Middle-earth: Shadow of War is so much more than just another open-world action game with Batman’s combat. Its amazing Nemesis system makes almost every encounter with a named enemy a memorable battle, and the new fortress sieges give it legs beyond the campaign through asynchronous multiplayer.
This story plays just as fast and loose with Lord of the Rings’ lore as the last time. It picks up after the conjoined spirits of ancient elf lord Celebrimbor and Aragorn stunt double Talion forge a new Ring of Power and immediately lose it. Their beefs with the weirdly sexy human form of the giant spider Shelob, the Witch King, and even Sauron himself (again) feel drawn out and filled with plenty of clunky, derivative dialogue, but there are some strong moments.
Flashbacks to the Ringwraiths’ corruption give the ghostly Nazgul a tragic side, battles with the fiery Balrog are big on spectacle, and witnessing the founding of Minas Morgul (several hundred years later than J.R.R Tolkien suggested) are all standouts – if you can stomach the non-canon version of events. A growing conflict between the stoic and pragmatic Celebrimbor and the empathetic and Gondor-loyal Talion adds some depth to both characters, though with all the setup I was expecting a choice between their philosophies that never came. And there are a few original characters, especially the returning Ratbag, who provide some decent comic relief in the absence of dwarves or hobbits.
The story goes to interesting places – visually, at least. Each of Shadow of War’s five zones looks markedly different, and fast-traveling between the icy mountains of Sergost to the green swamps of Nurnen and the volcanic Gorgoroth gives it a good sense of variety. Each area is full of ruins and other structures to climb on and tunnels to explore, plus an urban Fortress area unlike anything in Shadow of Mordor’s map. On the other hand, that variety is only skin deep: all the locations are functionally identical (there are no effects of heat or cold and no unique conditions) and each one is inhabited by the same types of enemies and wildlife. And their beauty is sometimes disfigured by some nasty pop-in that can leave terrain textures looking almost literally like something out of Minecraft – it’s especially pronounced on stone walls in ruins. (From time to time I’ve also spotted enemies with completely blank faces that pop in after a few moments.)
Each region is a respectable size, which means there’s quite a lot of running from place to place as you chase down quest markers, but Talion’s moves make movement quick and fun. You start with or quickly unlock most of the running powers from the end of Shadow of Mordor, which make you work for your speed boosts by tapping the run button as you vault over objects and leap between handholds on walls. You also get an indispensable new double-jump ability which allows you to leap longer distances and change direction mid-air. I rarely jump without it anymore, even when I don’t need it, because it feels so good to use. The catch is that, like in most open-world games in which you can climb nearly anything, there’s an annoying tendency of sticking to the wrong thing or getting stuck briefly to a ledge when you wanted to roll off of it.
All of these areas are absolutely crawling with uruks, and it’s from encounters with them – specifically their leaders that the real story of Shadow of War arises. It’s great to constantly run into colorful characters with names like Khrosh the Pickler, Grom the Corruptor, and Borgu the Bard, who serenades you with his lute before he attacks. There’s a remarkable range of voices (I’ve lost count, but if there are less than 100 I’d be surprised) and faces and bodies are modified with a huge number of helmet and armor types and disgusting disfigurements. I’m still seeing new voices, faces, and armor elements even after 50 hours.
Underneath, each has their own random combination of a huge selection of class-based abilities, strengths to counter, and fears and weaknesses to exploit. It’s a far more in-depth system than what we saw in Shadow of Mordor, with everything from being equipped with flaming or poisoned weaponry and flash bombs to more complex and scarier abilities like killing you outright, ignoring the Last Chance mechanic that allows you to save yourself when you run out of health. Some are immune to execution moves or arrows, and some can defy death and come back at you with a second wind just at you think you’ve won. Some become enraged (making them attack with more ferocity and impossible to pacify until they calm down a notch) at certain moves, like vaulting over them or using a freeze power – and some become enraged over literally everything. Some have weaknesses that let you instantly kill them with fire or stealth attacks, others have only slight vulnerabilities to certain damage types. (If the annoying immunity to melee weapons from Shadow of Mordor exists in Shadow of War, I haven’t encountered it.)
Though it’s generally easy to interrogate a lacky uruk and learn a captain’s weaknesses, sometimes I prefer to go in blind and discover their traits by trial and error in combat. Other things can’t be predicted as easily: sometimes enemy uruks will ambush you out of nowhere, or they’ll turn on you when you least suspect it. They’re full of surprises and personality, so much so that It’s almost a shame to lop their heads and limbs off with spectacularly animated, slow-motion finishing moves.
Uruk captains are also walking meat pinatas full of potentially game-changing loot, which ranges from a sword that has a chance to set things on fire to a suit of armor that actively heals you while you’re on fire. The higher the level of the uruk you kill, the better the potential of the gear that will drop. That makes it an interesting trade-off to kill an uruk captain instead of brainwashing him and recruiting him into your army.