It’s the start of a fresh, new year, and since we’ve had so much absolute idiocy, courtesy of the “Three Weeks of Fan-Mas”, I figured we should start this year off with something positive.
So, I have decided to share my views about one of my absolute favourite games.
Middle Earth: Shadow of War.
Obviously, beware of spoilers ahead. Also, I will apologize beforehand that this might not be my best written article.
The main reason being that I am not used to writing about things I like in such great detail. With that out of the way, let the gushing begin.
I did, at one point, plan to write about the previous game, Shadow of Mordor, but eventually decided not to. The reason being that I couldn’t find a lot about it to write about. It had its good points, it had it bad points, but overall, I found it to just be… kind of mediocre.
The villains were unimpressive, the supporting characters were boring and flat, and just seemed to appear for a bit, and then vanish, never to be mentioned again. It just seemed generally to be a pointless game.
But then, last year, I played the sequel. And the difference in quality was breathtaking.
In a way, it reminds me of games like GTA V or Assassin’s Creed IV. With their predecessors, you got the feeling they were experiments, testing out concepts for future games. They looked at what worked, what didn’t and what improvements could be made, and then made a new game based on that.
The same applies here, with things being much more developed and improved.
Just to list a few things:
Instead of a hit-streak meter á la Batman: Arkham Asylum to perform special moves, it instead has a “might meter”, which increases when hits connect, and decreases when you miss.
Gone are the random plants everywhere, all doing the same thing: refilling health. No more using captains to gain intel, meaning you have to find special orcs, called worms, and gain intel from them.
Instead of captains dropping runes, they instead drop new weapons and armor, which leads to the next addition: Alternate weapons and armor, offering challenges to unlock bonuses, as well as aesthetic changes.
The game also overhauls the nemesis system with, among other things, orcs now being divided into tribes, granting them special perks and bonuses. For example, a Marauder tribe captain gains a pair of rapid-fire crossbows, while the Machine tribe gets a chained hook, pulling enemies closer. Each tribe even has its own special aesthetic and musical theme.
In addition, there are now separate classes of orc, with different traits to define them. Tanks can take more damage and get a second wind when they’re near death. Destroyers drop mines and throw explosives, and trappers, as the name suggests, drop traps during battle, stunning you if you step on them, just to name a few.
And let’s not forget the Olog-Hai, giant trolls that join the ranks of Mordor, both as grunts and as captains to fight or dominate, and who have their own perks and drawbacks in battle.
All of this means the game now forces you to plan your approach more carefully when fighting your enemies.
Captains are now also able to level up, gaining new bonuses and upgrades. They might gain a retinue of warriors, or a weapon that applies poison or fire damage, or a caragor mount to ride. If a captain is a higher level than you, you can’t dominate them. You either have to kill them or shame them, bringing their level down. (turning them either insane or very grumpy in the process).
It also adds the possibility of captains betraying you for various reasons. Maybe they decide you’re too soft, or you murdered their blood brother, or you hit them once too often, or maybe they just got bored. Whatever the reason, it adds a random element of excitement to the game.
And finally, one of the biggest improvements to the last game. Fortresses.
In Shadow of Mordor, once you finished the game, that was pretty much it. Nothing else to do, except running around, maybe kill a few orcs, and that’s it. Shadow of War introduced fortresses, with missions to attack or defend them.
You assign commanders, plan your approach and then play out the battle. Not in some 2D turn based bullshit, but actually fighting the siege. Running around the battlefield, killing captains and, if you’re attacking, battle the Overlord, ruler of the fortress. Each fortress looks different, depending on what tribe its overlord has, and the battles change in difficulty depending on how well defended they are.
And if you are on the attacking side, you have multiple venues for how to weaken the fort. Kill the defending warchiefs in special missions, or insert your own captains as bodyguards who lead warchiefs into an ambush or betray them mid-siege.
Or, if the warchief is dead, you can install your own captains as warchiefs, to sabotage the fort as you attack.
What this means is, even after you’ve finished the entire story of the game, the game still keeps going, as you can play the sieges to your hearts content.
And that leads to another improvement to the game: The story.
The previous game had a pretty weak main story, focused around the three “Black Captains”. These come pretty much from nowhere and confused the hell out of me. They’re supposed to be super special servants of Sauron… except isn’t that what the Nazgûl are supposed to be?
And despite being so super impressive, their background is really dull, with one of them becoming evil because he picked up Saurons hammer, and this made him insane and evil and super powerful… somehow.
And the big bad, main antagonist of the game, the Black Hand? I haven’t the foggiest idea what the hell he was. His entire gimmick was that he was really mysterious, but the mystery around him was never resolved, so it just became pointless!
With this game, it’s a very different story. The enemy is clear right from the word go. It’s Sauron. The other major antagonist? The Witchking of Angmar. You know, exactly as it should be!
Now, throughout most of the game, which has you fight across FOUR separate regions of Mordor, conquering fortresses before make your final battle with the Dark Lord, there’s a notable coldhearted ruthlessness over Celebrimbor.
It starts slow, with the dubious morality about enslaving the minds of orcs. Yes, they’re cruel and sadistic and evil, but they’re still sentient beings…
But as the game goes on, the questionable morals escalate. For example, you develop a power called simply “Worse than Death”, an upgrade to the shaming power. Like I said earlier, sometimes orcs can decide to betray you, and sometimes develop an immunity to your power to dominate them. The only way to counteract that is to shame them, and hope that the drop in level means they lose the immunity.
