When Shadow of Mordor was released in 2014, its “nemesis system” was brilliant enough that many people hoped it would define a new generation of games. Years later, this vision of industry-wide character hierarchies that learn, evolve, and remember the player never materialized. Shadow of War, the follow-up, continues to refine its legion of orcs, but the tricky question "wouldn't this system be cool in another game?" Still sneaks up on you. And this time, given the limitations of an expanded version of this system, it's damned in a macabre world of orcs.
Shadow of War plays Talion, a cheeky protagonist who would be generic if he weren't technically dead. Talion is known as "The Gravewalker" thanks to a vengeful elven spirit, Celebrimbor, who clings to his body and keeps him alive. In the first game, Celebrimbor is introduced as the creator of the Rings of Power – this is a game by Lord of The Rings – and by giving Talion otherworldly skills, he goes to war to stop the Sauron forces. At the end of Shadow of Mordor, Talion decides it's time for a new ring of power that can't be stained by the forces of evil. This is where the second game begins: Talion forges a ring to fight Sauron's return, but if you don't know, things are not going as planned. The ring immediately falls into the wrong hands. One might think that one of the participants had learned in the meantime.
Don't worry, you don't have to be a big LOTR fan to enjoy Shadow of War. There are all sorts of special quests and collectibles that plunge into the larger lore if you're interested in it, but the story is largely silly. Characters are razor-thin and their storylines are mostly boring if not nonsensical. In an outrageous example, a main character reveals his morale at the last second without much explanation. But the superficial narrative doesn't matter. You're here for the orcs – or, sorry, for the Uruk-hai if we're pedantic.
Your ultimate goal is to build an army of orcs to defeat Sauron once and for all. This time, your efforts are focused on the network of orcs that occupy / control various castles, each with its own chain of command. Above you have powerful overlords who guide the place. You can't just go straight to the overlord, chop off his head, and call him for a day. You need to make the lower ranks thinner and infiltrate the castle before you can overtake them. Under an overlord are warchiefs, each defending a regional fortress and certain areas of a castle. And every warchief has a larger pool of henchmen, called captains, who act as bodyguards. While the upper levels of the castle are initially carved in stone, the larger infantry is constantly shifting and fighting for power. Shadow of Mordor has cleverly packaged this policy by tying it to the orc culture itself, and Shadow of War is expanding its repertoire of events in which orcs can participate.
An orc could try to climb the ranks by hunting, raiding a camp, or killing a rival. This is where you come in. Shadow of War is an open world action game and you have the freedom to interfere in orc matters as you see fit. The game is divided into a handful of different regions, each with its own orc battalion, and you can roam between them at will. Sometimes you stumble into an orc event without wanting it because captains are everywhere. You will know exactly when you found a high-ranking orc. The game pauses not only to enlarge faces, but also when grunting orcs break out into an inviting song. When these special orcs see you, they will introduce themselves. Mostly, captains and warchiefs threaten or mock you as if they were cutting you up for a pro-wrestling promo, which immediately makes them personal. These are not just tough enemies. They call you and try to make you look like a fool. What are you going to do about it?
These introductions are the cornerstone of the Shadow of War experience. Everyone tells you the orc's skills, which, along with information about its strengths and weaknesses, is information that you use to attack your target. Maybe the orc is a "toxic terror tracker" or a "cursed mystical trickster". More importantly, you can see your orc better. Everyone is generated randomly, with their own facial features, voice, clothing, weapons and class. If you dig a little deeper, you will know what they are getting into, what hurts them and what makes them angry. All the while, I felt like I was on a messy dating site and browsing orc profiles, except that they all contained confidential health information for some reason. I was always excited when I crossed a cool or handsome orc that had unusual abilities because it was more likely that my struggle with them would be unforgettable. I hated when I came across ugly or boring orcs because there was a greater chance that I wouldn't remember them later.
