It’s not the loot boxes that bummed me out about October’s Shadow of War. When playing the game, you can easily ignore them. I had a harder time ignoring the game’s bummer mood, ugly scenery, trite and tedious quests and mechanical messiness. I liked its predecessor. I wanted to like this game. I bailed halfway but recently tried the game’s expansion.
I really wish the main game was like this expansion.
Blade of Galadriel occurs after the events of Shadow of War. The main game’s protagonist, Talion, has somehow become drearier and possibly evil. You don’t play as him. You play as Elatriel, an elf warrior who is also featured in the main game. In this expansion she’s got her own upgradable skill tree and a power set focused on being able to blind and obliterate her enemies with orbs of light. Combat in the Shadow games has always felt good, though Elatriel benefits from having a less cluttered moveset than Talion. She can still do a lot of the satisfying basics, including combos, counters, beast-riding and various ranged and up-close stealth attacks.
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At the start of the expansion you fight Talion and then forge an easy alliance. Soon, Elatriel vows to recruit new orcs to the game’s overall battle, but she says she won’t enslave them. This lets the expansion pivot away from the main game’s narratively weird celebration of its main heroes’ enslavement of orcs but more importantly frees the player of having to constantly try to convert orcs on the battlefield to their side. Instead, Elatriel vows to win hearts and minds by actually helping orcs with their problems, which, just writing that out, strikes me as the more entertaining concept for a Lord of the Rings game.
What ensues is, shockingly, largely a comedy (or at least as comedic a game you can get when the landscape is still a drizzle of black and grey and the main gameplay action is still dealing death).
You meet an orc architect who is trying to build cities underground and needs help with some monster pests.
Believe it or not, our orc architect friend here is central to a Major Moral Choice that players must make near the end of the expansion. Cue the think pieces!
You meet an orc who is wild about the spider-goddess Shelob and seems like he could use a friend.
It’s cool that this guy is into Shelob, but how, pray tell, does this outfit honor Shelob’s thematically-complex, textually-nuanced, Tolkien-honoring new look?
You meet a pair of orcs who are cheesy bros who love to blow things up.
These silly orc bros feature in a key dramatic beat near the end and are generally helpful at blowing things up.
And there’s more.
Shadow of War’s main game was bloated with systems. It had the returning nemesis system that empowers enemies who kill you. It had orc recruitment. It had stacks and stacks of purchasable skills and optional sub-skills. It had collectible artefacts and lines of poetry. It had castle sieges and castle defences, intel-gathering, beast-taming, and, through free expansions, online orc battles, invasions of new tribes and too much more. Less would be more if ever they tried it, and thank goodness they tried that with the expansion which has missions that meaningfully call for use of specific gameplay elements.
Each of these orcs is tied to a quest that is focused on just one or two gameplay systems, making a lot of the actions programmed into the main game meaningful in the expansion. Take the mechanic of being able to grab an enemy and throw them. You rarely need it in the main game and yet in the expansion you’re challenged to toss enemy orcs into the sights of a can’t-miss sniper in order to distract him as you run up to him to recruit him. That mission then leads to fighting flying dragon-like enemies, a fun action the main game buried under piles of optional abilities. Another quest focuses on the ability to poison grog barrels, another of the myriad missable actions added to Shadow of War’s ungainly arsenal. The expansion is mostly a one or two things at a time kind of game. That’s a welcome change.
Elatriel inherits a lot of the skills from the main game and can learn a handful more. I’m all for complex skill trees, but this simplified flow is welcome in the expansion.
I didn’t care much for Blade of Galadriel’s main story, which is a simple hunt for some Nazgûl warrior women. I didn’t care for finding out whatever Talion was up to next. But I really liked meeting some weirdo orcs and doing whatever it took to get them to my side. I liked playing missions that helped me feel like even half of the abilities made for the main game are useful. I didn’t miss anything from the main game except maybe the bad poetry.
Unfortunately, the whole Shadow of War project has been grey linings around even the most silver clouds. Good as Blade of Galadriel is, it too is buried under a mess of other things. The short expansion runs just three or so hours but costs £12 and requires ownership of the base game. If you already felt burned by Shadow of War, that’s probably not an easy sell. But if you’re interested in something that’s more of a Lord of the Rings comedy and would rather spend on an expansion than a loot box and already have the main game, I recommend it.