Games Review: Middle-earth: Shadow of War (Xbox One, 2017) is a good idea pulled in too many different directions

Middle-earth: Shadow of War is a game suffering an identity crisis. It knows what it wants to be and makes genuinely big strides in that direction, but it’s hampered by what seems to be publisher interference. Even at the surface level, it feels like a case study for the growing divide in AAA between developer vision and publisher demands. 

Middle-earth: Shadow of War is the sequel to Monolith Productions’ 2014 surprise hit Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. A mash up of Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham franchise and Assassin’s Creed that introduced the Nemesis System, a complex framework for managing enemy AI that could adapt to your tactics over time, Shadow of Mordor was easily one of the best games of that year. I felt that way myself when I reviewed it for our old VideAU Games page shortly after joining The AU Review. It was the kind of game AAA needed — one that could work within the bounds of modern design conceits but still bring something truly original to the table.

It couldn’t be clearer that with Shadow of War, Monolith’s roadmap had EXPAND NEMESIS written on it in block caps. The Nemesis system is expanded beyond what the developer presented in the original game, allowing the player to assign bodyguards for an extra layer of protection when stalking and battling new orc captains, allowing you to manipulate the orc military hierarchy with spies and to be manipulated yourself by dominated orcs stabbing you in the back when you least expect it.

Repeated interactions with the same orc captains also have a clear, individual impact. One orc captain, an especially loquacious bardic type, launched into a prepared monologue the moment he saw me. The speech ran upwards of 35 seconds and by the end I was ready to murder him on the spot. No room in my army for a chatty Cathy. But as our fight drew closer to its end, I decided not to kill the poor bastard, but shame him — a mechanic that allows you to essentially take an orc too big for his boots down a peg, ending combat with a vicious insult. It’s orc negging, if you will. This orc became my rival, popping up over and over to challenge me, always convinced he was going to get the better of me. I ended up shaming him so many times that his mind went, turning him into a slavering, rage-fuelled, non-verbal shadow of his former self. It’s events like this, totally unique to each player, that illustrate the depth and cleverness of the Nemesis System, and I remain dumbfounded that such a great innovation is still going ignored by the wider industry.

It’s a shame then that nothing else in Shadow of War quite matches up with Nemesis’ lofty ambitions. The reason for this disconnect is, to me, rather obvious.

By now you’ve likely heard about Shadow of War‘s inclusion of loot boxes into what is a single player game. Quite apart from being an obvious and rather cynical cash grab, their inclusion doesn’t make a lot of sense mechanically. To video game hobbyists, this will not come as a surprise. When a loot box system is implemented into a given game, particularly as a post-launch income stream, then they necessarily become the point around which the rest of the game revolves. Take Overwatch as an example — loot boxes are core to that experience as much for players as for the devs. They pay the bills, act as event incentives and reward players for dedicated play.

Knowing this, it couldn’t be clearer that loot boxes were not part of Monolith’s plan for Shadow of War. Why would they be? It’s a single player action adventure game. Cashflow aside, what possible mechanical benefit would there be to including such a thing in a game like this?

Enter WB Games, a publisher who just can’t seem to find the right way to approach ongoing revenue streams in their games. Following on from $50+ season passes for games like Mortal Kombat X and Batman: Arkham Knight, WB’s new play is to climb aboard the loot box train.

Their existence forces Shadow of War to include two discrete economies, one an in-game currency accrued through battlefield drops and milling old or irrelevant gear and the other purchased with real world money. These currencies can then be exchanged for loot boxes, but it couldn’t be clearer which ones WB Games would like you buy. The in-game currency can only buy you specific Silver boxes that drop items, gear and orc captains up to Rare tier. The gold currency can buy Gold or Platinum boxes that drop far more powerful Epic or Legendary tier prizes. For the most part, loot boxes are fairly easy to ignore — at least until you get into the late game where you must grind endlessly to build an army you can pit against the final strongholds, something buying the Gold and Platinum loot boxes makes much, much easier.

This, I think you’ll agree, is bogus. To their credit, Monolith appears to recognise this.

Despite Monolith having to tow the party line while promoting the game, the way loot boxes have been implemented from a UI and presentational perspective feels almost like an act of civil disobedience. When you open a loot box in Overwatch, you are rewarded with multiple visual and audio flourishes. The box shudders and crumples, shooting your goodies into the air like fireworks. There’s colours, music, little explosions! Opening an Overwatch loot box is a shot of pure dopamine, it feels great even when the resulting drop is an array of trash blue/grey tier sprays.

