I hate defending fortresses in Middle-earth: Shadow of War. I hate it so much, in fact, that when an army of orcs from the Machine tribe showed up at the gates of my fortress in Núrnen in Mordor’s sunny southeast, I just went to the menu, clicked “Leave Mission,” and let them have it.
And so it often went with Shadow of War’s controversial fourth act - called The Shadow Wars - which involves a 10-stage series of battles over different fortresses before you can reach the “real” ending. Some say it’s essentially impossible to complete without using purchasable loot boxes stuffed with legendary quality gear and orcs for your army if you run out of money, with Polygon going so far as to say that the system is “predatory.” I, on the other hand, said in my own Shadow of War review that I didn’t get the point of the loot boxes. I never felt the need to use them. After playing a lot more of Shadow Wars, I feel the same way, and although I mainly came to that conclusion by pulling stunts like the one above, that "stunt" made the game more fun. I sincerely believe developer Monolith Productions could remove the boxes right now and it’d make little tangible difference to the game.
Why? As I said in my review, the in-game currency of mirian “drops like rain” from missions, bonus mission objectives, random enemies, and from Talion’s old gear when you break it down. I had over 50,000 mirian when I finished Act III—which counts as a “soft” ending—and this was after spending a few thousands to unlock all gem slots for my gear. Keep in mind that I had no idea that the Shadow Wars were coming. I just saw no reason to spend my mirian as loot drops were already so plentiful and orcs were easily recruitable. That's just the amount I ended up with.
When Act IV came along, I spent most of that on defensive and offensive upgrades for each fortress I had to protect or assault. A cavalry of caragor riders costs 700 mirian, while the ability to have a drake fight for you costs 950. That’s not too bad, and they’re permanently unlocked each time you fight at that fortress. Spending mirian wisely (and picking up around 10,000 more from loot dropped during the Shadow Wars), I still had around 10,000 by the time the Shadow Wars ended.
But here’s the big point. You don’t need loot boxes to get legendary orcs for your fortress’ assault or defense. You don’t even need to hunt for them “in the wild.” That’s a waste of time. The most important rule of Shadow of War is that you should never kill an orc - particularly a legendary quality orc - if you can recruit him. And so you can pick up new orcs during the siege itself, whether in offense or defense. And if you do end up killing them, well, there’s your legendary loot drop for gear or weapons. Even better, I found that killing level 23 legendary captains in the open world when I was level 54 still gave me level 54 gear.
There are numerous other tactics involved to ease the path, such as equipping gems that boost recruited orcs by one to five levels depending on the gem’s potency. Set the three morphs for your combat skills to suit your enemies (for free). Make sure you use the right upgrades for your fortress, so you’re not spitting fire on the largely fire-immune Machine tribe. Bring the right bodyguards and mounts. Keep in mind that orcs for your army are often more important than gear for yourself. Figure out all this - and it’s not hard - and the Shadow Wars are actually kind of easy.
To illustrate this in practice, let’s go back to why I abandoned Núrnen. There’s a method to my madness. With the new orcs in charge of the fortress on the defensive, I could more easily take the keep, recruit more powerful orcs to my cause, and complete the mission and move on to the next stage of the Shadow Wars.
And so, alone, I undertook separate missions that allowed me to take out the five sub-commanders of the fortress one by one, much as I would with a regular captain mission in the open world in earlier acts. They're often fun in their own right, as they require challenges like using a graug to throw a boulder at a keep's door or killing 10 enemies without raising an alarm in order to make the boss appear. The markers to start the missions were all conveniently in front of the fortress gates. Each time I’d defeat a captain and complete the mission, one of the fortress's defenses would fall with him. I defeated Gruk the Brander, and in doing so removed the threat of molten iron pouring from the walls as we tried to climb them. I defeated Garl the Thinker, which removed fire archers from the ramparts.
As noted above, I wasn't simply killing these foes - I was recruiting them into my own army. When I abandoned the fortress, I had only a ratag team of level 30-somethings facing off against a mass of level 40s and level 50s. But Gruk was level 47, and Garl the Thinker was level 54, and I was making them mine. I’d get them close to death and then slap my glowy hand on their terrified faces and yell, “You fight for me now!”
And generally they would, gaining four levels for themselves in the process because I’d equipped a “Wealth” rune in my ring for that specific purpose. Garl was even legendary, which means that he came with an extra perk. I was, in other words, preparing to assault the fortress with a more powerful force than I’d originally found myself facing on the other side of the walls.
But Râsh Slave-Lover resisted. He was an legendary Level 54 orc who resisted my brand with his “Iron Will,” and so I killed him. No big deal, although he would have been great in a fight because he was immune to seemingly everything but blades. I got a legendary sword of out the deal, a decent upgrade over the sword I was using before.
Soon I’d knocked out everyone but the overlord. And so I started the mission to retake the fortress, with almost all the former captains who were in charge in my command. With all of the defenses gone, the fortress fell quickly, even laughably so, especially when I started using my ability to raise the dead to turn them against their former friends.
I reactivated some offensive loadouts that I’d bought with in-game currency in a former siege, such as sappers who charge the gate and knock it down and drakes who bombard the defenders from above. Because I’d already bought them before, they were free. I probably could have done without.
