Middle-Earth: Shadow of War symbolises everything wrong with this industry. Oh, it’s far from bad, in many respects it’s even spectacular. It offers an engaging story, great new mechanics for your armies, and even a refined system of battle mechanics and orders. By all rights this is a spectacular release, and yet all of that is buried beneath a constant push to grab more money from the player.
Following directly on from where Shadows of Mordor left off, the game follows Talion’s efforts to raise and brainwash an orc army into rebelling against Sauron. While driven by revenge, his cause sees him travelling down an ever-darker road in the name of attaining power.
The Nemesis system is what truly made Shadows of War famous, as it offered a level of enemy manipulation and espionage the likes of Assassin’s Creed never offered. Bumping off enemy commanders, replacing them with your toadies and earning an increasingly powerful rival worked towards making the world feel alive and reacting to your presence. Shadow of War takes this a step further, by shifting the focus into near open war.
Rather than simply murdering leaders and slaughtering their troops, you have the option to lead armies into open sieges and liberate massed fortifications for yourself. This is accomplished as much by sheer numbers as the likes of siege gauges, and sappers add some much-needed variety and a few ways to vary your tactics. Furthermore, as you advance deeper into enemy territory, a few familiar and very threatening faces start to appear, such as the Ringwraiths and certain very big monsters. All of who provide infinitely more entertaining fights than the prior game’s bosses.
Yet, every single point, every single advantage you can find here, is hamstrung by microtransactions, lootboxes and a cash market. Take the story for starters. While certain decisions surrounding the lore are bad enough to make Tolkien spin in his grave, it is internally consistent and well developed. So, naturally, multiple storylines are chopped off to be sold as a $100 pre-purchase addition, and the true ending is hidden away behind a carefully crafted series of gates. The sort which, one way or another, you can only unlock with your credit card.
Limiting your quest would be bad enough on its own merits, and yet this blight afflicts the essential gameplay as well. Despite starting off well enough for the first few hours, thanks to several excellent cutscenes and exciting sieges, you quickly start to see the gaps in the gameplay. As each of your orcs are customisable, you need scrolls to upgrade their abilities and boost their stats. While at first most of these seem to be accessible in the open world, many are limited to lootboxes, with the likes of Archer Recruitment (which gives you extra units of archers) or even Mount Training Legendary (giving you an extra Graug) locked away behind virtual gambling.
Worse still, the game has elements woven into its very core encouraging you to fork over cash. Not only does it have a Dragon Age: Origins style “Buy this to see the rest of the story!” moment, but the very first thing you see upon logging in is an advertisement for lootboxes. Now, that alone would be bad enough, but it keeps stacking elements atop of this. The sheer grind of relentless sieges towards the last third of the game becomes tedious to the point of boredom, and has seemingly been designed to push you into paying a bit more to make it easier. A problem to be sure, but atop of this you can end up with other players relentlessly attacking your bases and murdering your troops while you are offline. So, you could have a legion ready for the final boss ready one day, and come back to find everything in ruins on the very next.
Shadow of War had the potential to be one of the greats of 2017. If the price gouging mechanics, the sheer Everest-esque grind in the final part, and the constant push to grab more of your money had been removed, this would have been a near-perfect sequel. It would have been game of the year material, and with twice this ending score. Instead, we’re just left with monument to how a publisher’s greed can wreck a masterpiece.
Save buying this one until the asking price is at least slashed in half, folks, as you’re going to need the rest just to get the orcs you need.
MIDDLE-EARTH: SHADOW OF WAR / DEVELOPER: MONOLITH PRODUCTIONS / PUBLISHER WB GAMES / PLATFORM: XBOX ONE, PLAYSTATION 4, PC / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW