2014’s Lord of the Rings action game Shadow of Mordor turned out to be a huge surprise for many. Beneath the fairly banal character-action trappings and the grim predictability of the setting, Monolith’s ground-breaking “Nemesis” AI system breathed a new layer of life into what would otherwise have been another rote open-world collect-em-up with Batman-styled combat.
Nemesis changed everything. No longer were your orc foes simply fodder for the in-game upgrade treadmill, but now they had personality, weaknesses, strengths and a long memory; growing in combat skill with every failed encounter and crushing your spirit with well-voiced and pithy putdowns when you next stumbled on their path. Plotting to take down a particularly annoying orc was a joy; stalking across the map, preying on its weakness and then choosing just the right environment and skillset to finish the job. Monolith’s mouthy foes managed to make enemy encounters personal, and that made them matter.
2017’s Shadow of War offers a similar open-world combat experience, but doubles down on its award-winning AI system as it randomly generates a gigantic cast of fully-voiced orcs with far greater variety in every aspect of their underlying mechanics. Captain-level orcs can now have one of several combat specialties (such as the beastmaster class that rides into battle on the back of a brutal Carragor), while a massively-expanded pool of randomly-assigned weaknesses and strengths force you to consider each named opponent and adapt your combat tactics whenever you stumble across their path. The variety is staggering.
Captains are also more persistent and surprising this time round. Fight an orc to the death and he may just reappear later on sporting context-specific battle wounds, along with a new set of strengths based on your previous encounter and a fairly large chip on his shoulder that will be reflected in dialogue. Win again and you could always then “shame” him to a lower level, potentially driving him crazy in the process and opening up another branch of personality development. Lose and he will grow stronger, adding traits and baiting you with verbal insults the next time you cross his path.
The other, far more sensible option in combat is to whittle down a Captain to barely any health and then enslave them to your own cause, making them an undercover ally in the process. Much of Shadow of War’s campaign is concerned with protagonist Talion building up an army in each of Mordor’s territories, with the ultimate goal being to lay siege to the resident fortress and install your own personnel to claim the land as your own. Those sieges are the ultimate visual and gameplay set pieces in Shadow, and every aspect of the overreaching mechanics are built to funnel the player towards them by amassing a huge amount of orc fighters by your side.
Shaping each of your armies is a complex matter, and while the expanded array of management mechanics breath life into Shadow of War, they can, at times, also threaten to cripple the game beneath the weight of its own complexity. Every orc captain you recruit can be leveled up and customised in myriad different ways, and it all, ultimately, matters. As an example, you could assign them a new combat specialty and set them as a bodyguard or a siege captain (each with its own set of individual customisations), or maybe you’d like to send them to fight in the pits instead, sent out on an assassination mission or marked out as a double-crossing spy? Maybe you’ll make them a warlord in your garrison, maybe you’ll give them a new Carragor pet, or maybe you’ll attempt to iron out some of their personality deficiencies and match them up in siege combat against an orc that won’t prey on their weakness.
The customisation and management layers are frequently enthralling, but managing each territory of 15+ individual orc Captains can quickly turn frustrating. Information flies at you at a fast pace, and the sheer quantity of enslaved Captains at the end-game manages to break their personal bond a little. It’s difficult to begin caring about your personnel when they number so many and can be lost so easily, and instead they all begin to boil down to a series of numbers and combat traits, which unfortunately works directly against the intent of the Nemesis AI system. There’s simply too much of a good thing here.
The structure is also off-kilter. Having finished the brunt of the main campaign at around 30 hours, Shadow of War then opens up into a huge epilogue in which the fortress sieges are played and replayed with increasing levels of difficulty for another 15-20 hours. This “Shadow Wars” section is pure management and somewhat tedious grind, and although the sieges are often the most spectacular and enjoyable sections of Shadow of War to work towards, Monolith’s controversial loot box system always seems close at hand to ease the burden of high-level orc recruitment and experience boosting. Hmmm.
It’s worth stressing that you don’t ever have to interact with the microtransactions though, and if you don’t mind ducking out of the end-game grind a little early, the majority Shadow of War’s storyline is satisfyingly wrapped up beforehand. The plotline itself is nonsensical, frequently lurching in tone between incredibly self-serious and just batshit crazy. Talion’s adventures frequently made me laugh when they definitely weren’t aiming to, and as long as you go into Shadow of War with an open mind about just how silly Middle-Earth could possibly get, you can certainly have a good time before the credits roll.
Despite some significant misgivings then, Shadow of War ultimately kept me hooked with its blend of smooth combat and mechanical ingenuity. But while it’s lovely to see the sheer array of ideas that Monolith has thrown against the wall here, there are certainly a few that could have been shelved for a sequel. Given so many open-world sequels are content to simply rest on their laurels however, I’d happily take a warts-and-all experience like this over so much of the competition. It’s not an all-time classic, but Shadow of War is certainly unique; long may Monolith continue to experiment with the genre.