Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PC
At the core of Middle-earth: Shadow of War there is gameplay that's not hugely different from the game's predecessor, Shadow of Mordor, which itself wasn't that different from the Arkham and Assassin's Creed games that inspired it. Stripped down to its essence, Shadow of War is an open world, third-person action game in which you kill enemies using stealth, hand-to-hand combat, and ranged attacks. That's what the game is, at its heart, and we've seen games like that before.
But we've never seen a game like Shadow of War before. We've never seen the open world third-person action formula used as the engine driving a game this surprising and ambitious before. The procedural generation that worked well in Shadow of Mordor has been expanded to an incredible degree, and Shadow of War is ready to offer you a powerful story mode that will take you through 20 to 40 hours of gameplay before you even touch the endless replay value offered by the game's online battles and an "after the end" single-player sandbox mode.
For this review I played through the game's core story mode and tried dozens of online vendettas and sieges. I lost track of how many hours I played somewhere well past 40, and I have no intention of stopping any time soon.
Combat and movement
After an introductory chapter which takes place in a human-controlled city, you'll spend most of your time in Shadow of War either avoiding or killing the orcs which populate each of the five open regions which make up the bulk of the game. Orcs are foes and eventually allies, along with acting as your primary sources of "intel" (necessary for identifying the weaknesses of the game's powerful unique orcs) and equipment (including weapons, armor, and gems that enhance your gear).
You can kill orcs in an enormous variety of ways, and this violent variety provides much of the entertainment value of Shadow of War. Basic sword combat is a combination of attacks, well-timed counters, rolls, and flips over your enemies, but most large melee battles will likely mix fluidly with dramatic executions, bullet-time arrow assassinations, and even (eventually) summoning a tame drake on which you can ride as you rain fiery death upon your enemies. You'll need to become accustomed to changing tactics on the fly, especially when encountering an orc who might be immune to your favorite sort of attack (arrow-proof orcs are especially challenging), and the controls (on PS4 at least) make it easy to do just that.
Orcs aren't very observant, which allows you to sneak up for gory stealth kills or dominations, which involve brainwashing orcs to fight on your side. Setting aside the ethical questions raised by enslaving your enemies (which the game does touch on in the story mode), it's great fun to sneak around the edges of an outpost converting archers to your cause one by one, so that when a fight does finally break out you have ranged support watching your back. It's also relatively easy to break away from a crowd and run, which becomes a necessary tactic when a battle starts to get out of hand. During the rare times when this technique isn't an option (such as during battles with fortress overlords), combat feels appropiately desperate.
Movement both inside and out of combat works well for the most part, although you'll encounter plenty of times when the game's free-climbing engine just won't respond like you want it to. Rolling out of combat and failing to climb up a wall was a frequent source of frustration for me, and there were more than a few times when Talion (the ranger you control in the game) picked the wrong path up a wall or obstacle, leaving me backtracking and struggling to get him to the specific point where I wanted to go.
Fighting against the game's non-orc enemies is a bit more uneven than the always-entertaining orc fights. Caragors add interesting wrinkles to standard fights, graugs and ghouls are a little tedious, and drakes can be challenging or frustrating depending on your mood (and whether you are wearing gear that boosts your fire resistance). On the flip side, riding a caragor or graug is fun on occasion without being a dominant strategy, while drake-riding is a powerful but hard-to-control option. How much you'll explore the beast-riding aspect of the game will depend on where you spend your skillpoints and what gameplay style appeals to you most.
When battles become crowded with enemies targeting the right foe is tricky, and this walks the line between "this feels realistically chaotic" and "gosh darn I wish I could hit the guy I wanted instead of one of these ten grunts." If you are getting mobbed by enemies and then have problems climbing the wall you want in order to escape, you may be facing a painful and frustrating death...but nothing that will stop you from wanting to jump right back into the fray.
Shadow of War is a game that's constantly in flux, which adds an essential amount of variety to the basic gameplay that is so often just some variation of "kill orcs." You earn new equipment and skill points at a regular pace, and the impact of each individual gameplay tweak can be huge, especially once you have enough choices to start experimenting with different builds. A cloak that refills all of your health whenever you get a stealth kill will encourage very different play than armor that fills your Might meter each time you get hit, for example. This is a game that requires you to try out new angles and strategies constantly as you earn stronger equipment and face new obstacles, rather than settling on a particular formula and build that always works.
