Welcome to our Game In Progress review of Middle-Earth: Shadow Of War. This third and final installment covers the entire game, with a focus on Act III and IV.
By now, you might have heard a lot of things about the game Middle-Earth: Shadow Of War becomes in its final act. It turns out, there’s not much left to this thing beyond the point I reached in the last part of my review. Act II represents this game and series at its best. It’s an open playground for manipulation and sabotage, all centered around these tremendously satisfying fortress sieges where your work is made manifest as the wild, swarming legions that surround you. The more guided storyline missions that are mixed into it are largely a bore, but with as much free rein as the game gives you, the occasional diversion to box a Balrog or track down a treasonous troll are a nice change of pace. The story slowly heats up as well, widening the fissure between Talion and Celebrimbor, the elf ghost living inside him, as the latter drifts ever further toward all-out villainy in his quest for vengeance.
Act III begins and looks like it’s going to turn that schism into a few more hours of story. Talion finally takes matters into his own hands and releases the spirit of a Ring Wraith who’s been hunting them (a very prominent figure in Middle-Earth lore, no less) before Celebrimbor can brainwash him, which would have denied his freedom in death and prolonged his suffering. Talion has finally realized that this path ends with “trading one Dark Lord for another” and that his ghost bro’s plan to enslave Sauron, as he did to hundreds of his followers, won’t ensure the safety of man or provide any vengeance for his slaughtered family. But since he was “just a vessel,” as Celebrimbor says, he’s traded for another champion and, without his possessor’s life-saving power, is left to die.
But wouldn’t you know it, that Ring Wraith Talion killed dropped a Ring Of Power, which our hero slips on and uses to become some sort of undying necromancer. He’s able to summon ghost soldiers—a big nod to that famous scene in Return Of The King—and resurrect dead orcs to fight for him. With an army of the dead at his disposal, he heads back to the city where this whole thing started to dispatch the rest of the Ring Wraiths and win back an important foothold against Sauron. At the same time, Celebrimbor battles the Dark Lord and is ultimately consumed by him. And that’s the end of Act III.
From a structural perspective, it makes sense. Celebrimbor, unwilling to realize the evils of his ways, was clearly heading toward ruin, and besides, we know his plan to revitalize Mordor fails because Lord Of The Rings happens. Talion, through some weird loophole in Ring Of Power rules, is able to maintain his position as Sauron’s army-wielding foil, ostensibly setting up the game’s final act or a sequel as he, finally free of Celebrimbor, makes one final push to take the Dark Lord down.
In practice, though, this section was incredibly rushed. This is the most dense and important part of the game’s narrative, the much-needed twist it’s been hinting at for dozens of hours, and we’re flung through it in a 40-minute sprint. Worse, so much of what goes down is left vague. Sauron proclaimed that he serves no one and hugged Celebrimbor until they’re mushed into one silver-haired elf body. But what became of the Bright Lord? There’s an implication that he’s trapped in some sort of spiritual battle within Sauron, but there’s no indication of what that actually means. As far as the player can tell, Celebrimbor is effectively dead and nothing has changed. The orcs under his control, your control, don’t suddenly snap out of it and return to Sauron. They remain under your thumb, and Talion, unaffected by Celebrimbor no longer living inside him, can use his own brainwashing powers to continue to bolster their ranks. So despite this monumental event and a new stage being set, nothing has really changed.
It makes sense, then, that what follows in Act IV could, if you’re being extremely charitable, be described as one big, limp “war never changes” metaphor. After watching Celebrimbor’s fate, we’re back in control of Talion and unceremoniously informed that we’ve entered the Shadow Wars. Apparently, Talion’s role is, and I’m quoting the game here, to “keep Mordor in a state of perpetual war,” delaying Sauron’s invasion of the rest of Middle-Earth long enough for everyone to ready their armies. For the player, this means you’re dumped back into the game world and forced to defend your castles from orcs that are way more powerful than your own. The game strings you along with a completion percentage after every big battle, but other than that, there’s really no indication that this is going anywhere. As far as you know, the story of Talion is over, and it ended the way it always existed: in an unbreakable state of perpetual violence.
But as has been widely reported, there is an ending buried in Act IV. The trouble is, earning this three-minute scene that explains how Talion’s story ties into The Lord Of The Rings and wraps up neatly with a happy ending requires hours of tedious labor. Act IV is essentially Act II all over again. New high-level orcs will start popping up in regions where your fortress is threatened, and your best bet at defending against them is replacing your old crew with stronger dudes, which means you’re going to have to go hunting and dominating all over again. It’s fine for the first few hours, but you’ll eventually reach a point where you’re being asked to loop back to forts you’ve already defended and do it again against even tougher orcs. By then, your enemies are outpacing Talion’s level and since your followers can only be as strong as you are, they too have fallen behind. Without those story missions to give you a little experience-point boost every once in a while—not to mention break up the mindless perpetual cycle of killing, capturing, and defending—there’s really nothing you can do to get out of that hole in a manner that could possibly be described as entertaining.
As tends to happen, the most provocative theory about the intent behind Act IV’s flat, recursive grind has become the prevailing one: that the game’s publisher hopes you’ll be coerced into spending real money on things to help you finish the Shadow Wars more quickly. But buying the game’s equivalent to Magic: The Gathering packs full of random orcs won’t help you, since they still max out at Talion’s overall level, and while spending that money instead on “experience boosters,” which double the paltry rewards for offing Mordor’s infinite supply of orc captains, will help cut down on the length of this miserable exercise, it won’t make it any less boring. (For the record, you can also jump through hoops to earn currency and buy those boosters without spending real money.)
As the monotony and pointlessness of Shadow Wars started to sink in, I was immediately reminded of a To The Bitter End essay our own Anthony John Agnello wrote about Shadow Of Mordor’s ending. There, too, the developers at Monolith crafted a baffling shoulder shrug of a finale for its big, edgy adventure. Anthony argued that the hollow victory of that anti-climax was an honest, thematically resonant conclusion to the game’s story of a man pursuing revenge and blindly extending a dangerous cycle of violence.
Whether Monolith did it purposefully or not, Shadow Of War crumbles into the same state as it crawls to the closest thing it has to a proper conclusion. The game flat out tells you that there is no victory here, that there is no end to all this bloodshed, that Talion is trapped on an unchanging military seesaw with Sauron until Lord Of The Rings happens. He won’t ever give up because he’s the only thing stopping darkness from marching on the people of Middle-Earth, but there’s nothing stopping the player from walking away from his unwinnable battle. And that’s really the best way to handle Shadow Of War’s final act. If you absolutely need to see it, that three minute ending scene you’re going to have to suffer so much for is already on YouTube. Don’t waste your money. Don’t waste your time. Just walk away and break yourself out of the cycle.