Game: Middle Earth: Shadow of War
Developer: Monolith Productions
Publisher: Warner Bros
Reviewed on: PS4 (Review copy provided)
There’s something to be said for those games that are less about challenge and story and more about making you look hecking cool. Burnout, the Arkham series, and even Eddie Gordo; all things that mainly exist so that you, and people watching you, can observe and think ‘Damn, this guy is ice cold’.
Enter Shadow of War; the sequel to Shadow of Mordor, a game widely hailed for it’s innovative Nemesis system. I always find this vaguely reminiscent of the part in Austin Powers when Austin steamrollers a generic evil henchman, only for the movie to cut away to the family of the now-deceased muscle-for-hire receiving a call to inform them of the death of their husband/father, and the ripples that causes that are so often unseen. Rather than just dispatching enemies, the Nemesis system allows your opposing ranks to adapt, rank-up and even inspire vengeance among their friends, adding a new dimension to bad guys that most games don’t consider. As far as new game mechanics go, it’s both hugely innovative and strangely obvious at the same time.
And it’s this system that has many people pumped for Shadow of War. I came into Shadow of War being vaguely aware of the predecessor but having never played it in any depth. ‘Ah, a recap!’ I thought as the ‘Previously In Middle Earth…’ cinematic started to roll at the start of the game. This will sort me right out. Well, dear reader, it did not. It may as well have been in Elvish for all I understood. Topically, for Halloween season, I think our protagonist and Aragorn knock-off Talion is dead? But also not dead. And he appears to be sharing his newly resurrected body with the ghost of a disagreeable old bloke in what probably passes for the basis of a Middle Earth sitcom. They’re an odd couple, but they’ve got to share a body! Hilarity ensues.
Hilarity does not ensue, though. What does ensue is some hastily introduced characters and a vague plot about Sauron taking over Middle Earth, like despite all his evil genius he isn’t imaginative enough to have come up with anything else to do yet. One of the characters that is more present than others is Shelob, a big old spider who turns into a sexy lady, a transformation that will please arachnophobes but probably not please feminists and anyone else a bit tired of every women in a game being half-dressed while the dudes are all rocking three-inch thick armour. Nevertheless, Shelob is a useful stop-off point throughout, as her visions propel what there is of the story. The rest of the cast are fairly forgettable, the usual fantasy military types that don’t really inspire you to remember them.
To be fair, it’s actually only really the good guys who are a little on the dull side in Mordor. The orcs are largely great; resplendent with faces only a mother could love and more often than not sounding like they’re about to either burst into Knees Up Mother Brown or take over the Queen Vic, they’re more of an integral part of the game than you’d expect for a race that has always seemed largely expendable in the fantasy genre. Obviously these guys are the backbone of the Nemesis system; defeat a Captain in battle by hacking off their arm and they’ll reappear later on with a haphazard prosthetic replacement. Whether you win by slashing, burning or shooting, they can reappear with more augmentations and much more anger. On the contrary, if an orc defeats you they will get promoted, their higher rank and corresponding improvements in armour and weapons meaning they’ll be harder to take down next time.
The game is perhaps too aware of how entertaining these dentally-challenged cockneys can be sometimes. Every time you meet a special orc, such as a Captain, they drop a little promo speech on you like they’re pro-wrestlers, telling you how they’re going to mess you up and asking if you’re ready to die, a question that would be largely redundant anywhere but Dignitas. These sometimes go on a bit too long and are unskippable, something that can really stilt the pace of combat when they pop up in the middle of a scrap and you’re itching to get back to pummelling stuff. Still, its indicative of the characters you’re up against; you can even bring up brief fact-sheets on each Captain detailing their weaknesses and strengths, something which will be very handy in battle.
The game seems to share more than one mechanic with the excellent Arkham series; you can drop into Wraith mode by tapping L1 which is very similar to the Batman’s detective mode, highlighting foes even through walls and drawing your attention to clues for tracking down who needs a beating next. But you also get that cool 360, free-flowing combat mechanic. Complete with the button-prompt counter attacks, Talion lunges and jets around the immediate area delivering blows to orcs without even looking at them. It’s that hypnotic fighting style that inspires what serious games journalists call a ‘flow-state’, but in reality just means you lean forward on your sofa and get really involved. I also found great joy in some of the alternative tactics you can use in a fight. I never got bored off sprinting at an orc and spear-tackling them like Goldberg, or using them as human shields while their colleagues batter one of their own to get to you, or simply throwing them off high platforms.