The Nemesis System
The Nemesis System is what the developers at Monolith call the procedural generation engine that continually populates your personal version of Mordor with unique elite orcs with their own strengths, weaknesses, names, and personalities. This aspect of Shadow of War works extremely well, and even after playing the game for somewhere around 40 hours I was still seeing new wrinkles in the orc generation system, especially in the rare epic abilities found on the strongest orcs (which include things like giant fire bombs or epic caragor companions).
Unique orcs provide some of the toughest challenges in Shadow of War, and identifying the weaknesses of your opponents before you try to take them down is a big part of the gameplay loop you'll be enjoying during the many hours you'll play this game. Knowing in advance that a particular captain is afraid of fire or can be instantly killed by a stealth attack makes that battle much easier, and the fact that it became easier because you did your prep-work (researching weaknesses and preparing to exploit them) makes you feel like you really earned your easy victory.
Even with known weaknesses though, easy victories over captains, warchiefs, or overlords will be rare, especially later in the game when you'll commonly be fighting more than one unique orc at a time. Your health stays low enough throughout Shadow of War that you'll never be able to just brush off a strike from a powerful orc, and I've ended more than one frantic battle with only a sliver of life remaining.
And of course I was also straight-up killed by orcs many times, an occasion that carries no significant penalty (you don't lose any items, money, or skills) but that usually results in the enemy that killed you becoming stronger. If you were fighting alongside allied orc captains during a siege, your death will often lead to their deaths as well.
Orcs will evolve and change based on your interactions with them, and will talk trash before battles in ways that run the spectrum from bone-chilling murderous insanity to lines from 80s pop songs. Sometimes orcs that have a chance to kill you won't do it, and will instead just "humiliate" you, walking away in disgust at your weakness. Shadow of War is full of stuff like this, orc personality that will have you fuming, laughing, or cheering. When an enemy orc had me down and out and he moved in for the kill, my bodyguard took him out with an arrow to the head from off-screen, and then gave me a little "Close one boss!" In that moment, I loved an orc.
Each new region of the game has its own separate cast of orcs, so each time you go somewhere new you'll repeat the loop of exploration, intelligence gathering, and domination as you work to take control of the region's fortress. Over the course of Shadow of War the unique orcs will likely start to blend together a bit in your mind, just because you'll see so many of them rise and fall, but the ones that do stand out will be incredibly memorable. My bodyguard in the game's toughest region, for example, was a towering Olog-hai named "Ar-Kaius the Gorger" who could summon an allied graug during battle. Calling my bodyguard when things got rough, then having him call a graug to join us, was a joy each time it happened.
Siege battles and boss fights
The gameplay cycle that drives Shadow of War involves you heading to a new region and climbing the ladder from intel gathering up to an enormous, epic assault on the fortress that controls that region. Along the way you'll take control of orcs to serve as your assault force and target warchiefs to disable siege defenses and make your ultimate assault easier.
In previews and trailers for Shadow of War it wasn't always clear how the different elements meshed together, but in practice it all feels natural, and you'll be using the same gameplay concepts and techniques whether you're taking on an individual orc captain or choosing an assault force to take down a fortress. You'll need to pay attention to damage types, orc strengths and weaknesses, and your own gear and skills to be able to capture a fortress, and the siege battles feel like an evolutionary step forward while still following the same "prepare than attack" formula that makes the open world gameplay so successful. The difference between attacking a fortress you've weakened and studied and an attempted assault of a fully operational castle packed with warchiefs is enormous, and the hours you spend in a region wearing down your enemies will pay off in that region's climactic battle.
Shadow of War features a few challenging boss fights outside of the fortress assaults, including battles against ringwraiths and a balrog. While these are all successful to varying degrees, I did find it a little frustrating that there is no "recommended level" indication on the story quests that lead to these battles. You can make an educated guess based on the experience and monetary rewards each quest offers, but diving into a multi-stage battle that culminated in a fight against a Nazgûl I was woefully under-equipped to handle was irritating.
