Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is an open-world third-person action, adventure RPG available from retail stores and for download from the PlayStation Store for the PS4. Shadow of War just like its prequel Shadow of Mordor is set in the fictional environment of Middle-Earth which was conceptualised and created by J.R.R. Tolkien; providing the wondrous location for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings novels. J.R.R. Tolkien’s first The Hobbit novel titled The Hobbit or There and Back Again was published on September 21st 1937, while The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings novels have been adapted into huge blockbuster films. Developer Monolith Productions is known for creating original videogame franchises that stand the test of time including Blood, No One Lives Forever, F.E.A.R. and Condemned as well as venturing away into fun games such as Gotham City Imposters. Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is the sequel to critically acclaimed and award winning Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor which earned more than 50 industry awards including 2015 Game Developers Choice Awards’ Game of the Year, Outstanding Innovation in Gaming at the 2015 D.I.C.E. Awards and the BAFTA for Game Design. Can Shadow of War achieve the same high quality of its prequel Shadow of Mordor?
The story begins with a brief overview from Shadow of Mordor before continuing the story in a quest to create a new ring of power that would aid Talion, Celebrimbor and his assembled army of allied Orcs in overthrowing his fiercest rival of all Dark Lord Sauron in order to conquer his rule, while simultaneously replacing it with a brighter future for Mordor.
In order to get back into the thick of the action; the prologue is effectively a tutorial in which a large quantity of enemy Orcs are patrolling on the same level and beneath Talion; providing the perfect scenario to practice traversing the surrounding environments, stealth attacks and combat. Numerous quests advance the story, while there are dozens of side quests related to specific characters, alongside Shadow Wars provides dynamic stories even after completing the story campaign. Shadows of the Past missions are essentially flashbacks to the very first War for Mordor between Celebrimbor and the Dark Lord, while completing all Shadows of the Past missions rewards the player with Bright Lord’s rune and hammer. Web of Fate presents dozens of shards that when manipulated in the correct angle assembles an image that is a piece of the puzzle in revealing the truth of Shelob’s past and Mordor’s future.
Follower missions allows players to dictate an Orc within your army needs to defeat a designated enemy captain, while Nemesis missions are proving grounds for captains to rise through the ranks, although you can assist your Orcs during their respective Follower and Nemesis missions to increase the probability of success. Fight Pits are a further proving ground for Orcs within Talion’s army as they fight within a coliseum style environment to show what they are made of in the process of earning power and respect amongst peers. Collectibles are scattered throughout Mordor in the form of Lost artifacts that are also known as Gondorian Artifacts which were looted from the Great Hall of Minas Ithil; therefore their importance is reflected in a Prospector skill upgrade that players will earn from finding every Gondorian Artifact.
Talion and Celebrimbor make for an amazing dual lead character; not only in their back and forth dialogue but also their actions as they seek intel on the Orcs higher up the chain of command by interrogating weaker enemies after sneaking up behind them to reveal intel on the weaknesses of a captain resulting in Talion knowing how to use the power of the wraith to capitalise on the captain’s fears to turn the battle in Talion’s favour such as an instant kill from a beast attack. Orcs are equally as intriguing in comparison to Talion and Celebrimbor as they have their own hierarchy as captains lead their warriors, archers, hunters, defenders, savages and more besides into battle, although captains are not the highest in rank as warchiefs outrank captains as warchiefs fulfil their duty as bodyguards for overlords who have the important task of being in charge of the fortress within that specific region. Epic Orcs have a unique trait such as a powerful attack or weapon or the ability to heal, while legendary Orcs have two traits in which killing an epic or legendary Orc rewards the player with that respective quality of gear. Further enemies include beasts such as fearsome predators known as Caragors, while Siegebeasts shoot powerful weapons at Talion and his allies but can be temporarily repurposed by firing at weak spots followed by mounting the Siegebeast to aim its weaponry at enemy Orcs and even defeat other nearby Siegebeasts.
