Middle-Earth: Shadow of War Review

Richard Walker

At the time, Shadow of Mordor kind of came out of left field as an unexpectedly fantastic open-world adventure with a unique and innovative twist in its Nemesis System. This enabled you to essentially weave your own little stories, fighting Orcs and chopping them to bits, perhaps running in to them later on. It was great. So, when you get so much right the first time, where can you possibly go from there? Middle-earth: Shadow of War is the answer, a sequel that crams in more of everything (kitchen sink included) that made the original first instalment such an enjoyable romp through Tolkien's rich fantasy universe. Much of this expansion has been lavished upon the Nemesis System – as you'd hope – and it makes for a stupidly addictive game that's hard to put down.

While the Nemesis System forms Shadow of War's beating heart, the narrative is a multi-stranded affair that takes in missions involving your Gondorian allies, dark machinations surrounding spider woman Shelob, and quests given to you at the behest of mysterious spirit of nature with an unidentifiable accent, Carnán (is it Welsh, Scandinavian or both?). Once again, you take up the mantle of 'Bright Lord' Talion and his wraith inhabitant Celebrimbor, continuing where you left off in Shadow of Mordor, setting your sights on Mordor's big cheese, the Dark Lord himself.

This fiery fella is about to lose his head.

There's an insane amount of content in Shadow of War, from the newly-added gear system to the regularly updated challenges to complete and the Orc hierarchy to manage at each of the game's fortresses. It's this latter part that will take up the lion's share of your time playing SoW, and it's almost impossible not to find yourself getting irrevocably entangled in the workings and intricacies that come with the Nemesis System. While it's a feature that isn't quite the surprise that it first was in Shadow of Mordor, Nemesis encounters remain exciting, the number of variables constantly throwing up new events, be it a random betrayal or an ambush, or bumping into that one Orc who manages to keep on cheating death time and time again.

Shadow of War does take rather a long time to get going, and once it does, the pacing is quite uneven, the journey to reach the 'Shadow Wars' endgame slightly all over the place. Then there are one or two truly irritating boss battles that will in all likelihood see you spamming certain attacks just because they're the only thing that works, and the prospect of having to fail, sit through a loading screen, then listen to the preceding babble over and over again is just too much to bear. Then there's the camera, which can occasionally find itself obscured by scenery or jostling around hordes of angry Orcs. When you're trying to fight dozens of enemies at once, the camera can make things even more difficult. These issues are a relative blip in what is an otherwise consistently enjoyable experience that eclipses its forebear in just about every department, but they're somewhat annoying flaws nonetheless.

Even the maligned microtransaction War Chests don't detract from Shadow of War's strengths, as they're entirely optional and can quite easily be ignored completely. The in-game currency of Mirian is so plentiful, dropping in fairly large quantities throughout the game, that you can purchase numerous silver War Chests without ever spending a penny of real money. In fact, you need never buy a War Chest at all if you don't want to, and hoard your Mirian for fortress upgrades, siege upgrades to boost your army prior to a raid, and gear upgrades. But if you're lazy or time-poor and want to pay for a shortcut, the option is there.

Besides, building your Orc army is enough fun without the need to bolster the ranks with additional units gained from War Chests (although admittedly it does help), any under-levelled Orcs you dominate able to prove their worth against rivals in the Fight Pits. Here your fledgling fighters can work their way up from the status of 'Maggot' to 'Champion', one battle at a time, or you can set up Nemesis Missions and help your Orc follower to achieve victory and rise through the ranks. Again, it's the many facets the Nemesis System has to offer that makes Shadow of War endlessly playable, the in-fighting, betrayal, revenge and vendettas all combining to create a seemingly infinite number of unique stories.

Everything has been tightened up and refined as far as the fundamentals are concerned too, the combat still flowing nicely, combos feeding into the Might meter that then enables you to unleash executions, while the Elven Wrath ability kills numerous enemies in a flurry of arrows. Meanwhile, the swift and fluid traversal mechanics enable you to climb the tallest Haedir spires in a few seconds, before leaping off and gracefully flipping through the air to land on the ground like a superhero. Stealth too is still super satisfying, and Talion's skill tree has also been expanded considerably to cater to a range of playstyles, with different skill variations and enhancements to switch between in each category. You'll be levelling up and unlocking skills until the Oliphaunts come home. That is when you're not decapitating Orcs, of course.

Shadow of War's expansive piece of Middle-earth is also peppered with objectives and collectibles, and exploration uncovering everything there is to offer is simple thanks to fast travel Haedir towers you can unlock to mark items on your map. Or you can ride a graug or caragor, or even better, jump onto the back of a fire-breathing drake and soar across the map. Environments are far more varied too, the lush forests of Núrnen and snowy mountain peaks of Seregost a stark contrast to the more traditional Mordor locales of Gorgoroth and Cirith Ungol, as well as the Gondorian fortress of Minas Ithil. SoW is lovely to look at.

Yet it's the sheer wealth of different things to do that will keep you coming back for more, developing your Orc Warchiefs and Captains, choosing a bodyguard you can summon to aid you in battle, as well as assigning an Overlord to rule over each of your fortresses but the tip of a very big iceberg. There are Orc outposts to conquer, memories of Celebrimbor's past to relive as short combat challenges, a whole narrative thread involving your Aussie-accented Olog-hai buddy Brûz, and quests where you're aided by an array of allies, including deadly Elven badass Eltariel.

The Orc reenactment of the 'Thriller' video in action.

There's even online stuff again too, with Vendettas now joined by Online Conquest, in which you can have a go at capturing the Nemesis fortresses of other players. This also lends an added incentive to upgrade your own fortress, lest it be conquered by another online player. It's worth noting that this only ever grants rewards on either side, and doesn't actually impact your fortress, in case you're worried about losing all of your hard work to someone online. Online Vendettas and Conquests also unlock Legendary gear, so it's worth venturing online if you want better swords, daggers, armour, cloaks or ringcraft.

Every little bit of this online component, the Nemesis System, the storyline and collectibles is covered by an exhaustive achievement list. As lists go, this is excellent stuff, experimentation with the Nemesis System duly rewarded, alongside progression through all of the game's numerous questlines. This is exactly the sort of achievement list you'd hope for in a game of Shadow of War's scope and magnitude, hitting precisely all of the right notes. There's nothing missing.

The same could be said for Middle-earth: Shadow of War itself. It's a sequel that does practically everything right, its only real problem some slow pacing at the outset and an epilogue that can prove to be a major grind. Otherwise every element of Shadow of War works exactly as it should, the Nemesis System still proving an absolute masterstroke in emergent storytelling, Orcs you've vanquished returning battle-scarred and thirsty for revenge, unless you enlist them to your army or shame them to reduce their level. And there's even more stuff we haven't mentioned. There's so much depth to Middle-earth: Shadow of War, so much to do, that you could be playing well into the Third Age and still having fun.

Middle-Earth: Shadow of War

A textbook example of how to make a great sequel, Middle-earth: Shadow of War takes the first game's template and expands upon it in a meaningful and interesting way. The result is a follow-up that's not only a lot bigger, but it's also a lot better. It talks the talk, and yes, it also Orcs the Orc.

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The original cast return alongside new voice talents, all of which put in fine performances across the board. The music is brilliant too, and the effects are perfect.


A marked improvement over Shadow of Mordor, War injects variety into its locations, while cut-scenes look fantastic. In-game, Talion's face still looks a little bit low-res.


Mash together Assassin's Creed's traversal and Batman: Arkham's combat, then throw on some sprinkles and pop a cherry on top. You've just made Shadow of War.


There's easily tens of hours of gameplay in here, and it's all brilliant. The Nemesis System is still unique, proving to be Shadow of War's ace in the hole. Issues? The camera can be a pain and the story pacing is a bit off, and you can very rarely get stuck on scenery, but you can just Shadow Strike out of it when you do.


A superb list that casts its net over the entirety of the game, taking in numerous aspects of the Nemesis System, story progression, collectibles and loads more.

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