A wide world of murder in Mordor
Each of Shadow of War's five different regions offers a standalone open-world playground complete with its own orcs, missions, fortress, and visual palette. From frosty Seregost to volcanic Gorgorath the game offers a tremendous step up in visual variety compared to Shadow of Mordor's two regions, and the variety is only increased once you take day/night cycles (which progresses when you die or intentionally advance time) and weather variations into account. The game's built-in photo mode was a brilliant inclusion that players are sure to love, and freezing time and snapping shots of black orc blood flying through falling snow never gets old.
It's a shame Shadow of War's regions don't actually offer much in the way of gameplay variety between them, and that seems like a bit of a missed opportunity. Wildlife and natural hazards are present in different amounts and flavors in the different regions, but not to such an extent that you'll need to take regional factors into account when planning a typical fight.
Shadow of War looks great, though it's worth noting that your average orc face is more visually impressive than that of your main character Talion, who can often look a bit bland and uninspired compared to his ghastly enemies and the stark natural beauty around him. Battles will often be too intense for you to really stop and appreciate all the little details around you, but pausing and flying the camera around in photo mode can take your breath away.
The audio in Shadow of War is just as strong as the visuals, with soaring music during battle scenes that blends with musical stings that sound with each hit of your combo. The voice acting is outstanding, and when you take into account the variety of voices the game's unique orcs have to offer this might just be the most impressive voice cast ever assembled in a video game. You'll hear wide varieties of British accents along with the occasional Russian or Australian thrown in for flavor, and it's never less than fantastic.
What was less than fantastic in my play experience was the bugs and glitches I experienced. The absolute worst offender happened during the final boss fight of the main story mode, when a bug prevented me from pressing the single button required to finish off the boss. I eventually had to hard-exit the game and re-do the final fight, and thanks to well-designed save points I just had to repeat the final fight itself, so I only lost about ten minutes, but it was obviously disappointing.
Other bugs resulted in textures failing to load for a few seconds or enemy weapons changing visually as models loaded in. Nothing aside from that boss fight bug ever resulted in me losing progress, and a number of these bugs will likely have been addressed before the game officially launches (according to e-mails from the game's PR folks), but it's unlikely Shadow of War will ever be completely free of visual oddities and glitches.
As might be expected from a game that relies so heavily on procedural generation, there are times when the gears slip and the engine hiccups in odd ways. One example of this occurred for me when, right in the middle of my first ever fight with a fire-breathing drake, my orc buddy Bruz popped in to tell me something about how I should promote an orc I had recruited a few minutes ago. It was a laughably strange moment for that particular scene to play out, as the head of the drake I had killed was still flying through the air, and while it undermined the drama of the moment a bit it was also pretty funny.
Story, Surprises, and Humor
You don't have to be a Tolkien fanatic to enjoy Shadow of War, but those who are will get to enjoy an exciting spin on Middle-earth lore that takes fans to famous places they've never seen in this kind of detail before. Some lore fanatics will grumble about the occasionally fan-fictiony nature of the story Shadow of War is telling, but everyone else will be able to appreciate a fantasy story and sense of place and history as strong as anyone could have hoped for. Nothing in this game feels out of place for the world of The Lord of the Rings, and even though some fans were skeptical about the humanoid version of Shelob used so much in the game's marketing materials, she ends up playing such an important and well-written role in the story that the complaints seem a bit silly in retrospect.
Shadow of War's story doesn't offer you any dramatic choices to make (this is an action game, not an RPG, despite its fantasy setting), but it does a great job building drama and momentum as the scale of the story expands up and outward. It deals with the moral grey areas of Talion and Celebrimbor's quest in some interesting ways, and delivers some flat-out shocking twists towards the end that had me gasping. I won't spoil any of that here, but it's safe to say that Shadow of War offers one of the most successful Middle-earth stories ever told by anyone other than Tolkien himself.
