With its expansive and well-crafted campaign and nearly endlessly deep well of optional and after-story content, Monolith's Middle Earth: Shadow of War is a generous and entertaining package that impresses at almost every turn. Bigger and better than Shadow of Mordor, the new game tells a plausable Tolkien-esque tale with music, voice acting and visuals that are the definition of luxurious, and fine-tunes the action and combat to an even more responsive degree than the already excellent original.
Although no doubt the Tolkien Estate lawyers would vehemently disagree, the lands and lore of Middle Earth have almost passed into the world of shared world mythology. It certainly seems so with Shadow of War's story. It re-imagines iconic characters such as Shelob, and tells a tale of a new Ring of Power forged by Talion and Celebrimbor, before being folded back into canon by the game's end. Heretical as it may seem to Tolkien purists, the developers have done an excellent job of crafting a respectful, surprising and tonally appropriate story out of Lord of the Rings' elemental particles. Whether by chance or scripted encounters with well-known characters or simply meticulous attention to detail, there's never any doubt that you're in Middle Earth, and a part of vast story of great importance. Some fans might object to the "greatest hits" approach to the story making, but reciting the immortal words of the MST3K theme song, they should "really just relax".
Shadow of War is a semi-open world in the vein of Assassin's Creed, with branching campaign missions spread over five visually diverse regions, and a map populated by hundreds of tempting side-missions and optional encounters. Thanks to the franchise's unique and rarely imitated nemesis enemy system, the number of distinct and fully imagined foes is astounding and makes each player's experience of Shadow of War a singular one. While the game's world is an appropriately brutal and dark, there is a surprising amount of wit and humor throughout, with entertaining snippets of dialogue and enemies with quirky habits and sometimes outrageous personalities. The voice acting is some of the best in any game and the dozens of hours of recorded dialog contain a number of hidden celebrity actors and accents from around the globe.
Shadow of War is more action game than RPG, but there are nevertheless dozens of ways to upgrade weapons and use the game's slow-to-earn skill points to increase your character's competence in battle. All these have a real impact in the fighting style. While not as overwhelmingly chock full of collectibles as some of the denser Assassin's Creed maps, there are still a large number of items to find, which are all germane to the story and key to unlocking new gear or abilities. The skills system is also complex and unforgiving when it comes to the character building, so taking some time and doing some research before throwing points at the screen is smart. Within hours of the game's release, the players were bashing Shadow of War's micro-transactions, which essentially speed up leveling, abilities and gear, and provide new allies. Though the real-world money purchases can be safely ignored and replaced by additional hours of grinding, one wishes that the gameplay itself would be paced a little differently and skill points awarded a bit more generously to avoid the need for micro-transactions altogether.
Shadow of War's combat is breakneck, gory, visceral and always entertaining, combing stealth, ranged combat and melee encounters with a reasonable number of moves and weapons. In almost every skirmish or mission, approaches can vary from player to player, although most missions hinge on a specific objective. Although character death has little short-term impact, it does ripple into the world by potentially strengthening enemies. If there's anything to complain about the combat, it might be that there is simply too much of it. Although the enemies are incredibly well designed and reasonably intelligent, there isn't a huge variety of enemy types, even across the varied physical landscapes and regions. Much more than in Shadow of Mordor, there's a visually arresting world to explore, and mounts such as drakes make traversal easier, already enhanced by a fast travel and a useful world map.
Shadow of War demands a lot from whatever hardware it's being played on and both the console and PC versions can stutter a bit under the weight of the amazing visuals. Although Talion is a disappointingly bland and somewhat expressionless hero, Shelob and nearly all the other enemies in the game are incredibly well animated and full of life and detail. The symphonic score by Gary Shyman and Nathan Grigg is exciting and worthy of stand-alone listening.
With Peter Jackson-quality production values, combat that remains engaging over dozens of hours, and a meaningful story that stays reasonably related to its beloved source material, Middle Earth: Shadow of War is a rare sequel that improves on just about every aspect of the original. Odious micro-transactions and a pace that might be too focused on constant action aside, Shadow of War will please both the fans of Shadow of Mordor and anyone who enjoys quality action games.