I never thought I’d be playing Pokémon with Tolkienian orcs, but here I am in Middle-earth: Shadow of War, standing with my army before the fortress of Khargukôr amid the snowy peaks of Seregost.
The orc in charge is a dainty fellow who calls himself Krímp the Rhymer, and I can’t help but admire his fashion sense in this grubby world. That immaculately crafted leather jerkin. That bycocket with the two red feathers that match the shafts in his quiver. Such style. I almost want to let him be. Fortunately he shatters that thought when we meet in person and he blurts the cringy battlecry “Your fate has gone from bad to worse / You face an orc who speaks in verse!” Some crimes can’t go unpunished.
I still need his fortress, and I’d love to spare him and make him a bodyguard, if only for the humiliation factor of rhyming my foes to death. So here’s the deal. The orcs I’ve caught tell me Krímp is immune to fire damage. I’ve brought along a few orc captains I’ve spared and recruited for my little invasion, but I’m certainly not going to bring along Târz Hot-Head, who wields two flaming axes and wears a metal hat with a portable bonfire. No, I’m going to bring along the decidedly non-stylish Olrok the Bloated, who summons dire wolf-like caragors into battle. I’ll also bring along the mountainous troll Ar-Benu Bone-Crusher, not only because I think he’s a badass, but also because he’s arrow proof and thus immune to Krímp‘s arrows. And it all works beautifully. I recruit Krímp to the cause. After all, I gotta catch ‘em all.
Like so much about Shadow of War, it’s a step forward for the ideas that made 2014’s Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor so memorable. Shadow of War operates under the philosophy that more and bigger are better, and in action the approach usually works.
That’s especially true of the tweaks to series’ wonderful nemesis system, which creates an emergent storyline around the randomly-generated orcs you fight and sometimes fall to. The system makes me think the world could use more orcs especially in this tragically hobbit-free hellscape. Give me someone like Krímp over the two-grumps-in-one protagonist team of the ranger Talion and the elf Celebrimbor team any day. Celebrimbor’s rigid bitterness bored me, but I was glued to the screen when I met Ur-Gram the Tailor. Before Ur-Gram attempts to bisect me with his shield, he meticulously describes his technique for crafting vestments of human skin, which involves a careful blend of pounding flesh into dung and soaking it in caragor brains. Fascinating, no? I’ll even take Tûgog the Maggot, who takes time to show me the white slugs inching through his open sores. The introduction of tribes gives them further personality, such as the Dark Tribe and its fondness for ambushes.
Time and time again, I loved seeing how they reacted to my actions. I’d ride past a huddle of orcs on my caragor, and Olrok the Sadistic would shout out that caragors don’t frighten him. I’d slice the arms and legs off one defeated captain, and Hûra the Amputator would pop up behind me in an ambush, telling me he could do it better and was ready to prove it. I’d find orcs who’d taunt me for my reliance on ranged combat. I may have been a ranger sharing a body with a grumpy elf, but moments like this make Shadow of War feel oddly real.
Taken together, it’s a substantial improvement. In Shadow of Mordor I really only had to know about an orc captain’s immunities so I wouldn’t waste my time with flame weapons on a fire-immune Uruk. Now, though, the new conquest system in which I bounce about from zone to zone capturing fortresses gives me a reason to “get to know” the orcs and olog-hai trolls I dominate. I find myself remembering their names and their strengths. It even gives me a reason to try to spare many of the captains I face. I can’t say I ever truly found the conquest missions all that difficult, but maybe that’s just because I always chose the right crew as we stormed through the gates and fought our way to the Overlord. It’s rewarding when it all comes together and I put my own choice of Overlord in place.
Nor is the appeal of the approach limited to those missions. I can order my orcs (and the newly recruitable olog-hai trolls) to infiltrate enemy ranks as bodyguards, and they’ll then betray the captains they serve when you show up to fight. Alternatively, I might be seconds from death, ready to hit the QTE prompt, and one of my recruited buddies may show up and fight off the offending orc for me. I could also lead attacks against fortresses controlled by other players, but frankly there were too few people playing for me to get an idea of how well this works in practice.
I find I can’t help but admire most of Shadow of War’s Tarantino-esque drive to vaunt over-the-top at every turn, not only in its approach to the source material but in its embrace of fun action over the restrained magic of Tolkien’s legendarium. It’s everything Shadow of Mordor was but more. Talion doesn’t simply walk into Mordor here - he double jumps and erupts into an “Elven Rage” that recalls Neo knocking back waves of Mr. Smiths in The Matrix. It extends into the siege system, explained by a lovable Shrek-like oaf named Brûz the Chopper who should have had a bigger role.
I found it, too, in the Batman: Arkham Asylum style of combat, which in this case is often less about coordinated attacks and more about bouncing from enemy to enemy, pressing prompts at the right time. In fact, it’s a little annoying in that regard, as I sometimes found myself wasting charged abilities on lesser orcs when I meant to use them on a captain. (Annoying, too, is Shadow of War’s penchant for making you dodge roll when you’re trying to leap onto a ledge.)