The most surprising thing of all about Shadow of War, for me, is how funny the game is. The developers clearly had a lot of fun with their powerful Nemesis system, whether it be a captain called "The Maddest" whose traits include "Enraged by Everything" or one known as "The Unkillable" who will show up to taunt you again and again and again, no matter how many times you literally cut his head off. It's going to be wonderful to watch gameplay videos and streams of this game just to see all the different variations of orcs people encounter.
Eavesdropping on orcs in the wild is also a great source of humor, as you'll hear grunts complaining about all the different orcs called "the Impaler" around, or enjoy them screaming "The spiders! They're in me britches!" as a result of your shadowy, spidery sabotage. And the story mode's featured orc players offer plenty of humor too, especially the fan-favorite Bruz the Chopper (featured in this year's Xbox E3 briefing).
Shadow Wars, Online Play, and Microtransactions
It's hard to talk about Shadow of War's end game without spoiling the events of the story, but in general terms what happens is the game continues after the core story campaign ends, and the dynamic flips from Talion attempting to capture each fortress to a defensive posture, as Sauron's legions try to re-capture the fortresses with progressively stronger armies. This "Shadow Wars" mode operates as an immense sandbox, and lets you use all of the advanced skills you mastered and unlocked during the main story as you work to improve your army to withstand the warms to come. Because the unique orcs will continually grow stronger as you play this mode, you could conceivably keep playing the game for a very long time, eventually unlocking every skill in the game and maxing out your minions and siege defenses for use in the game's online fortress battles.
Speaking of the online fortress battles...yeah, those are great! Once you control a region's fortress in your campaign mode you unlock the ability to assault another player's version of that fortress in an online assault (which typically takes around ten minutes, with greater rewards for faster victories). You'll choose your best orcs from that region in your game to lead the assault, without the opportunity to disable any of the warchiefs or defenses beforehand (which makes things significantly harder).
These fights are epic, exciting, and interestingly asymmetrical, as they are single-player online affairs (the defender doesn't actively participate in the fortress defense), and critically you'll never be penalized in any way for "losing" as the defender in these online battles. Like all of the game's fortress assaults these battles reward careful planning and orc selection, and the natural way the offline and online components of the game blend together is very well done.
Microtransactions are always a touchy subject with gamers, so it's good to spell out how this aspect of Shadow of War works. You can spend real-world money in the game's online market to get loot boxes that contain gear and unique orcs to add to your armies, all of which you can also earn by playing the core game itself and "farming." The boxes that require "Gold" to purchase (which can be earned through online victories or spending real-world money) give you items and orcs that are more powerful, on the whole, than the boxes you can purchase with "Mirian," the in-game currency you'll earn constantly, but none of the items or orcs I saw in loot boxes I opened were a class above the stuff I had already gotten just by playing the core game for many, many hours.
So it seems like the option to spend real-world money exists as a shortcut to better loot for people who don't want to or can't spend the time to earn those items through gameplay. That will bother some people, and it's possible that the very highest ranks of the game's online scene may require either significant investments of time or real-world cash to stay competitive (we'll have to wait and see how the scene develops). It's nice to be able to spend Gold to get a box that will guarantee you a specific kind of orc (like one with a poison weapon, for example) which can then be deployed exactly where you need it, but those who don't want to put any money into Shadow of War after buying it absolutely will not be hindered or held back in any significant way.
An endless playground of orc killing
Middle-earth: Shadow of War is one of the best games of 2017 and one of the best open-world action games ever made. The core combat and stealth gameplay that worked so well in Shadow of Mordor has been both expanded and refined, and the powerful procedural generation of the Nemesis System has been kicked into high gear. All of the game's elements work well on their own, but what's most impressive is how naturally it all fits together and then grows in scale without missing a beat.
Shadow of War's focus on preparation before combat will have you feeling like Batman, while its chaotic fortress assaults wouldn't feel out of place in a war game. The story is exciting and interesting whether you're a Tolkien fan or not, and the writing is consistently strong and often hilarious.
We've never seen an action game that grows and expands as well as Shadow of War does. It was a brilliant move to build the "after the end" sandbox mode into the core campaign, because this is a game you're not going to want to stop playing for a long time.
For more on Middle-earth: Shadow of War, read our tips for getting started and check out some of our favorite pictures from the game's photo mode.