling. And the way to do that is through fights like the one described above, ad infinitum.
Fights can be thrilling, and the bureaucracy gets more nuanced the further you get, but it can also feel like a grind. That's because so much of the game is familiar if you play other games.
I could describe a dozen or more different times where I approached a Captain differently. Sometimes I snuck in, and sometimes I ran in guns blazing (so to speak). Sometimes I used my bow to shoot open animal cages, resulting in said animals attacking the orcs.
If you've played games like 'Far Cry' in the past, you know exactly what I'm talking about: This interplay of stealth and tactics is the central characteristic of that series.
'Shadow of War' is rife with these nods to other franchises.
-The fighting system is almost exactly the same as the Batman 'Arkham' series.
-The climbing and movement is very similar to the 'Assassin's Creed' series.
-The concept of climbable 'towers' that open up areas of the open-world map is very similar to several Ubisoft game franchises, including 'Far Cry' and 'Assassin's Creed.'
'Shadow of War' isn't entirely derivative, but it wears its many inspirations on its sleeve.
'Shadow of War' feels aggressively middle-of-the-road. It's not bad. It's not great. It is exactly ok.
Most of the time, you appear as the dashing, generic swordsman you see above. His name is Talion. As you may remember from the first game, 2014's 'Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor,' Talion and his family were murdered.
He's out for... revenge? I think? He's been 'banished from death,' and he's being kept alive -- and given superpowers -- by this ghostly creep named Celebrimbor. He was the guy who forged the rings that cause literally all the problems in Mordor. What's his goal? Why does he live inside of Talion?
It's entirely possible that the game explained that, and I just missed it because I was so tremendously bored. I am, admittedly, not a big 'Lord of the Rings' fan, but I'm no stranger to cliché storytelling that totally works. This is not that.
Even the simplest aspects of 'Shadow of War' are bizarrely inconsistent. There are gorgeous moments like this:
Whoa to Gollum up there, right? For every sweeping vista and grotesquely-detailed orc face, there are moments like this where something looks completely out of place. Did they grab the character model from a PlayStation 2 game? What happened here?
Here's the gist of the big changes/additions from the previous game:
-The Nemesis system -- the aforementioned orc bureaucracy -- is more interesting in 'Shadow of War' than in 'Shadow of Mordor.' You can 'dominate' Captains and have them essentially become spies. You can kill a Captain who comes back far stronger, with a mouthful of new smack talk.
-The world is much larger, and the environments are more varied. It helps to keep things fresh when you're killing your millionth orc.
-There's a new loot system, and sometimes you'll get a sweet new sword or helmet (or whatever) from killing a powerful enemy. It feels half-baked and needless in its entirety.
All that said, if you liked the first game a lot, 'Shadow of War' is very much more of that. You don't need to have played the first game, even, as the story is vacuous
In 2014, 'Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor' felt derivative with a twist. In 2017, 'Middle-earth: Shadow of War' feels like more of the same.
Another game with a tower to climb just so I could reveal a bunch more chores on a list? Another game with thick brush conveniently placed all over an enemy outpost, so I can conveniently sneak around and disappear at will? Another game where I'm endlessly scrolling through a dozen menus so I can unlock a minor ability or swap in a slightly better weapon?
Everything about my experience with 'Shadow of War' felt like I was playing 'Video Game: The Game.'
We're talking 'Avatar' levels of cliché and 'homage.' Whereas the first game in the series felt like an excusable test bed for a new concept (the Nemesis system), the second game feels lazy at best in this regard. Even the franchises that these systems are borrowed from are looking for something new, making it especially strange in a derivative work.
All that said, the game plays beyond competently and -- if you're willing to go looking -- there's plenty of fun to be had in 'Shadow of War.'
It is genuinely fun stalking and killing orcs. It's fun hearing orc Captains threaten you in horrific, often clever ways upon first meetings. It's fun when one pops up, out of nowhere, after you've killed them, renouncing themselves as out for vengeance.
There is still plenty of fun to be had in 'Shadow of War,' but you have to know what you're getting into. Are you ok with climbing a bunch of towers and holding down a button to reveal part of a map? Are you ok skipping cutscene after cutscene because the dialog is insufferable?
You may be! The Nemesis system is still fantastically interesting, and fighting still feels surprisingly fluid and rhythmic. But I've been to this rodeo too many times, and I'm sitting this one out.