The Lord of the Rings games were some of the most cherished games for people growing up in the mid 2000s, logging many many hours on games – that while have aged poorly, we remember them fondly and had a lot of fun with friends playing them back in the day. So in 2009, when EA’s license expired, I was curious to see what would happen to the Lord of Rings games, especially as it had been 6 years since the last Lord of the Rings film and by this point they couldn’t keep re-using the films material and models. Cut to 2013 and ‘Shadow of Mordor’ is announced, a new game that takes place within the same universe and also fits in with the films timeline, set between The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings series, featuring new characters and a totally separate story. I was skeptical at first, as this was the first time there was going to be a major release that wasn’t from EA as they did a great job of hyping up the games and tying them into the films, but something totally new and original was a bold move. Now here we are with Shadow of War.

For the record I never actually played Shadow of Mordor, however I heard strong things. A solid combat system, vast opens worlds and a nemesis system that allowed you to manipulate your enemies against each other, making it easy to take out each enemy captain one by one by taking advantage of their weaknesses. Because of the high scores its sequel demanded a lot of hype to where the series could go, so here we have ‘Shadow of War’

Talion lacks any character to be taken seriously 

Shadow of War takes place directly after the first game as you continue your journey as Talion, a Gondor ranger who also holds the spirit of the original ring creator Celebrimbor within him, who provides with him supernatural powers to aid him on his quest of eventually defeating Sauron with a newly forged ring of power. The game does this by having you visit various areas of the series and doing quests for various factions, eventually killing or taking control of orc captains to do your bidding to progress through the game. The game plays as it did before, it’s a combination of Assassins Creeds free running exploration and stealth, with the Batman Arkham series combat, with it’s own sprinkle of character upgrades, perks and quests.

I had a hard time reviewing this game as certain times I did find myself having a lot of fun with the game, there is a lot it does right and the short version is that it’s a promising sequel to what was an already well established game. That been said I found myself just been relatively bored with the game and had very little drive to carry on. But let’s out with the basic stuff first and move onto why this became a bit of a grind later on.

Graphically, it’s ok, it does nothing to push the capabilities of the current consoles but they’ve done a decent job of the Middle Earth look and feel. Orcs look ugly and brutish, men emote with fear but not to a crazy scale, and Elves continue to judge everyone and think they’re better than everyone else. Talion himself is pretty unremarkable and just looks like Aragorns less successful brother, but acts and emotes as you’d expect. Due to the scale this game has it is unfair of me to criticize the graphics greatly as there is a lot of work that would need to be done to fine tune every graphical design, but don’t be expecting anything amazing on the graphical front, even in 4K. What I did find interesting however is character models from Gollum, Sauron and the Witch King are taken straight from the movies. The creators of the game apparently spoke to Peter Jackson and the effects company that worked on the films to create the same models from the films, which is a nice touch to keep any continuity.

Combat requires some skill, but button bashing works

As previously said the gameplay is Assassins Creed and Batman in Middle Earth, what they’ve added though makes it easier to traverse the world though. Talion can now jump up large distances and has no falling damage, so it’s faster to move around instead of accidentally pressing the wrong direction and falling to your death. Combat is using your sword until an enemy is dazed, then finish them off with an execution of slaying them while they’re down for most part, however other enemies will require different tactics to defeat them, such as the Orc Captains. The Captains are all mini boss fights and can be encountered across the various lands you go to and each have their own weaknesses and advantages, which can be discovered by taking over ‘worms’ – orcs with knowledge scattered around the map. They’ll reveal if an enemy is immune to stealth, or fire, or if they can be killed instantly with certain attacks.

The Nemesis system is where the game really stands out though. Eventually you can take control of enemy captains and pit them against each other, essentially creating a civil war within the ranks, which is fun to do as it makes you feel like a master manipulator, it makes you feel smart knowing that you can control all the captains to destroy each other, and when they’re weak from that, they can be finished off easily. On a side not, the game has has been heavily criticized for its use of ‘loot crates’, a concept usually reserved for online games to get some skins for your weapons. Single player also includes these loot crates so you can use real money to buy better weapons early on. The game also heavily advertises other content such as the season pass for the DLC, or signing up to news letter. Honestly while these are annoying, they’re not the massive problem people are making out. They’re totally an add on and can be ignored and I generally forgot they existed most of the time. Sure its a cash in, but not massively in your face like some other games.

I’m still unsure why stealth was such a central part of the game

The game has a lot of strong points going for it and I was surprised over how well a game could do without having any direct connection to the films that brought back a massive interest into Lord of the Rings. But while it has lots of strong points, it doesn’t have any major overall keeping power, or made me want to play more because I wanted to experience more of the game. Shadow of War is a classic case of ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ and because of this, I just couldn’t get invested in the game and what it had to offer.

The story is a drag, Talion lacks any depth or interest nor does his ghost buddy Celebrimbor and often at times I forgot what I was doing as there isn’t really an overall arc plot other than ‘make an army to defeat Sauron’. Other characters are just sort of there and don’t pose any major influence or personality of their own to make me care about them. Quests to pad the story are painfully obvious with 2 quests early on have you follow Gollum for a few minutes to eventually kill an Orc Captain, which doesn’t need to be an actual quest does it? This happens again later when a quest has you just fight a lot of high ranking orcs in a colosseum, it’s just wasting time. Story doesn’t make the game all the time though so that combat system? It’s ok, it’s possibly the best part of the game as countering attacks and taking on several orcs at a time is fun and finishing them off is satisfying. It falls victim to the ‘mash square until enemy symbol appears’ and I just got bored of the combat sometimes, engaging the enemy wasn’t fun, at most of the time I just ran past enemies if I could.

The only time combat got interesting was with the Orc Captains, and while these pose more of a challenge, you can defeat most with the same tactic. Sure you can find out their weaknesses and easiest ways to take them down, but for most of the ones I bumped into it was just a case of pressing square all the time and countering their telegraphed moves until they died. The Nemesis system is probably the only other part of the game I liked. It was fun to see who had issues with who, and making them act upon these grudges they held and then using them against each other, as previously said, it makes you feel smart and in control, and I’d love to see this implemented in other games. The overworlds of the game are quite large and have a fair few places to explore, and luckily as there’s no falling damage and you can leap to the top of towers in no time it’s a breeze getting from one place to another, but it’s also pretty boring. The overworlds have no identity and character, it’s not fun to explore because they just seem like some generic fantasy worlds. In Cirith Ungol I found myself getting lost as everywhere looked like muddy ruined towers and I just didn’t want to be there, I wanted to get to the next world and see if things would change. They do eventually, and while there’s places to explore in these overworlds, they’re just not interesting, and that’s sort of my main problem with this game. It’s just not really that fun.

Graphically nothing amazing, but there are some pretty areas

There’s nothing objectively wrong with Shadow of War, there’s not a single part of the game I can call out for being awful and not worth your time, but there’s not really any part of the game I could say shines through and you NEED to experience. The Nemesis system is fun, but it’s not worth spending £42.99 on. If you enjoyed the first game you’d no doubt enjoy this, and if you really want to play a game in the Middle Earth universe and need your fix, again, it’s a decently fun game that does the job, but nothing that really shines out as an absolute classic.