Monolith's Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor was a surprise hit in 2014, and it was mainly thanks to the beautiful combination of two systems. First there was the flowing combat, half-inched from Rocksteady's Arkham games, and then atop this was the original idea of the 'Nemesis system'. The latter, which basically sees orc commanders level up by killing you (and 'remember' the event in subsequent encounters) remains unique even several years later, and a striking example of how to add character and variety to repeating mobs.
I found Shadow of Mordor a lot of fun, before the repetition began to pall. Toying around with the Nemesis system was never less than entertaining, but after a while it felt like that was the only thing the game had going for it. Three years later comes the sequel and, of course, Middle-earth: Shadow of War wants you to do it all over again. Be the ranger. Stab the orcs. Kill, be killed, and return to kill again. God knows what the total is but, suffice to say, I've killed more orcs than I can count.
The good news is that Shadow of War is an extremely polished orc-killing simulator. Mashing the square button and aiming towards orcs is the basic element of it, which sends Talion flying around a crowd with sword slashes, and in addition you can mix in melee attacks, vault over enemies, and dodge-roll. Incoming attacks are telegraphed with icons above the offending orc's head, and pressing triangle parries them. In addition to this there are ground finishers, projectiles, the odd QTE-based exchange, and various abilities unlocked as Talion levels up.
This style of combat system is now common, and its strengths and weaknesses are always the same. In Shadow of War there's a great feeling of flow to it, and just mashing away at the buttons will see Talion eviscerate lesser mobs and look good while doing so. The simple-to-execute parries allow players of all skill levels to elevate this further, and the fights start looking even better, and as new abilities are gradually layered on the whole experience becomes visually spectacular.
Shadow of War really gets the visual side of its combat right. What I always especially loved in the Lord of the Rings films was the fight choreography, and how it brought together brutal heft and preternatural grace. Talion's dual nature (he's inhabited by a long-dead elf called Celebrimbor, don't ask) conveniently allows the game to base his animations around Aragorn and Boromir's fighting styles, while bringing in those ridiculous Legolas flourishes with limited-use attacks. I remember buying the Two Towers tie-in on Gamecube, hoping only that it would somehow capture how cool those fight scenes were. If I could have seen Shadow of War back then, my head would've exploded.
The combat animations are the most legitimately Lord of the Rings aspect to this game, because in others it feels to me like a disaster. I'm no Tolkien nut, though I've read the books and seen the movies. But it always seemed to me that a key element of the Lord of the Rings was the One Ring. You know, one ring to rule them all, etcetera. Pretty much the first thing Shadow of War does, and spoiler alert I guess but this is the opening cutscene, is show Talion and Celembrimbor making another 'one ring' in the fires of Mount Doom. They immediately lose it and the game becomes about getting it back.
So my thoughts are, simply: WTF. Obviously the Lord of the Rings is now a franchise, many more stories will be told in this universe, and you'd expect some of them to upset the apple cart a little. But it feels crazy to have the whole thing predicated on the idea of one super-powerful ring, then just decide a dead ranger and his elfbro can make another one. The games take place before the books, I should say, so maybe the whole thing will resolve itself — but jeez. Cheers for the whole destroying the ring thing Frodo, Gandalf — great job lads. Did you know there's another one?
It feels a little easy and contrived because it is. When Gollum turns up, you know that the story isn't the focus so much as the franchise highpoints. These moments stick out because, truly, Shadow of War's other characters wash over you. The game is so relentlessly focused on killing orcs, which is what every mission boils down to, that its incorporation of Seriously Serious Lore seems, at times, ridiculous.
As an open world game, it would be simply unfair to compare this to something like Breath of the Wild. There the world is topographically interesting, filled with different ways to explore, and a real part of the adventure. The open environments of Middle-earth feel like so much scenery by comparison, sprinted through as the player hammers X to get to the next orc party a little quicker.
The truth is that Monolith, as a studio, is perhaps too much of a 'borrower.' The Nemesis System is a brilliant original idea, but with Shadow of War it still feels like bits of other games stitched together — mainly Assassin's Creed and Arkham. Shadow of War comes to feel like a one-note experience, because it doesn't have good ideas for what players can do outside of killing orcs. The game's main twist is that — gaps! — eventually control and command orcs to fight other orcs. Just like the last time. Yes, you can get very creative about how to do it as you unlock the wilder abilities, but it still comes down to orc combat.
For many that will be enough and, for five or six hours, I loved it. After that, the combat still felt good but the repetition was noticeable. In many games you repeat the same actions — I'm currently loving Destiny 2, as an example. There you're just shooting enemies, but there are many different enemy types and environments, and Bungie mixes these up across a huge variety of missions.
Shadow of War, on the other hand, eventually comes to feel like having the same fight over and over again. My character acquires more skills. His gear gains incremental numbers and minor perks. The battles get larger, the enemies more deadly. The stakes are higher than ever! The only problem is, I've done it all before.