Welcome back to Mordor. Are you ready to pick up where you left off 3 years ago? Good, because Middle-earth: Shadow of War brings back everything that was great about Shadow of Mordor, but supersizes it and serves extras on the side.

Shadow of War is a direct sequel, so the story continues almost exactly where we the previous game ended. The game opens as Talion and Celebrimbor forge a new ring of power in order to amass an army to defeat Sauron. It immediately falls into the hands of the Spider Witch, Shelob, who claims that Sauron is their common enemy.

Shelob, who is now in human form instead of that of a giant spider, uses the ring to foresee the future and direct Talion to Minas Ithil, the last Gondorian citadel in Morder. The city is under heavy siege from Sauron’s forces, who try to get their hands on the Palantir, the magical crystal ball that lets its holder see whatever it wishes. Tolkin fans shouldn’t get excited by all these lore and references, though; the plot doesn’t hold up to that of the books, but if you don’t scrutinize it too much, it will definitely keep you satisfied.

Shadow of War review

The game’s quick pacing doesn’t waste too much time on exposition. New players might find themselves overwhelmed as the game hurls you right into the action without much guidance or explanation. The pace keeps its speed throughout the entire game, and it is one of the best qualities of SoW. Hours of gameplay can just swoop by in what feels like minutes.

The game doesn’t offer a significant improvement to the battle system in comparison to the previous game, and still revolves around high attack combos, parries and special moves like executions. And just like before, fighting and killing the many, many orcs you encounter is a real blast. Every enemy killed fills the rage gauge, and when it’s completely filled up, the Elven Rage ability can be activated, slowing down time and allowing you to chain executions. It’s hard to find something more satisfying than that.

The map is divided into five vast areas, each feels at least as large as the last game’s map. They all have different environments, such as green marshes, mountains and glaciers or a huge city. You won’t find unique missions or enemies to each area, and that’s a bit of a missed opportinuty, but it’s still fun to break the norm with new and diverse areas, even if it’s only the set that changes. Every area of the game is loaded with activities, collectibles and enemies – loads of enemies. So many enemies, in fact, that if the arrows had realistic ballistics, you’d be able to shoot one randomly in the sky and it would probably come back down on top of an orc somewhere.

Shadow of War review

In each orc-infested area resides a chieftain, and your encounter with these chieftains is always full of action and even humor at times. It’s hard to find two chieftains that look and sound the same, even after hours of gameplay. Each one has a unqiue introduction where he’ll brag and tease you before the battle. This introduction changes when you have already encountered this chieftain and he managed to escape or kill you in the previous encounter.

You can thank the new-and-improved Nemesis system for that. This system doesn’t only create the orc hierarchy, but also takes care of everything about them: their weaknesses and strengths, their looks, and how they treat the player and even other orcs. Every one of the chieftains and warlords you’ll encounter will evolve and react to the environment based on different actions you make. Each chieftain reacts differently to Talion’s presence – some will battle you, some might run away, and some will actively hunt you down after you humiliated them with defeat.

However, there’s a small downside to the Nemesis system. Since almost everything about a chieftain is randomized, they can  develop more strengths and weaknesses other time. Certain combinations can prove to be very difficult to defeat, sometimes near impossible.

The path to overcoming Sauron is full of obstacles and in order to defeat him we need to raise an army. At a certain point in the story, you’ll start recruiting orc chieftains instead of killing them (well, you can still kill them if you want). If an orc’s level is too high to be recruited, you can choose to shame him, which lowers his level but might also make him “less desirable” as a potential member of your army. The chieftains you choose to recruit can be leveled up by sending them to do missions, like one on one battles or ambushes against an enemy chieftain, or battles in the fighting pits. In addition, you’re able to appoint a bodyguard from your chieftain underlings, and summon it to fight alongside you during missions.

Shadow of War review

The map, as said, is fairly large, and getting around from mission to mission can be a bit of a hassle. However, the fluent parkour, in addition to abilities such as being able to accelerate after landing, and the fact that there are always enemies to kill, make moving through the world a lot more fun. New abilities can be unlocked during the story, or be acquired through various missions and items you can find in the game. Each ability in the skill tree can be upgraded with two to three unique options, but you can only choose one upgrade at a time. These upgrades add another layer of depth to the gameplay, which let you customize your character to fit the way you like to play and approach different situations.

Shadow of War focuses more on gear and upgrades than its predecessor. There are five types of equipment: Longsword, Dagger, Bow, Cloak and Armor. Every defeated chieftain leaves behind loot, and that loot’s quality increases the higher the chieftain’s level. It’s a bit annoying that the loot doesn’t automatically get collected as a default, but you can unlock a skill that does that.

You can’t upgrade common gear, but any higher quality of gear can be upgraded through side missions you receive after collecting it. The difficulty level of these missions rises according to the equipment’s quality. While rare and epic gear can be upgraded once, legendary gear can be upgraded multiple times by completing several missions. Overall this is a nice addition that adds a lot of diversity. For example, you might find ourselves going on a special mission just to upgrade a fire-based weapon in order to deal with an enemy that has a weakness to fire.

Apart from new gear, you can also collect gems, that replace the runes from the first game. There are three types of gems: damage boosters, health boosters, and loot boosters. For each of these types there are five levels of quality: plain, carved, polished, refined and perfect. You can unlock gem slots for each of the equipment types by paying 1000 Mirian (in-game currency). While they do offer a small boost, collecting and managing gems isn’t very interesting and feels rather pointless in my opinion.

Shadow of War review

Shadow of War has received some criticism regarding microtransactions, with the major impact being upgrading your citadels in what the game passes as a multiplayer mode. However, all my time with the game showed me it  does not directly affect the gameplay. So even if the addition of microtransactions fills you with rage, it shouldn’t be a reason to ignore all the other amazing things here. Because it is a great game.

In a year of sequels, Middle-earth: Shadow of War stands out or the better. The game takes everything good about the original and builds on top of it to create a sequel that transcends the previous one – a difficult feat considering how good the original was. Yes, SoW isn’t perfect; the story is a bit ridiculous, the camera angles can be a bit annoying and it looks like the creators aren’t exactly sure whether the game takes The Lord of the Rings seriously or not. Still, it’s hard not to fall in love with the colorful characters, the upbeat and addicting gameplay, and the incredible fun of cutting down legions of orcs.

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