With Middle-earth: Shadow Of Mordor, I thought, “This is it. They’ve perfected Arkham-style combat. It can’t get better than this.” With Middle-earth: Shadow Of War, I realised how mistaken I’d been.
Just to make sure, I went back and reinstalled Batman: Arkham City, which I fondly remembered to have some of the most jaw-droppingly brilliant combat I’d ever seen at the time. I feel a bit guilty saying it, but it paled in comparison to Shadow Of War. In Shadow Of War, I’d fight dozens of Uruk-hai, melting in and out of Wraith-form, delivering kicks, thrusts, and magnificent-looking counters. I can then dive to the side, see the incoming reinforcements of axe-wielding berserkers charging towards me. I’d take out my bow, slow time, aim. Pop, pop, pop. Pop-pop-pop-pop. Seven headless orcs collapsing in a pile.
I’d return to deliver the finishing blow on the Uruk captain I’d been chasing. But just before I can end his life, my blade is deflected by another captain, this one much more formidable than the last. We fight, and it gets ugly. Scrappy. He learns my attack patterns and adapts, forcing me to improvise. Every strike is like a tower collapsing on me. I’m backed up against a wall. A slight misstep, and I’m forced to my knees. He’s so close to death, but it doesn’t matter. He’s bested me. The Uruk taunts me as he raises his twin blades for the killing blow.
And then, just as my killing strike upon the first Uruk captain had been interrupted, so this adversary’s strike was parried by a Gondorian sergeant whose life I’d saved hours earlier. As the Uruk stares dumbfounded, the sergeant raises his broadsword and lops the monster’s head clean off. The fight is over.
Turns out, the extra ingredient that Arkham-style combat has always been crying out for since the days of Batman was the element of surprise. Those moments that take you in an entirely different direction than you expected, and give the free-flowing combat system the opportunity to patch up the inconsistencies, and smooth everything out into a wonderful gory cinematic masterpiece. Go play Middle-earth: Shadow Of War.