All of this seems familiar to you when you play the first game, but the difference is in the scope. The underlying ethos of Shadow of War seems to be more. Other types of orcs, for example: In the 45 hours I spent playing, I kept seeing new things until the end. Your playgrounds are larger this time, and equipped with more sights, quests, collectibles, and toys to torment your prey. The number of things you can do in this game is overwhelming at first since you hardly get involved. It's all there from the start, although you may not know how to use it for the best effect. Cards are full of things like spider bags, deadly fly nests, beasts and drinking fountains that you can manipulate to terrorize orcs. There are also many combat options: you can sneak, you can teleport, you can materialize animals or allies, you can freeze and poison enemies – the list goes on and on. And with Talion's ability to climb everything quickly, the game often feels full of possibilities.
Even little things are complex. Each skill in the skill tree has three sub-skills, of which only one can be activated. All equipment items have stats and can be updated to give you additional skills such as: For example, lighting an enemy, provided you complete an equipment-specific challenge first. All items of equipment have pedestals where you can add upgradeable gems that provide additional health, damage, and more. There are even daily challenges now. Much of it didn't feel essential to the experience, and it didn't feel like it would improve the game. Some of it didn't even make sense. For example: If the ring I made at the start of the game was so unique and powerful, why did I equip rings that were dropped by random orcs?
Despite all these new things, I fell into a familiar pattern when I played Shadow of War. First I would go to a camp, any camp. I would go through the front door as if everything was cool. Someone would always raise the alarm to send more orcs to me, but I didn't care. Talion is so powerful that you can easily kill anyone or run away, at least on Normal difficulty. Then I go into the Wraith world, a detective mode that lets you see interesting things like footprints or distant orcs even through walls. I would locate orcs that had information about captains and warchiefs, and I would go after them. As soon as I'm within my reach, I would "dominate" them and force them to tell me what they know. I was never sure why Mordor's leadership ran so many grunts with such valuable information, but hey. Within 10 minutes I would have a complete dossier on each orc of interest. Then it was time to track them down.
It was time to plan nearby. I would look through the map and see what I could use against the Captain or Warchief. Any of the weaknesses listed would be a problem, but you're not always lucky enough to have any of them lying around. If you are patient, you can wait to see if the captain walks past a Caragor pen that you want to inflate, or a campfire that can detonate you. Certain attacks or scenarios can "stun" captains and warchiefs, and you can capitalize on them by insulting them with your sword, bow, or dagger.
Fights are rarely one-on-one fights, however, because you are constantly surrounded by small grunts that attack you all at the same time. However, you can handle it. Shadow of War's combat system, inherited from its publisher's Batman Arkham series, makes combos the name of the game. The higher your combo, the more damage you do. Large hit strips activate your "power" with which you can carry out special movements such as "executions". Every kill in this area increases your "anger", which allows you to trigger "Elven Rage", which slows down time and allows you unlimited execution. The trick to maintaining a high series is to anticipate external attacks and ward off what threatens to pull you out of a combo. You can also make special moves between regular hits without interrupting your series. So all battles followed a certain pace, almost as if you were mentally juggling a soccer ball. Even death had a certain rhythm, thanks to the “last chance” button prompts that you can save.
The nice thing is that no matter how carefully you plan an orc death, everything can and can go wrong. The fun is learning to improvise while everything is shit. Once I landed a critic who set my sword on fire along with all the dry grass that surrounded me. Orcs ran screaming in all directions and soon I was on fire too. Another time, I hunted a particular orc just to meet two different orcs that were at war with each other. I barely escaped just to have another orc, this time an assassin, who was secretly attacking me. I killed him just to trip over another captain while I was in poor health. He sought revenge on his brother, whom I had fought earlier that day. What he didn't know was that the brother wasn't really dead. Funny fact: sometimes orcs come back to life, stronger, angrier and uglier than before. None of them can be compared to the pain of a grunt killing you. Any orc on the totem pole that accidentally lands the last strike on Talion can be promoted to captain. It only happened to me a couple of times, but no matter what I did before, I always dropped everything to run after these assholes. How dare you?
