Middle-earth: Shadow of War review: A bloody, orc-slaying triumph with more up its sleeve than you'd think

 
Andy Lacey
Middle-earth: Shadow of War
4.0

The first game in this Tolkeinsian franchise was lavished with unequivocal praise. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor looked disarmingly like a conventional-but-fun brawler. You had your brooding lead man wronged by a decidedly bad egg. Said brooding man then gathers a shopping list of super-powers and is avenged. Fine.

Indeed, Shadow of Mordor executed this basic format well, but it also distinguished itself from mere ego-fodder through several genuinely unique elements.

Foremost among them was the "Nemesis system". Enemies that beat you in battle grew stronger, not to mention immeasurably more sarcastic. Your next interaction with an old foe would be peppered with as many verbal barbs as actual ones.

You could also possess the minds of your enemies. To progress, you had to force some orc leaders to go full Benedict Arnold in the ranks of Mordor's finest. You didn't always feel great about it. Far from Aragornesque in unshakable valour, your character uses, ridicules and dismembers enemies in the name of vengeance. Fun, but also a little chilling.

It's no surprise then that the sequel - Middle-earth: Shadow of War - has hit pre-Christmas shelves to a palpable thrum of anticipation.

The elements that made the first game a success remain. Tolkein's beloved world is still beautifully constructed. You can still cut a bloody swathe through uncountable enemies to emerge victorious and unscathed. You can still tell scurrilous, backstabbing baddie from valorous, lantern-jawed hero by their accent. Those that sound like old Etonians continue to do Gandalf's good work. Villainous orcs are still cartoon cockneys. Lacerating social satire or convenient plot device? I couldn't possibly say.

Orcs spend a jarringly long time on zinging rejoinders for creatures that are supposed to be retreating.

But everything that the first game did the second game does better. I spent a few minutes on my high Rohirrim horse being judgmental about the thin story, but bloodily trouncing the Mordor masses is way more fun than emotionally charged cut-scenes. It is enormous too. Every section of the game could swallow the first one whole. You can now pick up new and more varied weaponry, rather than just tinkering with what you had in your scabbard.

Some lingering niggles stop it being perfect. You can't skip the monologues of your nemeses. Orcs spend a jarringly long time on zinging rejoinders for creatures that are supposed to be retreating. The game leans perhaps too heavily on the Nemesis system. It builds a web of characters that are relevant, but not particularly interesting.

Bottom line though: it is fun. You owe it to yourself to charge around Mordor as a nigh-invincible sword swinger in a land of pantomime villains, at least for a little while.

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