STAFF REVIEW of Middle-Earth: Shadow of War (Xbox One)

Sunday, October 29, 2017.
by Brent Roberts

Middle-Earth: Shadow of War Box art One of my favorite tales to read has been Lord of the Rings. The development, and more importantly the execution, of such literary text inspires imagination all over the globe. Due to this unfathomable love found world wide, it goes without saying that Lord of the Rings is one of the most protected and sacred works in human history. Back in 2014, Monolith Productions crafted a tale found in their a game called Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, which introduced two characters, Talion, a ranger who wanted to live in peace with his family, and Celebrimbor, who was the one responsible for making the One Ring. Tensions during the development of the game were understandably high as any sort of blemish would result in catastrophically negative press. Shadow of Mordor launched to incredible praise and it earned countless "Game of the Year" awards, so if that challenge was so monumental, then how does a company follow such quality work?

Well, by releasing their latest tale of the Tolkien lore called Middle-Earth: Shadow of War. Monolith has taken it upon themselves to deliver another tale spawned of the legendary tales found at the other end of Tolkien's pen. While the artistic license may be offsetting to some, there is no doubt that Shadow of War delivers everything we loved about the previous release, with more development and production qualities than I've ever seen or thought possible. This is the entire crux of the game, and while I'll be touching on the highly volatile loot boxes later on, make no mistake that this story, set between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, is one of the best stories I've experienced in a long, long time. Granted yes, we know already going into this that Talion doesn't beat Sauron (otherwise we wouldn't have The Lord of the Rings), so the best way to approach the story is with that understanding and see how the story unfolds.

We start to see some of the controversial story developments when Shelob, a massive spider from the movies and books, becomes a female that can interact with our main character. While she never assumes that form in any of the literature or movies, to say she doesn't have that ability to transform would be a colossal misconception. I personally thought that the application of a "human form" fit the character perfectly, as we got a chance to see how the web of events was spun (pun intended). This is just one of many incredible details that make the story of Shadow of War an incredible tale of love and loss. With regard to the story, I won't spoil it for you as this is a narrative that needs to be experienced firsthand, and it would be a crime to deny you that type of experience (I know I would be mad). The story is yet another one of the many new experiences you will have in Shadow of War, as we also find new lands to explore as well.

I will admit that some of the new areas aren't really involved with the lore of The Lord of the Rings, but while the first title seemed to focus on Mordor itself, the atmosphere changes with regards to Shadow of War's new areas. Tropical jungles full of lush foliage, massive cities of men that are under siege from an endless onslaught of Orcs, even murky swamplands, these are examples of the lands that await you throughout each level. Each area has been expanded into such large open world sandboxes that you can find yourself becoming lost in the midst of pure exploration. As in the first game, each area has towers that have been taken over by the Great Eye of Sauron, and it's up to you to reclaim the towers and lessen the grasp that the Dark Lord holds on the realms. Unlocking these towers also holds benefits as well, from fast travel points and more, they are useful.

Shadow of War will undoubtedly pit you against varying types of Orcs and Ogres; however, these grunts answer to captains,bodyguards, and war chiefs. While you may be fighting several dozens of these low level characters, it's not uncommon in the middle of the battle for a cut scene to commence that showcases a captain that has appeared in the fight and who wants to make a name for themselves by killing you in numerous gruesome ways. Each captain, bodyguard, and war chief has their own personality in which there is very little repetition in terms of individuality, so each experience feels incredibly unique, which is a massive challenge that Monolith Productions absolutely nailed perfectly.

Instead of randomly hoping that you can get the better of a captain or more, it helps by interrogating certain grunts who can provide information on the weaknesses you can exploit. These characters are marked, so it's fairly easy to distinguish them out of a horde of 20 or so characters. You have to be quick though because should you engage in combat, and not go directly for the intel, the Orc will start to run and your opportunity to gain that intel will vanish. Speaking of running....

The captains can run as well. For instance, if you are in a battle with a captain, the captain will flee if you use a pinning attack, and then it's a foot race to catch said captain before they vanish. Other tricks that captains, and other high end enemies hold, are the newly introduced "Death Defying" or "Tricky Escape" options. Should you be in a fight with a captain and bring it to its knees without killing it via an execution, you will receive one of three options. The first one will bring up a quick time event (QTE) where you press the correct button to send the captain to its grave, while the second option involves the captain getting back up in what is known as a "Death Defying" moment. The third option, which is the one that really irritates me, is where the captain will give a speech while downed then throw a smoke bomb and instantly disappear. All these fights utilize something that Monolith Productions has done a phenomenal job of implementing, and that is a fantastic control scheme.

Implementing such combat styles found in other games like the Batman Arkham series or the Assassin's Creed games, Monolith Productions was brilliant in utilizing a simplistic yet highly in depth control scheme that allows tremendous gameplay options with minimal button presses. When you're surrounded by tons of Orcs, and multiple captains, you'll be very thankful such a mechanic exists in the first place. This streamlined, yet efficient gameplay becomes such a benefit when you find yourself ambushed by a new captain, or by an old captain that you killed that was brought back to life (yes just because you kill a captain doesn't always mean they stay dead). Numerous times I was out exploring when I was instantly knocked to the ground from behind during an ambush attack and had to rely on the games combat mechanics to triumph over the captain.