After having reached Act II; the new Ring of Power can be utilised to dominate any Orc by making them switch allegiances to serve as a follower of the Bright Lord, while captains and overlords can also be dominated after being broken during combat in preparation for recruitment as a follower within your army, although Talion does have to be a higher level than the Orcs he is actively recruiting. You can command allied Orcs on your team to remain by your side, attack a particular enemy and behave in various ways as Talion’s bodyguard or even a warchief’s bodyguard to help protect a fortress.
The environment design is stunning as it rivals the blockbuster film franchises Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit in encapsulating how an enthusiast of their respective novels would anticipate Mordor to look and feel as well as successfully showcasing the vast scale of such grand fantasy environments, alongside the stylistically presented Wraith World. New regions are progressively unlocked as you complete more story focused missions. There is a variety of fast travel points referred to as Haedir in which the Haedir must be purified of Sauron’s influence before unlocking that individual Haedir as a fast travel point. Not every area is immediately unlocked; for instance Ithildin doors are locked by an Ithildin inscription which requires missing Ithildin that is scattered throughout the region to be gathered together to restore the ancient poem in order to claim relics from within the newly unlocked area.
Earning XP from completing quests and defeating captains in order to level up is fundamentally essential as levelling up awards the player with a skill point which can be assigned to learn a specific ability that improves Talion’s chances of survival when surrounded by opposing Orcs, while levelling up also unlocks more abilities for skill points to be applied to and from the second Act onwards to increase the quantity of Orcs that can be recruited into Talion’s army based upon them having a lower level than Talion.
Defeating captains allows Celebrimbor to forge powerful gear that can be managed from the inventory. There is a wide range of weaponry including swords, daggers, bows and hammers with the possibility of attaining better weaponry that can inflict more damage to enemy Orcs when defeating an opposing captain, although there are a variety of other methods of killing Orcs such as poisoning their alcoholic Grog. New pieces of armour increase your maximum health, while cloaks provide an improved stealth efficiency rating that enables Talion to approach enemies without raising their suspicions and adding rune inscriptions to the Ring of Power increases Talion’s maximum focus.
Weaponry is essentially upgradeable on a step-by-step basis as gems can be collected and integrated into a weapon such as a sword to offer bonuses when equipped into different category slots within that weapon including potency, vitality and wealth in which there are 5 slots per category that gradually improves the efficiency in each area of the weapon as more slots are covered by gems, while 3 gems of the same quality can be combined to create one gem of higher quality. Equipping a warrior gem within potency results in an improvement of 10% increased damage with your current sword, 5% increased damage with all attacks and 10% increased follower damage, although adding a fifth gem to potency provides a 30%, 15% and 30% increase in the respective statistics; a life gem equipped to vitality provides a 1% increase to health stolen with this stolen, maximum health increased by 10% and 10% less damage to followers; and a wealth gem that increases the chances by 5% that enemies killed with this weapon will drop currency, 5% increase in XP earned and captains automatically gain 1 level when recruited.
There are six sets of abilities including 23 combat abilities, 19 predator abilities, 19 ranged abilities, 20 wraith abilities, 16 mounted abilities and 23 story abilities in which 12 of those abilities can be unlocked through natural story progression. Every ability has two or three upgrades within the six respective skill trees; however a certain character level is required before being able to unlock an ability via a skill point. For instance, Perfect Counter within the combat skills tree allows players to knock down enemies with well timed counters, while the Rain of Arrows upgrade that requires level 5, replenishes 1 Elf-shot arrow for a well timed counter; the Mighty Reversal upgrade which requires level 10, gains might from each counter; and the Fatal Counter upgrade that requires level 15, instantly kills enemy Orcs as a result of a well timed counter, although it is not effective against captains and beasts.