In the first game, finding unwritten rules of the Nemesis system was a constant source of joy. This time part of this glow has waned. For example, I knew that orcs could return from death, and I knew that enemies would remember our encounters. In comparison, all the other "twists" were not a big deal. Things like surprise attacks by assassins felt less like interesting curveballs than annoyances, like blocking a troll on Twitter just to get them back under a slightly different username. The game only surprised me when an orc accidentally killed me and broke my best sword with my bare hands. Even then, Talion surpassed him so deeply the next time they met, and my revenge was so immediate that the whole exchange felt like a trifle. The game gave me a pimped version of the blade that I had lost, which could have been a trophy, unless I replaced that sword with something that had a higher attack shortly afterwards. At some point I must have destroyed this weapon for points. I don't even remember the orc's name or face.
Usually my efforts focused on ranked orcs. I went to see the captains first so I could clear out a warchief's bodyguards. Then I would challenge a warchief who was stubborn than the captains, but was never a big deal. As soon as I cleared an opening, I looked for candidates who could take their place. At this point, the entire Nemesis board would be visible to me. I went through each orc individually and scanned their profiles as if they were resumes. Then I would appoint my top picks in the castle. To prepare for the next segment, I would dominate a handful of other orcs from the larger pool. These orcs would act as my army for the next big part of the game, although they could change standing when time goes by within the Nemesis system.
Once a castle was completely infiltrated, I would launch a siege attack. All sieges require leaders, and this is where the additional orcs that I drafted come into play. Each leader can be filled with upgrades such as mounted cavalry, shock troops, siege animals, archers, and even flying drakes, all of which are purchased with points. They are created by killing orcs and dismantling additional weapons. Sieges may look like a spectacle, but if done properly, they are mere formalities. During these segments, I went from one point to another and immediately recorded points because I had meticulously done every single warchief. After these points were secured, my spy came out and participated in the attack, so I never really had to fight a lot in these segments. In the end I would take on the Overlord and that was it. The only time I had problems was when I stubbornly decided to take over the top-level lock before the game ended. In this case, the warchief could not only heal himself, he also had the ability to defy death that would bring him back to life. I took a day to kill another lot of orcs for better gear and came back with rage, mounted Graug and everything.
The basic problem with this is that a good process in the shadow of war means that the process becomes routine. Find information. Subordinates. Go to Warchiefs. Attack the castle. Defeat the overlord. Appoint your favorite orc as the new overlord. With so many cards this time, I was half tired of this process. And because Talion is so overwhelmed, I hardly died – so orcs had less chances to remember our previous encounters.
It may be unfair to criticize the Shadow games for not having other games take over their signature mechanics, but after more than 40 hours of Shadow of War, I feel the Nemesis system is wasted on this series. It may be complex, but it is applied to an ugly world and theme. The orcs mock, but they have no real personality. I remember their weaknesses (or their looks) more than anything – that is, their defining characteristic is a mental catalog of how they can be killed. You don't design orcs for your cause, you dominate them by controlling their minds. Each time Talion growled angry lines ("KNEEL BEFORE ME") and the game emphasized the orc's terrorized face before it exploded into a pulp. If I navigate through Mordor at all, I feel like a serial killer thanks to an unsettling soundtrack that comes straight from a horror film. Heck, Talion's skills allow him to sneak around in the dark or teleport as if he were hacking through a summer camp in a movie on Friday the 13th. Talion can easily mangle his prey, and like Jason, the fucker just won't die. Where other open world games like Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Red Dead Redemption or Assassins Creed: Black Flag invite you to explore beautiful places, Mordor is a terrible and desolate place. Here the whole culture revolves around murder. It is a place where it is not uncommon for maggots to revive a body. And since the nemesis system regularly replenishes the orc army, the whole thing feels useless. Mordor is doing more and more evil. You can't make a difference or put a real bump in it. Living in this place or influencing your politics feels like indulging in something hateful. Staring into space and so on.