But new abilities improve the flow and pile on the panache, such as when I summon a spectral glaive and knock back 10 orcs at once or slow time in mid-air with Bird of Prey and fire headshots into seven orcs before I even land. For that matter, I might send a wraith to remotely kill a target or poison vats of grog from afar. Nothing, though, compares to picking up the last skill in the Mounted ability tree, riding into the battle on back of a dragon and burning orcs as I go. For extra fun, I might pick up the skill morph that keeps my drake from taking more damage.
I’d go so far as to say story suffers slightly because of the spectacle, in part because the action-movie-trailer moments were seemingly imagined first and the narrative built around them. It’s a generally forgettable yarn about trying to keep a palantir from reaching Sauron’s hands that wins a few battles but never quite the war. As consolation, it remains entertaining because the story involves multiple narratives happening at once, whether it’s all that oddly sexy business with Shelob, some tangles with the Nazgûl, or helping a nature spirit undertake Mordor’s most ambitious environmental cleanup project to date. But never, ever mistake it as faithful to Tolkien’s work (or even Peter Jackson’s). Consider this:
“Little she knew of or cared for towers, or rings, or anything devised by mind or hand,” wrote J.R.R. Tolkien of the ancient spider Shelob, whom little Samwise Gamgee vanquished with the help of the elven equivalent of a Mag-Lite.
Color me surprised, then, when I found her chilling in her lair, looking a little like a goth Arwen and regaling me about the days when she used to hang with front man Sauron during his elven glam metal phase. But wait, it gets better! Clearly changing her mind about the value of rings, she takes the second “One Ring” our hero Talion and his spectral buddy Celebrimbor made at the end of Shadow of Mordor and tasks me with hunting down a crystal ball in - you guessed it - a tower.
Cue the dragon riding! Cue brawls with Balrogs while perched on the shoulder of what I’m fairly sure is an ent-wife! Cue the assassin working for Galadriel and the sight of Talion embracing his inner socialist and shouting to armies of orc buddies from the ramparts of fallen fortresses in Mordor’s farthest tropical reaches: “Mordor belongs to you!” Here is a game that just does not give a shit about authenticity. It’s kind of glorious in its excess.
No doubt my Tolkienist friends are already reaching for barf bags. But even they might appreciate the greater visual variety and larger zones than we ever saw in Shadow of Mordor, which basically was divided into “rocky Mordor” and “green Mordor.” Here, though, Talion ventures into shadowy forests that recall Fangorn, into snowy peaks studded with fortresses built with marble and gold, and into tropical outposts on the far southeastern reaches of Sauron’s domain. I geeked out a bit at seeing the Witch King’s fortress of Minas Morgul before the orcs moved in - anachronistic as that is - as well as scrambling about the foot of Mount Doom, amid armament factories with smokestacks that billowed soot over the plains of Gorgoroth as though this were Manchester in 1877.
The only real technical problem I encountered, I’m sorry to say, kept me from seeing what may have been the most interesting bits. One of Shadow of War’s optional collection activities involves finding Shelob’s memories, treating you to brief cutscenes featuring fan fiction about the pasts of Sauron and Shelob. Invariably, even when I cranked the settings for my GTX 980 down to the the absolute minimum, the cutscenes would crash back to the game after only only eight seconds or so. No other cutscenes gave me this trouble.
And yes, there are loot boxes. But put down those pitchforks for now. Truth be told, I’m not really sure what the point of the paid versions is. An in-game currency called mirian drops like rain from quest rewards, random fights, and even from breaking down Talion’s old gear, which you can then use to buy an occasional loot box from the "Market" menu that gives you level-appropriate gear in a pinch. Never once did I feel the need to spend real cash on one of the better boxes, as I usually already had good stuff I'd looted from captain kills and collection rewards. I kept waiting for the need for better gear to overtake the cash flow, but it never did, not even when I discovered I had to pay 1,000 mirian to unlock gem slots for my weapons and gear. Sure, the most expensive loot boxes contain all legendary gear and orcish followers, but strikes me as a case of spending money for the sake of spending it. Maybe it’s worth noting that I didn’t play on the hardest of Shadow of War’s three difficulty settings, but I’m not convinced it matters.
Developer Monolith must have felt the same way about the lore. I find it staggering that a game as irreverent to Tolkien’s canon could have emerged after all the hullaballoo over invented dwarf-and-elf romances in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films. Next to Shadow of War, that kind of thing seems like a mere typo marring an otherwise pristine text. But perhaps Jackson and Monolith are onto something. Maybe, deep down, we all just really want to get into massive battles with piles of orcs, only occasionally stopping to dabble in elvish poetry (and in Shadow of War, you’ll even find some of that). Shadow of Mordor handles this well. It’s fan fiction, and of the type that leads George R.R. Martin to condemn the practice altogether. It’s the fast food of honored fantasy tradition, much as Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor was, and this is the king-size upgrade.
But by God, it’s delicious.