Shadow of War marks the second time we take the reins of Talion, or “The Ranger” as he’s often referred to by fearful orcs. Though his overarching goal to forge a new Ring of Power and put a stop to the Dark Lord’s nefarious ways obviously is predetermined by the series at large, it doesn’t mean the sub-plots fall flat as a result. Instead, I find that a lot of the other stories shoulder the load. The game takes great care to fill in missing pieces in the stories of both Celebrimbor and Shelob and they’re surprisingly some of the game’s most interesting parts. Shadow of War hits an all-time high when you happen across Bruz the Chopper who became an instant fan favourite after the game’s E3 reveal this year.
He’s a hilarious character that adds a lot of levity and humour to what is an otherwise morbid and bleak story of desperation in the face of conquest. The request he makes to Talion at the close of their first meeting was enough for me to know he’d be an endearing character the fans will love.
Shadow of War, much like Shadow of Mordor before it, dances on the line between Assassin’s Creed and Rocksteady’s Batman games. It’s got plenty of the breakneck parkour that made the former famous. The map is etched out to aplomb, the centimetre perfect gulf between buildings makes each jump feel measured and perfectly judged. The cities themselves are bleak, dreary and, up close, quite ugly with bland textures muddying the rest of the game’s nice scenery. This matters little when you’re flipping and hero-jumping through a settlement that caters precisely to your abilities.
The swordplay feels very much modelled on the Arkham formula where blending combos and counters are key, resulting in a flurry of viscera as limbs fly off at every angle. Laying waste to the general adds in the map becomes fairly rudimentary before too long, but there’s something special to toppling higher-ranked officers in each region. Interrogating ‘Worm’ units reveals the specific weaknesses of any given Captain, allowing you to ready arms and draw your plans. It works just as well as it always did and adds a strategic element to the game’s already brutal combat systems.It would seem that Monolith knows they had a good thing with Shadow of Mordor, opting to expand on their systems rather than reinvent them. The Nemesis system is much larger and far-reaching and has a greater impact on the game’s delicately balanced ecosystems. Overthrowing enemy strongholds and replacing the occupants with your own hand-picked army wasn’t something that appealed to me in the early going, but I soon saw the value in it. I lost my mind when I first happened across a Drake — a dragon — in Shadow of War, after a tense scrap I lopped its head off with my blade. After first beholding one in the game’s world, I never imagined they’d be a rideable mount but oh gosh, they are. I’m yet to tame one myself, but I won’t rest until I break one and tame it. Shadow of War takes a more role-playing approach with the introduction of skill trees and abilities. Only a handful are tied to story progression, while the rest are unlocked using skill points you’ll accrue from gaining experience. There’s an exhaustive range that caters to all playstyles. There are predatorial abilities that’ll appeal to those inclined to stealth, though I don’t have a sneaky bone in my body. Fortunately, the game is also reckless-friendly.
The game is far prettier when you play fast and loose. Shadow of War’s animation is buttery-smooth. There’s nothing more satisfying sending an enemy tumbling off a precarious ledge as its body ragdolls down the cliff-face. It’s when you slow things down that it takes a slight turn for the worse. During some of the game’s irritating forced-stealth objectives, I couldn’t help but notice that a lot of the game’s textures are far below the standard of what you’d expect from a big budget title like Middle-earth. Luckily, this is only the case throughout the world itself as the character models are, for the most part, perfectly fine. It’s not the prettiest game out, but given its size and scope, it’s easy to forgive minor lapses in quality.
There’s a lot to love about Shadow of War in terms of its sound design. It’s got a huge, epic score that fits in perfectly with Middle-earth’s film-based lineage and a lot of superb voice-acting to boot. Being struck down in the field of battle by an assassin only to have him snidely throw it back in my face at our next passing, while humiliating, is so excellent from a design perspective. It only lends to the impression that this Middle-earth is a thriving, breathing world that shifts and changes even when you’re at a standstill.