The basic problem with this is that a good process in the shadow of war means that the process becomes routine.
There are bright spots, especially when you order orcs to do certain things. You can get orcs to attack each other, and it felt good if they were successful on command. Orcs that you particularly like can become your bodyguards that you can call at any time. Sometimes orcs throw into the fighting pits, which are automated battles that you cannot disrupt. I would watch carefully from the sidelines and be curious if my orc could stand alone. I would yell at the TV and encourage my orc to push harder. When fighting orcs, their special abilities never had a great chance of shining because I knocked them down too quickly. But here I watched in awe as my orcs strutted their things. In a particularly cool moment, I saw an orc decoy that confused and overwhelmed their opponent. I've never seen that before. He won and I was proud. I spent some time teaching my orcs special skills, which made this part of the game Pokémon-like. But I still couldn't help but notice that whenever I found a cute orc in the wild I ran away from them. I didn't want to kill them myself, I didn't want to risk the possibility that they would die from the fighting pits, and I definitely didn't want to make them my slave. Interacting with them felt wrong at all given the options available to me in the game.
For a moment during a questline over two of the only memorable orcs in the game, Shadow of War feels confident. A character tells me that I am cruel because I dealt with a traitor by mentally breaking him. The moment passes quickly. Whatever inspired this view, was soon shaken by a pop-up notification that happily informed me that now if I "shamed" an orc, there would be a chance that they would get confused. I did this to an orc during this story. I was later shocked to find the crazy orc in the wild with no memory of what had happened. They could only say that they regretted crossing me, that they shouldn't have. I could hear the despair in his voice. I was torn and pulled him back into my army a moment later to see what would happen. He's my bodyguard now, but I still have to call him into battle. I feel too guilty. Despite all the praise that this series has given about "emerging experiences," nothing matches what I have felt through this series of events.
There has been a lot of talk about how Shadow of War brings the industry's most popular money-making system, loot boxes, and microtransactions. The game doesn't actually stumble here. I liked their inclusion as a means of gaining more loot and orc minions, and I appreciated that you can buy at least a few types of boxes without spending a dime. I found that in the normal course of the game I could afford a number of boxes that strengthened my ranks. It was a time saver that saved me a few seconds when my orc ranks were exhausted and I didn't feel like recruiting new ones in the world. Instead of wasting time fighting another orc, I could just buy a box of the plentiful amounts of in-game cash I had amassed and add some cool new additions to my roster. Given that Mordor's whole game is that orcs are endless, the gacha-like quality of loot boxes fits well. It also helps you earn loot boxes by doing daily challenges or “online vendettes” where you kill the enemy from players around the world. The player you help will also receive bonuses. It is possible that the part of Shadow of War after the game or the siege of the online castle will drive players more towards microtransactions and arouse the desire to use loot boxes. We'll report back next week once we've spent more time on these sections of the game. But so far, the temptation or need to actually spend money has never occurred in my game during the long main quest lines.
I've focused most of this review on the systems in Shadow of War because they're the most interesting part of the game. His characters are unforgettable. Shadow of War technically has things like strong female characters and color heroes, but the game does them a bad service by making the missions in which these characters are involved red and uninteresting. You will be asked to do things like "Infiltrate this fort and kill the X number of (insert the enemy type here.)" Or you have to kill every enemy on the screen. Such things.
Despite my criticism, the purgatory of Shadow of War is seductive. Technically, it's the only game running the Nemesis system these days, so there's nowhere else where you can get this stuff, even if it's run as grimly as anywhere else. When the game informed me that there would be no going back after the last mission, I took an inventory of the Nemesis board. I stopped and dominated more orcs. I didn't need it. At that point I drowned in orcs. But I just couldn't let go like a ring of power whispering in my ear.