Simultaneously pressing L3 and triangle allows the player to enter photo mode which provides the opportunity to observe the closer details of Talion’s surrounding allies, enemies and environments. Photo mode is an amazing feature; allowing the camera to be positioned with freedom within a nearby or distant vicinity of Talion including extensive customisation of images such as panning, camera height, zooming in or out and anywhere from a minor tilt to a full sideways tilt or even an upside down image; adjusting the brightness of the visuals; increasing or decreasing the distance and intensity between 0.1m to 10m and 0% to 100% respectively within depth of field which can be turned on or off; image filters including desaturation, greyscale, noir heavy, warm and poison with anywhere from 1% to 100%; a vignette of 0% to 100% size and intensity of 0% to 100%; a texture such as parchment, canvas, metal, water stained, film grain, wraith light and wraith with an intensity of 0% to 100%; 25 overlays with further options of a frame and grid; and 5 logos at a size of 50% to 150% and positioning anywhere within the image which collectively creates a fully immersive environment that works in perfect harmony with the PS4’s share feature.
A lot has been made of Shadow of War’s microtransactions; the facts are that gold and mithril chests cost a particular quantity of gold coins in order to receive improved gear and recruit more powerful Orcs into your allied army. Gold coins can be purchased with real world money, but gold coins can just as easily be earned during gameplay for completing daily challenge objectives. Therefore, having played the prequel; I can honestly state that if I had not heard of Shadow of War including microtransactions, then I would never have knew anything about it based upon the balancing of actual gameplay progression in comparison to Shadow of Mordor.
Free downloadable content includes the Forthog Orcslayer as a tribute to Monolith Productions executive producer Michael Forgey who passed away during development of Shadow of War and a 4K Cinematic Pack which allows players on PS4 Pro to experience the story cutscenes in native 4K resolution. Starter Bundle includes a Silver War Chest, Gold Loot Chest and 100 currency for £2.49, while the Expansion pass includes Slaughter Tribe Nemesis, Outlaw Tribe Nemesis, The Blade of Galadriel Story and The Desolation of Mordor Story for a cost of £32.99. Silver Edition includes the game bundled with half the season pass in the form of Nemesis expansions and a Silver War Chest for the price of £69.99 or alternatively the Gold Edition includes the game bundled with the complete expansion pass and a Gold War Chest for £89.99. Mithril Edition is the most expensive retail release as it includes Limited Edition 12″ Tar-Goroth Balrog vs. Carnan Drake Statue, Collector Box, Gold Edition Game with Exclusive Steelcase, Premium Case with Magnetic Ring of Power, Exclusive Mithril War Chest, Official Game Music Soundtrack, Cloth Map of Mordor, Collection of Exclusive Lithographs and Tribes Sticker Pack, although as it has officially sold out; you can anticipate to pay over £300 for what is essentially an ultimate edition of Middle-Earth: Shadow of War.
It would have been amazing to see an optimised port for Vita or some sort of spin-off from Monolith’s Middle-Earth games, although given the PS3’s struggles with the Nemesis system within Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor; it was never really to be expected, but there is remote play compatibility. Middle-Earth: Shadow of War’s remote play performance is excellent as it produces the quality of graphics, audio and general performance from the PS4 version. Besides the touch pad naturally being mapped to the touch screen; the control have otherwise not been optimised at all as long ranged aiming moves to the top left of the rear touch pad, while shooting your bow or stealthily approaching enemies is mapped to the top right of the rear touch pad, using wrath energy for a different set of attacks has been mapped to the bottom left and right of the rear touch pad and re-centring the camera has been mapped to the bottom right of the rear touch pad. It certainly would have been a more comfortable remote play control scheme if certain optimisations had been made to have less emphasis on the rear touch pad and a better focus on long ranged combat between L and R as well as utilising the touch screen; although it does not entirely prevent from Shadow of War being a playable remote play experience.