There is absolute joy in coming across a brawl between humans and orcs and charging in to wave your weapon around, and especially so when you spot a Captain in amongst the fray you can slice up to cause some more ructions in the orc legions. The action doesn’t end with showing orcs the sharpest part of your sword, though. In perhaps the most superfluously cool attack of the year, Talion can sprint, slide on his bum and fire off arrows in a bullet-time slowdown state. You’re also presented with the now-familiar ‘hold down a button and parkour all over the fucking shop’ concept(more on this later), an idea that is boosted by Talion’s wraith-y powers. Indeed, it’s these powers that are him near invincible, invulnerable to fall damage and generally able to be Middle Earth’s bonafide superhero. Like I said, this isn’t a challenging game, it’s just a cool one.
There’s a lot of things happening in SoW’s combat; so much so, the game feels the need to remind you of these constantly. This is actually fair enough; whereas I’d normally find this annoying, I did find I often forgot about the two-button executions or Elven Rage; a state in which Talion goes full-wraith and delivers hundreds of blows to a group of enemies before they can even raise a shield. There’s plenty of specific attacks too; stunning huge trolls and riding them around, all the while delivering crafty stabs to their backs, is as fun as you’d think.
Intent on jamming every possible thing they can into Middle Earth, Monolith have also allowed Talion to do a bit of stealthing. There’s little to this that you won’t have seen before, and it’s pretty basic, feeling fairly reminiscent of Uncharted’s stealth parts. Duck into long grass, sneak up and do a cheeky stabbing from behind; there’s not much more to it than that. MGSV, this is not. You can occasionally interrogate certain orcs that show up green in Wraith mode (presumably because they’re GRASSES) to get more information on where the Captains are hiding out. Things get more interesting when you’re given a buddy to sneak about with, as you can target orcs and send your companion off to kill them, synchronising attacks on groups of enemies. This also shows up some of the game’s AI issues, however. Your buddies will regularly wander right in front of enemy troops before performing stealth-kills, yet remain unspotted. Indeed, I sometimes found I was even given the prompt to execute stealth-kills while directly in-front of a guard.
A lot of the ‘discourse’ on SoW seems to revolve around the use of Loot Boxes in the game. I don’t like Loot Boxes, because I’m old and remember the time when you just bought a game and that was it. Paying to get better at a game is nothing short of Tory, and I want no part of it. Having said that, its not really a problem unless you want it to be. I only really delved into the Marketplace section because I’m reviewing the game and felt the need to see what was going on, but otherwise I’m pretty certain I could have gone through the whole thing without needing to go near it. You can rack up in-game currency to spin the metaphorical wheel and get more gear without needing to empty your PayPal.
Again similar to Batman, Talion spends a fair amount of time rushing across rooftops and jumping between things that people shouldn’t be jumping between. This is a well-worn idea now and comes with all the plusses and negatives you’re familiar with, as they haven’t really done anything to refine it. It makes traversing the ruined cities much quicker, but at the same time landing in a specific spot on the ground is quite a lottery, Talion always more intent on swinging from the rafters than just jumping down to the ground. This lack of direction also pops up in combat from time to time too; often in group brawls I’d find Talion lunging at someone I was actively avoiding hitting because they perhaps needed some other method to bring the down, and any sword-slash would likely get parried and end in me taking damage.
As someone who’s never been pulled into Tolkein’s world of films and books, I found Shadow of War an involving and surprisingly deep brawler. This is perhaps because Shadow ofWar doesn’t have much to do with Tolkein, either. There’s a fair amount of artistic licence going on here, but the result is a huge amount of fun. Essentially improving on many of the concepts in the much-lauded Arkham series by adding a lot of combat ideas and turning your opponent’s army into a living, breathing and changing mass, Shadow of War is an overblown, silly action movie of a game, unashamedly chaotic and enjoyable. It’s not perfect; the visuals don’t measure up to some of its AAA counterparts and there’s bugs abound besides the big psychic spider, but that’s not enough to dampen my joy.