Welcome to our Game In Progress review of Middle-Earth: Shadow Of War. Over the next two weeks, Gameological editor Matt Gerardi will be playing through this sequel to Shadow Of Mordor, the grisly Tolkien-verse game of orc stabbing and manipulation. This first installment covers everything from the beginning of the game through Matt’s first fortress siege.
It took a chance encounter with a singing orc to get me on board with Middle-Earth: Shadow Of War. Up until I met Dugz The Singer, the game had been a laborious slog through hours of characters almost literally dragging me around while I occasionally stopped to rescue a human soldier or inspect a corpse. When you’re not being railroaded through those story missions, you’re running around looking for more of them in Minas Ithil, one of those iconic multi-tiered Lord Of The Rings cities that’s all ivory buildings and fortress walls, or Cirith Ungol, a black mountainous region that’s about as ugly as its name sounds.
Bands of orcs have besieged both areas, but in these early goings, as the game dripfeeds tutorial information at an agonizing rate, it has yet to fully introduce the series’ signature concept of a living orc hierarchy for you to undermine and ultimately topple. As a result, the world ends up being aimless and irritating, a collectible-peppered expanse between mission-start icons that’s in the way of furthering the story and getting you closer to the point where Shadow Of War is finally ready to take off the blinders and let you loose. The orcs are still entertaining as hell, from the bloodthirsty banter of on-the-ground grunts to the bombastic monologuing of orc captains during their grand entrances, but without a structure for them to fit into and for you to manipulate, they might as well be treasure chests on legs.
But once Act I drew to a close and I was forced to seek new opportunities in the verdant fields of Nurnen, I could feel the game finally taking shape. With a Ring Of Power back in your possession and your ability to brainwash bad guys reinstated, it’s time to start building an orc army of your own. You do this, of course, by tracking down powerful members of Sauron’s gang and enslaving them with your magic, mind-destroying powers. The game guides you to your first target, a hulking, witty brawler named Bruz who becomes your guide for the next leg of this lengthy, extended tutorial.
But unlike your previous teachers, Bruz only shows up when his bountiful knowledge of orc politics and the game’s endless menu screens is needed. He’ll point you in a direction, wait for you to accomplish something on your own, and literally show up from out of nowhere to let you know that this hook-handed lunatic you just enslaved might make a fine personal bodyguard or that the poison-slinging assassin with a human head for a hat could be used as a spy against his former master. Once he’s done breaking it down, he walks out of frame and disappears again. His methods, while completely contrived and bizarre if you think about it for more than a second, encourage the kind of player-driven experimentation, disarray, and sense of real moment-to-moment progress that power these Middle-Earth games. Compared to Act I’s lifeless crawl through mission after mission of narrative table-setting and tutorializing, it’s as much of a welcome shock to the senses as the transition from Cirith Ungol’s endless grays to Nurnen’s eye-popping greens.
And it was on a mission from Bruz that I met my singing buddy. I snuck into an orc encampment looking for captains to brainwash. As tends to happen, the sneaking part of my attack didn’t last long. Alarms were blaring, a legion of orcs were amassing, and I was running for my life. Thankfully, Talion, the possessed human ranger you play as, is far quicker and more acrobatic than his bumbling counterparts, and a leap off a ledge toward a small dock area was all the distance I needed to escape the horde. But after a brief calm, the game wrested control away from me and drew my attention to the arrival of the most glorious monster-man I’d ever seen, a drooling fop in a riveted vest, a feathered three-corner hat, and a spiked codpiece. His name is Dugz The Singer, and he sung of my demise while strumming on his barbed lute, which of course doubles as his weapon of choice, complete with an El Kabong-style bonk whenever he lands a hit. I made short work of him, and when faced with the decision to either bring him into the fold or cut him down and retrieve the magical gewgaw hiding in his belly, the choice was obvious. Dugz was a fucking star, and it was time he started being treated like one.
I immediately sent him to the fight pits so he could prove himself worthy of a promotion. He handled himself with aplomb, whipping out that lute-axe and bashing the hell out of Bagga Maggot-Nest, some loser whose name sounds like something medieval Bart Simpson would trick a tavern keeper into saying. His victory meant he could infiltrate the inner circle of Nurnen’s highest-ranking orc, the overlord of a nasty metal fortress casting a shadow across the region. These orc strongholds are the big new feature in Shadow Of War, and it turns out they’re a great way to give all your military sabotage the deeper sense of purpose it so sorely needed. Each keep is run by an overlord and his warchiefs. If you draw out and eliminate a warchief prior to staging your invasion, you’ll remove an obstacle that’s tied to their randomly assembled traits. Taking them down is far easier if you’ve turned all their bodyguards against them and set them up for a fatal betrayal, at which point you can fill their role with a follower of your own and ensure you’ve got some moles in place for the big attack. It’s a lot of extra work, but it is so worth it, in part because it makes the siege mission easier, but more importantly, because building out your attacking force makes them that much more epic.
Even though they take place on a much smaller scale, the sieges are clearly meant to evoke the huge battles of the Lord Of The Rings movies. In truth, they’re more reminiscent of Game Of Thrones’ Battle Of The Bastards. You’re down in the thick of it, swatting away defenders while the forces you’ve assembled rush past you and flood the fortress. It’s chaotic and thrilling, and made all the better by knowing the orcs you recruited and deployed for this fight determined what nightmares you brought with you. If you’ve taken the time and properly subverted the orc hierarchy, you can see the fruits of all your bloody labor finally blooming as your army bowls over their enemies and leads you right to the overlord’s doorstep.
This is the essence of Monolith’s Middle-Earth games made manifest, a storm of violence and madness of your own creation with you, Mordor’s apex predator, at the center of it all. It’s far truer to the messy, improvisational spirit of this game than any amount of narrow story missions and proper noun-laden cutscenes ever could be. After finishing this first one and watching as the game cheekily zoomed out to reveal all the rest of the castles you’ll struggle to storm, I didn’t feel awe or trepidation at the enormity of the task. All I felt was glee.
- I didn’t address it here, but I have a feeling we’ll get into the game’s troubling politics and cavalier use of slavery in the coming weeks. I’ve since played way further into the game, and I’m glad to see characters are questioning the ethics of Talion/Celebrimbor’s methods, which are deeply disturbing, inhumane, and, considering the terrible fates that befall anyone who’s ever wielded a ring of power, probably stupid. For as much good as that shred of self-awareness does, it can’t make up for the fact that the game lets you buy treasure chests full of already dominated orcs. Yes, Shadow Of War lets you buy orc slaves—with both in-game and real-world money, no less.
- And speaking of microtransactions, I might get into that a little more later, but so far, they’re feeling pretty unobtrusive and pointless. You get plenty of stuff just by playing the game normally, and your in-game cash is far better spent on upgrading your armies and fortresses than boxes full of random swords and cloaks.
- Some pedantry: Shadow Of War refers to its forested region as “Nurnen,” which is odd since no such land seems to exist in Tolkien’s mythos. There is a “Nurn,” though, which houses the Sea Of Nurnen and was the name of the forested region in Shadow Of Mordor. I’m kinda feeling like calling this one “Nurnen” was a mistake and it was supposed to be Nurn again?