There are ten control schemes based upon your scenario or who you are controlling; despite the complexity of having so many control schemes, they are all appropriately mapped to the DualShock 4 controller. Talion’s basic controls include pressing square to attack; pressing O to perform a wraith stun; holding O to drain or dominate an enemy Orc; pressing triangle to counter an Orc’s attack; pressing X to dodge or jump; holding X to sprint; pressing L1 to enter wraith world; pressing R1 to pick up items or grab enemies; holding L2 to aim during ranged combat and pressing R2 to shoot your bow or holding R2 to shoot a charged bow; holding R2 to approach enemies stealthily; pressing the share button takes you to the share feature menu; and pressing the options button to display the pause menu. Tapping the touch pad displays a map of your surroundings, while the light bar produces a light shade of purple and vibration occurs during combat and when constructing an image in Web of Fate.
Graphically, Shadow of War is incredible with beautiful vistas for as far as the eye can see which are complimented by amazing particle effects, an incredible day-night cycle and weather conditions. Character models and movement during combat and traversal of environments are as fluent as Shadow of Mordor. PS4 Pro support produces two sets of options including resolution mode and quality mode which both utilise a dynamic frame buffer with resolution mode maintaining 1512p during intensive combat scenes, while quality mode mostly outputs at 1620p in addition to better draw distances on geometry and shadows, alongside both resolution mode and quality mode offering improved lighting and HDR support, while PS4 Pro gamers with a 1080p television get a super-sampled 1080p output.
The presentation of the game is solid with a great user interface across various menus such as the main menu, options menus and gameplay menus with support for navigation via the left analogue stick, directional pad and face buttons, although it does not include support for navigation via the right analogue stick and touch pad. Menu backgrounds include lead character Talion in different action oriented poses, while images and gameplay videos are displayed on the options menus to show the differences between certain settings.
Shadow of War has an excellent cast of voice-over artists including Troy Baker returning as lead character Talion having previously voiced numerous major characters in Batman videogames and animations, Sam Drake in Uncharted 4 and The Lost Legacy, Joel in The Last of Us, Jack Mitchell in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare and Delsin Rowe in Infamous: Second Son. Alastair Duncan returns to voice Celebrimbor who Talion shares a body with having previously voiced Alfred Pennyworth in various Batman animations and various characters in Tomb Raider games and the Mass Effect trilogy. Liam O’Brien returns as the voice of Gollum having previously voiced Finley in The Order 1886, Red Skull in LEGO Marvel’s Avengers, Barker in Titanfall 1 and 2 and Reverse-Flash in Injustice 2. Laura Bailey voices Eltariel and Ioreth having previously voiced Nadine Ross in Uncharted 4 and Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, Chun-Li in Street Fighter IV and V, Faye Lee in Binary Domain and Fetch in Infamous: Second Son and Infamous: First Light. Gideon Emery voices Bruz having previously voiced Fergus Reid in Wolfenstein: The New Order, The Old Blood and Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, multiple characters in the Destiny series, Vehicle A.I. in Agents of Mayhem, Mac and SAS 4 in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered and Gideon in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. Ike Amadi voices Baranor having previously voiced Knack in Knack 1 and 2, Guards in Dishonored 2 and Death of the Outsider, Dr. Grant Moon in Farpoint and Atrocitus in Injustice 2. Pollyanna McIntosh voices Shelob having previously voiced Bella in Dante’s Inferno and starring as Jadis in The Walking Dead TV series, while Nicole Tompkins voices Idril. Further popular videogame voice-over artists including JB Blanc, Steve Blum, Michael Gough and Neil Kaplan voice Nemesis Orcs, while Darin De Paul and Gary Finan voice Nemesis Trolls and Trapped Blue Orc respectively.
Shadow of War retains Shadow of Mordor’s approach to cinematic music that really fits each scenario during gameplay and cutscenes with Nathan Grigg (Condemned series, Demolition Man, F.E.A.R. trilogy and No One Lives Forever series) and Garry Schyman (Bioshock trilogy, Destroy All Humans trilogy and Resistance: Retribution) returning as composers. Sound effects include Talion performing combat moves, sprinting and jumping, Orcs attacking Talion and his allies, battles taking place in the distance, growls and attacks of beasts, flamelit lanterns, rain and swirling wind. The DualShock 4 speaker accents particular sound effects such as rustling foliage when hiding from patrolling Orcs amongst bushes, when close to arrows that can be collected as ammo for your bow, interrogating weaker Orcs and landing combos during the heat of battle.