And when you first learn the upgraded version, you apply that to a captain that betrayed you and has been a thorn in your side for a long time.
And the shaming is so severe that it destroys his mind.
You, as the hero of the game, at the behest of Celebrimbor, the elven wraith that you share your body with, take this massive half troll champion… and reduce him to a whimpering, quivering wretch, repeating the same phrase over and over.
It’s enough to cause other orcs, who I remind you are as evil, cruel and ruthless as it is possible to be, to look at you in absolute disbelief and disgust.
And over time, it becomes more and more apparent that Celebrimbor, the selfproclaimed “Bright Lord”, doesn’t just plan to defeat Sauron.
He plans to dominate and usurp him, taking his place.
This comes to a head during the attack on Barad-Dûr, where Celebrimbor dominates a ringwraith, and when Talion objects, Celebrimbor discards him in favor of the new supporting character Eltariel.
And while I hope that people reading this will be familiar with the rest, there is always the possibility some readers haven’t. So because the ending is quite interesting, I will not reveal what happens after that point in the story.
Instead, I will move from this rampant gushing for a brief moment, to an area that I am more used to. Some good old fashioned nitpicking.
There won’t be much of it, since as I think I’ve made quite clear by now, this game is very good.
One minor issue I have is the fact that you cannot enter the main fortresses once you have conquered them. You can stroll around the courtyards and streets, and look at all your underlings go about their daily lives. Don’t get me wrong, this is a very interesting side of Mordor, seeing an orc cutting up food or sharpening a sword, a blacksmith working on a piece of armor, or watch a bunch of orcs lining up to deliver spoils of war or gathering around a cauldron of grog.
But you can’t enter the main fortress, the overlords personal chamber. Now, on the one hand, this is a disappointment, and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense within the logic of the game.
I conquer this place with my army, and pick out a particular captain to serve as my representative in this region… and he doesn’t even open his fucking door and let me look around his throneroom?! Is that any way to treat your boss?!
But on the other, I can understand why not. The only time you ever enter the throneroom is when attacking an enemy fortress. There’s likely to be some coding issues if you have to add two separate versions of the throneroom.
It’s like the fact you can’t go below deck in Assassin’s Creed IV. It’s not that big of a deal and the game isn’t really lacking the option, and it’s unfair to expect the programmers to waste so much time adding something so pointless.
There’s also the issue with Mirian, an in-game currency, with which you pay for upgrades, both for your equipment and for fortresses. You gain Mirian by collecting them from various killed orcs, completing missions or destroying equipment that you may not want anymore. This is fine.
My problem is just that a weapons upgrade costs around 15-25 Mirian to unlock. But destroying weapons gains you around 200-300 Mirian, and collecting Mirian from Orcs gains you about 50 and completing missions gain your up towards 1000 Mirian or more. What this means is that eventually, Mirian becomes a completely superfluous commodity. It just piles up and becomes a non-issue.
I think it would have worked much better if, as the levels on weapons escalate, so does the price for unlocking them. So instead of 25 Mirian to unlock the upgrade for a level 62 sword, it could be around 2500. That adds an additional incentive to keep playing.
Same applies to the gems. Yes, they’re really handy, but eventually you gain more gems than you can actually use. At that point, you should have the option of destroying those in exchange for Mirian as well, the reward escalating with the quality of the gem.
The last issue is less to do with game mechanics, and more to do with writing. This game features the Nazgûl as enemies you can fight. And for some reason, they decide to name some of them.
This, in itself, I don’t have an issue with. My real issue is threefold. First that they only decided to name three of them, not counting the Witchking himself, and explain their backstory. It just seems a bit arbitrary to name three and give them unique appearances, and just let the others be anonymous, faceless ringwraiths.
The second is that none of the named ringwraiths is Khamûl the Easterling. The reason this is strange is that, with the exception of the Witchking, he is the only ringwraith who is named in the books. Granted, he was only named in “Unfinished Tales”, and there might be some copyright issue, but when he is the only canonically named one, it becomes a bit annoying when he’s left out.
But the third and biggest issue, to me, is the ringwraiths they DO name. One is Suladân, an ancient king of Harad who was given a ring of power. Nothing much wrong there.
The second is Helm Hammerhand, the ninth king of Rohan. A bit iffy, but fine. I can go with that.
The third is Isildur.
Isildur, as in the guy who DEFEATED SAURON, is a Nazgûl now. According to the game, he was killed, his body taken to Barad Dûr and a ring placed on his finger, reviving him. This confused the hell out of me, because that implies that “The Nine” are just a running title, and they can be destroyed. I just don’t understand why it had to be Isildur. Would it really do that much of a difference, if instead of Isildur, it was just some other numenorian king? If it’s an original character, you wouldn’t shackle yourself to canon so much.
And I don’t know about you, but I feel that kind of takes away their menace, when you know they’re just the latest in a long line.
But those are the biggest nitpicks I have with the game. And even with them, this still remains a strong contender for one of my favourite games.
The first game had an interesting mechanic, hidden behind a somewhat lackluster experience. Here, you get a game with addictive gameplay, a surprising amount of comedy, an interesting story and, while I admit the game has occasionally made me bloodboilingly furious, I have never felt it’s because of bad design, but because of poor planning and clumsiness on my part.
If you haven’t played it, and you didn’t listen to the warning about spoilers earlier, I cannot recommend this game enough.
And with that, we end this unusually happy article. Business as usual will resume shortly. Here’s to the new year and all the nitpicky ranting it will bring.