Games Review: Middle-earth: Shadow of War – The Desolation of Mordor (Xbox One, 2018)

Shadow of War‘s latest expansion, The Desolation of Mordor cuts right to the chase. “Baranor is mortal and carries no Ring of Power. If he does, his story is over. Be careful.” Tackling Shadow of War without Talion’s impressive array of Celebrimbor-backed super powers is an interesting spin on the game’s existing format, pivoting into something that looks a lot like a roguelike.

 

Baranor’s story kicks off in the middle of a sandstorm, on the hunt for a missing band of mercenaries that can help him retrieve Sauron’s stolen prize. Before he can get anywhere, his entire squad is eaten by Wyrms and he is momentarily left high and dry until he runs into a dwarf that agrees to give him, of all things, a grappling hook.

Yeah, a grappling hook. Baranor’s gotta have something in his tool kit that keeps him from being a bit of a bore and this is it. I’m not talking Just Cause level insanity here, more of the sensible traversal kind, but its still a cool addition for the character that sets him apart from Talion. Elsewhere, parts of Talion’s kit like his wraith dash have been repurposed as a kind of super sprint. Lots of small concessions made in the interest of making the game feel more actual size.

Baranor himself is Harad-born, but was adopted in a family that ran with the elite class in Minas Ithil (sister city to Minas Tirith). He rose to the station of guard captain not through his family’s connection’s but through hard work and determination. The game goes out of its way to present a lead that believes himself to be the opposite of special, a military man who is there to do a job and actively shuns the notion that he is in anyway exceptional. He’s actually likeable. If it sounds like I’m a bit astonished its because I am. Talion’s character might as well be a beige circle with the word Sad? written on it. After dealing with that for so long, Baranor’s likeability comes as a breath of fresh air.

As I said in the intro par, Desolation of Mordor feels very much like a roguelike. This is a genuinely interesting and bold move on developer Monolith’s part because the main Shadow of Mordor campaign doesn’t really punish the player for dying. This is doubly interesting when you consider the ways it will be combined with the Nemesis system that remembers your tactics and actively works to counter you. You’ll have to down healing pots and level Baranor up by finding artifacts. Dying doesn’t reset your mission progress or your accrued skills, but it does reset all your collected mercs and outposts. Reading that, I’m sure there’s a few of you that just lost all interest.

The game doesn’t completely punish you for dying but it does set you back quite a way, and in a more meaningful way than the minor shuffling of the power deck when you die in the main Shadow of War campaign. This might not be going far enough for you, and that’s cool, but it is for me. Total permadeath simply wouldn’t work as well in a campaign of this design or length and picking the resource to strip from you is a smart call. It gives the death of your mercs some much needed weight, every life lost is the road to success being walled off before your eyes. It’s also far from the first rogue-anything to run with a “retain skills, lose progress” mould. It makes you want to replay the DLC which is a very good thing — I want to crank up the difficulty and play with caution, trying to get to the end with a single, massive army intact.

Middle-earth: Shadow of War – Desolation of Mordor is a fun, smart chunk of DLC. It hands you a great character with a cool new feel, an exciting new region and a refined, inventive new way to play. They maybe got a bit ahead of themselves in calling it a roguelike but that might be a huge positive if that’s your bag. Great work.

Score: 8.5 out of 10
Highlights: Great character; Great location; Great design tweaks
Lowlights: May not be roguelike enough for some
Developer: Monolith Productions
Publisher: WB Games
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows PC
Available: Now

Reviewed on Xbox One X with an Expansion Pass provided by the publisher.