Cast your minds back a few years – not to the Third Age, but instead to 2011 – and you’ll undoubtedly recall the release of a licensed superhero epic going by the pseudonym of Batman: Arkham City. Developed by British studio Rocksteady and published by Warner Bros Interactive Entertainment, the follow-up to 2009’s Game of the Year award-winning Arkham Asylum set itself quite the audacious task, aiming to better its forebear via a larger yet densely detailed open-world, enhanced combat mechanics, a wider array of enemy types and above all a canon-eschewing but captivating core storyline.
An Unenviable Challenge
If this unenviable challenge seems vaguely familiar, then it’s with good reason. Fast forward half a dozen years and we find Monolith Productions – again with WB’s stalwart backing – taking much the same approach with their latest project, and surely hoping to reap similarly copious critical praise to that which Rocksteady received upon succeeding in their endeavours. Just as Arkham City took every element of Asylum which worked – the gratifying Freeflow combat, the fascinating exploration of Batman’s psyche and countless other USPs – and expanded upon them tenfold, so too does Monolith’s second action RPG foray into the world of J.R.R. Tolkien up the ante on every front.
Whereas 2014’s largely acclaimed Shadow of Mordor confined the escapades of its half-Ranger, half-undead Elf protagonist, Talion, to a couple of grimly-lit cities based within the titular region, Shadow of War takes us from Seregost’s snow-capped peaks to the precipice of Mount Doom in Gorgoroth, from Minas Morgul’s sinister cityscape to Núrn’s open forest plains. Whereas Mordor’s intoxicating Nemesis System showed huge signs of potential, War develops this intricate mechanic exponentially, adding dozens upon dozens of extra enemy classes, arenas where victorious Orcs can become spies for your army and seismic fortresses in dire need of new management.
Elevating The Middle-Earth Saga?
But can this unquestionably ambitious follow-up match City’s next-to-universally renowned success in taking its franchise to bold new heights, elevating the Middle-Earth saga to the video game industry’s Hall of Fame? Not quite, yet one can’t possibly accuse Visceral of resting on their laurels either. For instance, aesthetically speaking, some of the human character models – including that of Talion, along with the courageous soldiers he encounters – appear bland and unfinished in cut-scenes, their facial animations a little undercooked. Yet the open-world regions themselves brim with graphical pizazz, Seregost’s snowfall a mystifying beauty to behold and Mount Doom a pitch-perfect copy of that seen in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film adaptations.
Missions prove equally mixed when it comes to variety and unpredictability. On the one hand, many of the main campaign’s quests prove disappointingly mundane, centring on generic follow-the-AI-leader, stealth antics with none of Metal Gear Solid’s scope for anarchic chaos should the player get spotted or repetitive Nazgul boss battles. On the other, venture off the beaten track and you’ll discover electrifying side ventures such as Balrog showdowns, voyages into Mordor’s past and future via the visions of spider-turned-temptress Shelob or attempts to wrest back control of Middle-Earth’s status quo with its equivalent to Mother Nature (yes, really), to the point where one craves for the core campaign to offer the same level of structural creativity at times.
Simplified Narrative Approach
Indeed, while we’re on the subject of the campaign, the eagle-eyed readers among you might’ve noticed that this reviewer hasn’t dedicated much time to War’s narrative as of yet. Suffice to say that in the wake of having forged a new Ring as the credits rolled last time around, Talion wastes little time – barring a frustratingly inconsequential detour to meet Shelob early on – kick-starting a Mordor-wide resistance to Sauron’s rule, rallying hundreds of possessed Orcs to his side in order to take back each of the realm’s lofty fortresses before overthrowing the Dark Lord once and for all. Now, that might sound like a premise for the ages, particularly to the Tolkien avids here, but unfortunately said plot receives scarce attention throughout War, largely taking a back-seat while you influence the foes of each region, topple its Overlord, rinse and repeat for hours on end.
This simplified narrative approach – or indeed the obvious constraints placed upon Monolith by having War take place within reaching distance of The Fellowship of the Ring – wouldn’t matter so much if the script at least dedicated more time to fleshing out the supporting characters like Gondorian soldiers Idril and Baranor, returning fan favourite Gollum (whose needless cameo barely registers), or even the head Orcs whom Talion possesses like the hilarious Bruz. Instead, those looking to see their relationships with the similarly soulless – no pun intended – Talion developed had best look to the aforementioned side missions for further meat. Acts III and IV reveal how our hero’s antics factor into the events of LOTR, in what frankly comes off as one of the most ridiculous fan faction-esque retcons in recent memory, but little else of note actually happens to any of War’s ‘key’ players, protagonistic and antagonistic alike.
A Dense Open-World
Perhaps story depth isn’t what many fans hoped for here, though, with War’s main draw of course being its overhauled Nemesis System. If LOTR fanatics want to immerse themselves in Middle-Earth, then here lies the most substantial means by which to do so, with the contrasting Orc cultures, fortress defences, enemy weaknesses, tribe dynamics and Warchief challenges of each region providing more than enough of an excuse to plunge hundreds and hundreds of hours into this sprawling RPG’s rich world and become its eventual commander-in-chief. For reasons we shan’t spoil, there’s ample incentive to become an expert in these minutiae by Act IV, where further conflicts mounting in each of your conquered domains put that knowledge fiercely to the test.
With Shadow of War, then, Monolith have largely fulfilled their lofty goals, delivering a dense open-world filled with aesthetic and enemy variety as well as numerous opportunities for total immersion via its staggering Nemesis system and engaging array of side quests. That said, whether its immense strengths on a technical and replayability level are enough to compensate for the disappointing lack of focus paid to crafting a layered fantasy storyline, or multi-faceted characters worthy of Tolkien lore, will depend on what you look for first and foremost out of your gaming experiences; personally, this reviewer could’ve done with more of the latter in order for the second and likely final Middle-Earth outing to stand a chance of topping his Game of the Year shortlist.
It would appear, then, that one developer cannot simply walk into Mordor without struggling to balance the competing elements which they bring along for the ride. Nevertheless, if Shadow of War’s promising improvements upon Mordor’s already potent gameplay formula are any indication of what’s next for Monolith as a studio, then should they choose to return to the world of men, corruptive Rings and cave trolls in the near future, the LOTR franchise’s Arkham City equivalent could lie just around the corner.
Immense strengths on a technical and replayability level but a disappointing lack of focus paid to crafting a layered fantasy storyline, or multi-faceted characters worthy of Tolkien lore.