Contrast this with opening a loot box in Shadow of War: there’s the default black menu background with a bit of white smoke drifting over it, the background whisper of a Nazgûl and then icons representing your prizes appear on the screen with no other fanfare. That’s it. There’s no juice. There’s no joy. If part of Monolith’s solution to having loot boxes in the game was making them utterly boring to open then mission accomplished. Monolith’s feelings on the matter seem further illustrated by the only other element of the Market screen — a greedy, leering goblin that giggles exultantly when you buy anything from him.

I’m gonna stop harping on the loot boxes now because seven pars on the topic is more than I planned to write and I think I’ve gotten my point across. Their inclusion is to the game’s detriment overall and I hope the whole debacle has taught WB Games a lesson. I’d actually prefer you just slug me 60 bucks for a season pass instead because at least that doesn’t interfere with core design. Monolith, I’m sorry you’re going to be the ones to take the heat for this. Better luck on the next one.

Elsewhere, Shadow of War is a mish-mash of what fans liked from the original game — fun combat, interesting upgrades and the gradual amassing of power. The liberties that Monolith takes with Tolkenian lore (and there are many) is going to drive hardcore Ringers up the wall.

Troy Baker returns as the undead Gondorian human Talion, vessel for the spirit of Elven blacksmith Celebrimbor and a character remarkable in his complete lack of character. As versatile and talented an actor as Baker is, he’s working with a character whose most interesting trait is the other guy living in his mind. Alastair Duncan’s Celebrimbor is a violent curmudgeon, constantly second-guessing Talion’s decisions and sassing him whenever he feels the Gondorian is getting ahead of himself. He is the perfect antidote to Talion’s nothing presence and paper-thin character.

The thing about Talion’s lack of any personality whatsoever is the sheer amount of character, charm and personality coming from the game’s many hundreds of orc captains, war chiefs and commanders. While a few voices show up repeatedly, they are always carefully chosen to illustrate the type of orc you’re dealing with. There are hundreds of unique faces, armour configs, body types and weapons to differentiate them. Each one has a different name, a different set of strengths and weaknesses and a different way to deal with you. Special credit has to be given to Monolith’s character artists for not only replicating the look of the orcs from Peter Jackson’s films but also finding ways to make them feel unique.

Shadow of War‘s story plays out over numerous missions, all divided into their own quest lines. While the cutscene dialogue assures you time is of the essence, the game doesn’t really run on any kind of schedule but the one you set yourself. I actually found myself getting bogged down in army building grind and wondering when the next story mission was going to pop up before realising I had to travel to an entirely new part of Middle-earth on my own volition to start them. On top of this, each of the game’s areas are densely populated with things to do, so much so you may find looking at the map screen with its hundreds of icons a bit overwhelming.

I’ve spent quite a bit of this review coming down on Shadow of War but I do want to be clear — there’s plenty to like here. If you played the original game and wanted more of that then Shadow of War delivers in spades. Despite the enforced grind, I can see myself popping back in for a few hours here and there to prop up my armies and knock over a few side quests. The combat is still quite fun, the special moves Talion can unlock are still varied enough in concert to make him enjoyably overpowered and the orcs are still terrific fun to torment. The first game’s cliff-like difficulty curve has been flattened considerably in accordance with the changes to loot drops, making the early game far less brutal for new players.

It’s also rather beautiful. Character models are beautifully rendered, the orcs (as mentioned) are exactly as revolting as they should be and the environments make excellent use of colour, something the original was quite as adept at. I reviewed the game on a launch model Xbox One specifically so I could switch over to our Xbox One X review unit as soon as it arrives. Based on how good Shadow of War looks running at 1080p on the older hardware, I look forward to seeing what 4K, HDR lighting and the added grunt of the Xbox One X can do for it.

Middle-earth: Shadow of War isn’t a bad game, but it isn’t a great one either. It could have been great, and the vestiges of that greatness are on display, but the shoe-horned loot boxes do irreparable damage to a game loop that really had nothing wrong with it before. The tug-of-war between creative and commercial interests is blindingly obvious, and the only thing it accomplishes is diminishing the experience the game can offer the player. If (I pray it’s a when but time will tell) WB Games gives Monolith the green light on a third Middle-earth title, I hope that they loosen the leash on Monolith a bit. This series has the potential to be as ground-breaking game-to-game as the Arkham franchise — but only if you get out of Monolith’s way.

Score: 7.0 out of 10
Highlights: Orcs still stealing the show; Expansions to Nemesis are amazing
Lowlights: Loot boxes are dumb and bad; Talion still the character equivalent of vanilla ice cream
Developer: Monolith Productions
Publisher: WB Games
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows PC
Available: Now