Hooboy, where to begin. Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is the sequel to the action-RPG Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, the super violent Lord of the Rings game you didn't know you wanted. Developed by Monolith Productions and published by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, the game was released in October 2017. From the outset it was surrounded by controversy thanks to micro-transactions, loot boxes, and a poorly handled piece of DLC that many found to be tasteless. Furthermore, many claimed that the game was made intentionally grindy to incentivize players to purchase loot boxes, a criticism UbiSoft has also faced with the latest Assassin's Creed game. Whereas Shadow of Mordor garnered critical praise and ended up on several "best of" lists, Shadow of War was doomed from the get go. So why talk about this now? Well last summer the micro-transactions were removed entirely and the game was re-balanced. Shortly afterwards, a definitive edition was released. I received the definitive edition for Christmas and have been playing it for the past month; I think it deserves a second look. When it came out, the reviews had to take the marketplace and the micro-transactions into account, but with those removed, I think it's only fair for the game to get a re-evaluation. So, I present my thoughts on the definitive edition of Middle-Earth: Shadow of War, along with the story of a publisher that hurt itself through its own greed, ironically mirroring a common theme found in Tolkien's works.
Shadow of War picks up right where Shadow of Mordor left off: the Ranger Talion and the spirit of Celebrimbor, the elf-Lord he is bound to, decide to forge a new ring of power to challenge Sauron. Celebrimbor believes that a new ring would be free of Sauron's taint and thus pure. The reality is a bit less so. The game expects the player to be either familiar with Tolkien's lore or to have played the previous game. This wasn't a problem for me since I'm a huge Tolkien nerd, and I've played the previous game. If you're neither, the story might not make as much sense. Admittedly, the game is less about the story and more about the game play. Like its predecessor, Shadow of War plays fast and loose with Tolkien's cannon, and it takes several creative liberties with certain characters. I'm something of a Tolkien purist, and many years ago, my first instinct would have been to be annoyed by this. But now that I'm older, I've reached the point where I can separate the game world from the books and the movies. It's kind of like the difference between A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones, each is its own thing. Probably the most eyebrow raising liberty is with Shelob the spider, as she can now take the appearance of an attractive human woman. That said, as per the source material, Shelob isn't actually a spider. She's a demon who takes the form of a spider, a child of the evil spirit of Ungoliant. If you want to know more, I recommend reading The Silmarillion, Tolkien's history of Middle-Earth and the Elves, because his lore is so deep I can't even begin to cover it here.
Some of the other liberties work rather well. In this game Talion often comes face to face with the Nazgul, who want to make him a Ringwraith. In Tolkien's lore, we know that the nine Ringwraiths were once mortal men, kings in their time. But other than their leader, the Witch-king of Angmar, none of them are named. Shadow of War identifies three of them, one being an original character, and the other two being Helm Hammerhand, a King of Rohan, and Isildur, the ancestor of Aragorn who cut the ring from Sauron's hand. I thought this was neat, particularly the tragedy of making Isildur one of the Nine, despite its departure from Tolkien's canon.
Of course, the real star of the game isn't Talion, or Shelob or the Nazgul, it's the Nemesis System. Like the previous game, the Nemesis System works in the same way. Orcs who manage to kill you get promoted, and you can kill Captains and Warchiefs to weaken Sauron's forces. You can also dominate the minds of promoted Orcs and make them work for you. You can force orcs to fight each other, send them on infiltration missions, or use them as disposable cannon fodder. Shadow of War expands on the Nemesis system in two major ways. First, Ologs (trolls) can now be found in the enemy ranks and promoted alongside their orc brethren. The second is fortress conquests. Instead of two open areas, Shadow of War has five, six if you count the DLC. Each region has a fortress held by an Overlord and his Warchiefs. In order to conquer the region, the Overlord must be taken down. It's not an easy task, and you have to build up an army large enough to bring the fortress down. You can make this easier by taking out the Warchiefs, or by sending in your own spies as Warchiefs, and they'll sabotage the fortress from within. It's a neat game mechanic.
Lastly, Shadow of War has one of the absolute craziest boss fights of any game I've ever played outside of a Souslike game. At one point, you have to fight a balrog, and it's not an easy fight, nor should it be. Granted, it's not as hard as a Dark Souls boss, but then few things are. It took several tries for me to finally bring it down, and it was really satisfying when I finally did.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is everything that a video-game sequel should be. It's bigger and better than its predecessor, and it builds on everything that Shadow of Mordor did right. I still haven't played the DLC, but I've greatly enjoyed my time with Shadow of War. Unfortunately, the controversy surrounding this game will never go away, and I think there's a real lesson to be had here about the problem with micro-transactions currently facing the gaming industry. Here is a good game that shot itself in the foot because its publisher got greedy. Shadow of Mordor was a sleeper hit, but it got critical acclaim and ended up selling well.
I have no doubt that had it not been for the micro-transactions, and the Forthog Orc-Slayer DLC, (which was at best bad poor judgement and at worst tasteless), Shadow of War would easily have sold more copies. Instead, greed got the best of WB, and they sowed the seeds of their own destruction. It's almost as if someone offered them, a ring if you will. A ring of power that the giver promised would give them what they desired. And instead, it corrupted and destroyed them.
Despite all that, I wholeheartedly recommend Middle-Earth Shadow of War - Definitive Edition. It's a lot of fun, and there are plenty of Easter Eggs for Tolkien fans. I'll see you guys next week.
Okay, quick note about the Forthog Orc-Slayer DLC fiasco, for those who don't know. During the production of Shadow of War, the game's executive producer, Michael Forgey, passed away from cancer. WB announced a DLC that would add the character Forthog Orc-Slayer, an NPC who can randomly save the player. The DLC cost $5.00, and WB claimed that $3.50 of each sale would go to Michael's family. As you can expect, this was seen as an attempt to cash in on the death of an employee, and the public didn't react well to that. What's worse, the $3.50 would only go to the Forgey family if purchased in certain States. So, some of that money that was "being raised" for the family, would never actually go to the family. Scummy is the absolute nicest way I can put it. I'm willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the programmers who coded Michael into the game. I think they honestly wanted to give a tribute to their departed friend. That's not unheard of in games. The Executives and Publishers on the other hand, I think that much like to micro-transactions, they saw an opportunity to make more money and they pounced on it. Look, I get that video-games are a product sold for entertainment purposes in a market economy, and that game companies need to make a profit. I really do. But there's something to be said, not just for taste, but for common decency and ethics. Obviously, I don't know what the people in charge were thinking, I wasn't there. I'm just calling it like I see it.