These captains also adapt to your play style, so it's in your best interest to not only provide variety in your gameplay, but to put these captains down fast and without mercy. There is some benefit to getting killed by a captain though, as strange as this sounds. Should you meet your untimely demise at the end of an Orc sword or spear, the captain that killed you will be promoted, and now when you eliminate the newly promoted captain you will receive better gear. So, sometimes it may be in your best interest to accept the dark embrace of death if you wish to have better gear rewarded to you. While this may seem like a lot of fighting on your own, what would Shadow of War be without a little 'domination' that we saw from the first game?

That's right, in Shadow of War you can again dominate (control) grunts to fulfill many different tasks such as gather intel, set off alarms or traps, or even fight captains in an effort to promote the lowly grunt. This will come in handy when you're actually trying to destroy the various Orc controlled fortresses. As you can clearly see from the cover art of the game itself, your goal as you progress through the story is to build your army of subversive Orc captains and grunts. This unique system allows you to amass tremendous armies in an attempt to overtake the Overlord that resides within, and when you combine the use of beasts such as Drakes and Graugs (think Dragons and Rancor style beasts), Monolith Productions have given you all the ingredients to experience a truly epic event that we would expect to find in The Lord of the Rings lore.

Now, despite all this praise there are some irritants that reside within the game, but nothing that would be grounds for passing it by. There are some issues with the camera angle, and while you're fighting one enemy it's not uncommon for attacks to come from off the screen and hit your character. With this out of the way, which definitely not game breaking, let's talk about the loot boxes that yo can utilize in-game.

This feature has been picked apart by everyone under the sun, and in a negative light, but to me I don't regard the loot boxes as a negative thing since these are optional. Sure, it will take a long time to grind to get the same items you can purchase with real money without said grinding needed, but when you're playing a fantastic game like Shadow of War, that's not a bad thing at all. These boxes provide nothing of necessity that can't be obtained through just normal grinding, and they don't detract from the story, which is the cornerstone of Shadow of War's experience. I feel that the overwhelmingly negative focus of the loot boxes detracts from the sensational storytelling and incredible combat system. I would equate this to getting a Ferrari and then saying the car is worthless simply because the cup holder won't fit your drink.

As you progress through Shadow of War you will gain experience (XP), which you can use to develop Talion and his abilities. As is the case found in most single player adventure games, as you gain enough XP you will be able to improve your character's skills. In Shadow of War, each of these skills has three additional traits you can select from to turn Talion into a one-man army of death. You can only select one of the three extra traits though, so you should choose wisely.

As I progressed I found myself focusing on the remote poison grog skill. This allowed me to target a grog barrel with my bow and press the Y button to poison it from a distance. While this will take out whoever drinks from it, I upgraded the skill and selected the explosive trait, which meant that the Orc who drank from it would writhe in pain on the ground while poisoned and draw the attention of other Orcs who would come to check on him. These other Orcs would then be met with a massive poison cloud that came when the poisoned Orc exploded and spread the poison to any of the nearby Orcs. This tactic also works on captains as well, so if you find yourself with a whole bunch of enemies, and a whole bunch of grog barrels, find a high point, poison all the barrels, and wait and watch as you clear the entire encampment without engaging one enemy. I must admit, I got so caught up with going through the Nemesis system in the first area that I completed the area when my character was at level 15. Don't worry though as some skills won't be unlocked until you progress through the story.

While character progression is expected, this time around you can modify your gear as well. By completing item specific challenges you unlock upgrades for your weapons and gear. For example, you can use a quick throw to hit a poisoned enemy, and in doing so it will now grant you a percentage where critical strikes will poison an enemy. The challenges that upgrade your items go hand in hand with the new gem crafting system. Shadow of War provides three different colored gems: Red, Green, and White. By placing these gems into your gear sockets, you gain various perks such as life leech on hit, increased damage dealt, and XP boosts to name a few.

Shadow of War is yet another fantastic example of how to improve on something that was already incredible. Naturally the game looks gorgeous, with incredible details, character models, and environmental effects, and I can't wait to see what it looks like on the Xbox One X in 4K. The game allows you to pause, even in battle, and snap a screen shot using your free flying camera system, which is jaw droopingly beautiful. Graphics though aren't the only strong suit here as the audio is top notch. You will notice the tribal drums that beat for the Orcs, the horns of men blowing loudly into the air during war, and a symphonic score that sets the stage throughout every unique level in a way that is rarely seen on any medium to date.

Monolith Productions has an absolute sensational game in Middle-Earth: Shadow of War, and while there will be some detractors, the story, and game as a whole, is a masterpiece of craftsmanship that would make J.R.R. Tolkien proud. It has quality development that takes everything fans know and love from the first game, and improves and expands on it making Shadow of War a game that could easily hold contention for "Game of the Year". It is a must have purchase for anyone that enjoys quality gameplay mechanics, beautiful visuals, stellar sound, and a story that holds its own in a lore that is highly protected by its fans all across the globe. In the world of The Lord of the Rings, Monolith Productions has become the one developer to 'rule them all'.

Overall: 9.0 / 10
Gameplay: 9.0 / 10
Visuals: 9.5 / 10
Sound: 9.0 / 10


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