The trophy list includes 53 trophies with 40 bronze trophies, 11 silver trophies, 1 gold trophy and 1 platinum trophy. Easier trophies include the Rule of Three bronze trophy for unlocking 3 gem slots and the Fit for War bronze trophy for completing a challenge to upgrade a piece of gear, while harder trophies include defeating a number of Orcs and bitter arch rival enemies that are higher up the chain of command. Online multiplayer trophies include the Bound by Blood bronze trophy for completing an online vendetta mission and the Such Great Heights bronze trophy for reaching the rank of captain in online conquest mode. It is estimated that depending upon skill and a good trophy guide to provide some helpful tips that it would take between 50 to 60 hours to platinum the trophy list.
A constructive criticism of Shadow of War’s prequel was that it did not have difficulty levels; therefore making it particularly hard at the start due to the nemesis system’s impressive artificial intelligence. Shadow of War has made a significant improvement in this area as there are three balanced difficulty levels including easy, normal and nemesis with the major differences being that the easy difficulty does not fully integrate the nemesis system combined with less aggression from enemy A.I. and less damage received resulting in a higher probability of victory during combat; therefore producing the best difficulty level for any player who wants to focus on the story. However, nemesis difficulty tests your skills by bringing a nemesis system that is just as hard as Shadow of Mordor with smarter and more adaptive Orcs that requires a careful approach in strategy towards every enemy’s weaknesses as the nemesis system is notorious for enemy Orcs that you nearly defeated meticulously memorising what you did to them when in battle and looking for revenge. Normal difficulty is somewhat of a compromise between easy and nemesis difficulty levels by not having enemies as tough as nemesis difficulty yet having the nemesis system in place. There are also a variety of assists that can be chosen in any difficulty level including combat prompts, combat hints, quest objectives, enemy outlines, A.I. awareness markers and mini-map rotation.
Shadow of War has online connectivity for two modes, although neither of them entails multiple players being simultaneously present within the same game. Online Conquests will be unlocked within each region you have captured as forts created by other players during their story progression become available for your team to launch an onslaught to overcome, while your Nemesis Fortress is made available for other players to test their combat skills on. It is important to notice that you will lose nothing from your fort being attacked by other players during friendly conquests, although rewards are earned when your fort is successfully defended by your followers; therefore providing an incentive to create a fort that is as much of a challenge as possible for other players. However, ranked mode is quite different; as that has higher stakes for your followers as a captain who dies during an assault will remain that way; which is a real risk and reward factor when considering that ranked mode also increases your assault rating after every successful conquest, although your assault rating is just as likely to be reduced by failing in an attempted conquest.
Elsewhere, there are Online Vendettas which are unlocked after a few hours into the story as that is when notifications will start popping up throughout Mordor about a player’s character being killed within their world; therefore your task is to enter their world and kill the Orc responsible in order to avenge the player’s character in addition to completing optional objectives. Successful completion of an Online Vendetta mission rewards the player with a Vendetta loot chest, Spoils of War XP, gems, equipment and legendary Vendetta items, while the player whose character you avenged receives a notification to inform the player of your good deed and also gives the avenged player some Spoils of War.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of War’s replayability is immense as there are always different types of missions and seeking of collectibles to partake in, while Shadow Wars, Online Conquests and Online Vendettas essentially produce unlimited replay value, alongside the unpredictability of the nemesis system as well as a photo mode and the introduction of three balanced difficulty levels.
• Title: Middle-Earth: Shadow of War
• Developer: Monolith Productions
• Publisher: Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment
• System: PS4
• Format: Retail/PSN Download
• Cross-Buy: No
• Cross-Play: No
• Players: 1 (Online Conquests and Online Vendetta Game Modes)
• Hard Drive Space Required: 43.09GB