The only real challenge was the overlord himself, Dûgz Flame Monger, whom I had to fight solo in his throne room. I’d thought ahead, though, using the intel I’d learned from sifting through the minds of grunts, and brought along the beastmaster Khrosh the Lurker as a summonable bodyguard who could take advantage of Dûgz’s weakness to beasts. I also learned Dûgz was immune to arrows, so I changed my skills - for free - to freeze him in place while I waylaid him with relentless strikes. The fort fell. The mission completed. I never even thought about buying a loot box, and this specific siege took place during the eighth mission of the Shadow War.
So why do I hate defense? It’s too unpredictable and, to circle back to our original concerns, it’s expensive. I could almost guarantee I’d be fine if I plunked down 7,500 mirian on metal walls, but I’d have to do that for each fort. (The much cheaper reinforced stone walls do a great job, too.) The one time I did it - along with wall spikes and poison war machines and fire mines - the opposing army never took the first checkpoint. But if you don't take such precautions, the enemy is going to get through the walls, and if they take one point, more named orc bosses appear. You can, of course, recruit the invading named orcs you defeat and bolster your own forces, but I just found it simpler to immediately flip the mission to offensive if I felt my chances were slim. Nothing, however, made defensive sieges more annoying than twice finding myself facing an orc who could kill me with a "No Chance" [of survival] kill when I was at the "last gasp" QTE prompt. All that preparation, and for nothing.
I realized how much easier the offensive versions of the missions were after my first failed defense, as they let you knock out the defenses and six of the seven named orcs in charge. While I would go on to win a few more defensive missions, I kept them limited to the two forts I'd already lightly upgraded (which were also staffed by all those high-level orcs I'd recruited during other successful sieges). Even in failed defensive missions, though, I usually managed to keep most the high-level orcs I'd recruited during the battle after the loss (although my overlord is always captured and must be rescued), and so I wasn't pushed to loot boxes even then.
Is it impossible to defend against sieges without buying all the upgrades? Certainly not. The upgrades aside from walls are much more reasonably priced, such as the 950 mirian for a war graug. I opted for offensive sieges because my main priority was finishing this massively long section of the game, and they're more of a sure bet. Even so, I can't say I hated the experience.
Maybe I’m crazy. I readily accept the possibility. But I find this little dance entertaining - this “Pokémon” of Tolkienian orcs as I called it last week, collecting them and deploying them as needed. I enjoy the little puzzles involved in figuring out which offensive and defensive upgrades will work best for my fortress, the need to figure out the best bodyguard, the question of whether my summonable mount should be a caragor or drake or graug, and how I should set my loadout of skills. These are the options that truly matter - not loot boxes. For that matter, I loved the improved action of Shadow of War: the double jumping, the twirls of the glaive, and the seven headshots I could fire off in the same jump. Altogether, this, to me, is the “fun” of Shadow of War. I get to do all this while getting gear and new orcs, so why would I want to skip that with a loot box?
The problem with the loot boxes lies in their very randomness. Sure, you might get a legendary orc, but you have no idea what his stats will be and whether his weaknesses will make him a burden in the upcoming fight. When you hunt them in the fields or in the sieges themselves, you know what you’re getting. And as for loot? I already had plenty of legendary weapons and armor from legendary orcs who resisted my attempts to recruit them, as orc captains always drop loot corresponding to the quality of the orc. They’re not that rare at all: I once saw three in a single assault. If you feel like spending money on a loot box, paradoxically you’re perhaps not having that much fun with Shadow of War anyway. They're only a valid shortcut if you're absolutely at a loss for time.
Shadow of Mordor already did great things with the Nemesis system, but the tribes and fortresses of Shadow of War give that system new meaning. Whereas before our little emergent stories largely centered on one orc, the siege system in its best moments creates stories built around entire clans, which sometimes gets particularly interesting when one of my dudes decides to betray me mid-battle.
I like to think of what we see in Shadow of War as a new spin on end-game replayability. Normally, once a free-roaming game like The Witcher III or Assassin’s Creed IV “officially” ends, you’re free to run around collecting a few odds and ends, but there’s not much of a point. Shadow of War, though, gives you a point; something to work toward. If the first act through the third is the leveling journey in World of Warcraft, the Shadow Wars are the raids. And there’s certainly an “ending” of sorts at close of Act III - one so absurdly irreverent to the lore that anyone who fancies themselves a Tolkien scholar will probably delete Shadow of War in disgust right then and there anyway. (But c’mon, it is kind of awesome.)
My main complaint is that the Shadow Wars do go on for too long, even with my easily conceived “optimal” approach. I was already getting weary of them at the end of Stage 8, but I know much of that was the pressure to get through the whole thing with just a week or so before the embargo lifted. Were I to take the experience more leisurely, I may not have felt the same way. Even so, cutting back the Shadow Wars by half or even merely three stages would have made it far more appealing for everyone involved.
But never once did I spend “real” cash on a loot box, save to see what happened for the review. (It was crap, honestly.) Never once did I feel the need. I had over 40 legendary weapons and armor pieces at the end. So again, what’s the point? The very fact that I’ve written all these words to show that’s it’s not so bad in Shadow of War demonstrates how thorny the issue is and why it probably shouldn’t have even been implemented in the first place. Yet as we already know from the news of players spending billions on loot boxes and similar items in Blizzard games, someone’s going to buy this stuff.
Shadow of War’s approach doesn’t seem so much predatory to me as misanthropic. It merely makes it easy to get stuff that’s already easy to get, and that, ultimately, is what leaves a sour taste in my mouth.