Middle-Earth: Shadow of War Review [Xbox One] – Bold New Heights?

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.

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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.

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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.

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Shadow of War ferries late developer to Grey Havens with tribute DLC

Every production cycle brings its fair share of character-testing trials and tribulations for the studio(s) involved, but few quite as arduous as what the team behind licensed fantasy RPG Middle-Earth: Shadow of War has endured in recent months.

Last year saw the untimely passing of leading developer Michael Forgey, who died of a brain tumour at the age of 43. These heartbreaking circumstances must doubtless have knocked everyone involved at WB Interactive Entertainment and Monolith Productions for six, but to their credit, they’ve devised a fitting in-game homage to their fallen comrade-in-arms…

Takeaways:

  • As a tribute to Forgey and a means by which to raise funds for his grieving family, the Shadow of War team has unveiled the Forthog Orc-Slayer DLC, introducing a new supporting character – modelled on the late executive producer’s likeness – who’ll march into battle alongside protagonist Talion to reclaim Mordor from the clutches of the Dark Lord Sauron, mowing down countless hapless Orcs en route.
  • The £3.99 / $4.99 DLC package caused tremors among the Middle-Earth fan community, however, when some spotted small print in the DLC’s trailer (below) hinting that its funds wouldn’t reach the Forgey estate if collected in certain US stores or other worldwide retailers.
  • WB later resolved the matter though, confirming $3.50 of the $4.99 on each sale would go to the family provided the sale occurred in a participating state. “Neither Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment nor Monolith Productions will profit from any sales of the Forthog Orc-Slayer DLC regardless of the territory in which that DLC is sold,” the studio said.

Clarifying their position on what could’ve fast become a contentious and arguably disrespectful dilemma is a wise move on publisher WB Interactive Entertainment’s part, placing the onus first and foremost on individual video game retailers to step up to the plate and participate in this charity initiative, or face the reputational impact should they refuse.

Commemoration

Whether the aforementioned freebie DLC package serves as a satisfactory commemoration, bidding an uplifting farewell to the man who’ll sadly never reap the fruits of his labour, will scarcely affect the finished product’s overall quality, nor the ongoing debates over its microtransactions, but if nothing else, Fogey’s legacy will live on in style this autumn.

You can send a donation to the Fogey family at their Youcaring page here, and check out the gameplay trailer debuting his Shadow of War counterpart in all his Orc-besieging glory below. Stay tuned to D-pad Joy for all the latest coverage on the title’s development and our review as its executive producer’s final project hits Xbox One, PS4 and PC this October 10th.

New Middle-earth: Shadow of War trailer features Kumail Nanjiani as The Agonizer

A new trailer for Middle-earth: Shadow of War featuring Kumail Nanjiani (The Big Sick, Silicon Valley), has been released.

Nanjiani portrays The Agonizer, a deadly yet over-thoughtful Orc, that players may encounter through the Nemesis System in the upcoming open-world action game.

The trailer was originally revealed at Comic-Con San Diego and provides a first look at Nanjiani’s Orc character delivering a variety of humorous one-liners that players may come across throughout their game experience.

Middle-earth: Shadow of War will be available for Xbox One X, Xbox One, PC (Windows Store and Steam), PS4 and PS4 Pro on the 10th October.

Middle-Earth: Shadow of War Delayed

One does not simply walk into Mordor for a second time without encountering a few development setbacks along the way.

That’s the impression we’re getting from Monolith Productions anyway, since their follow-up to 2014’s Game of the Year-winning Lord of the Rings spin-off Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor has had its release date pushed back by two months.

Rather than shipping in August as developer Monolith had originally planned, the Warner Bros Interactive Entertainment-published Middle-Earth: Shadow of War will now launch on Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC this October 10th worldwide.

Once again taking place before Peter Jackson’s two LOTR trilogies – which appear to have influenced its grim, quasi-gothic visual style and brutal action – the sequel will reprise Mordor‘s unique Nemesis system, enabling players to dismantle Sauron’s Orc hierarchy and build their own army in the process.

Yet despite this returning mechanic, resurrected protagonist Talion will have his fair share of new challenges this time around as he strives to gather the forces necessary to confront the Dark Lord himself, not to mention tame the tempestuous influence of a recently-forged Ring of Power over the course of his odyssey.

As for precisely what’s holding Talion’s journey back from hitting consoles this summer, Monolith doesn’t have much to say on the matter beyond wanting to “ensure that Middle-Earth: Shadow of War will deliver on [their] promise” of “the highest quality experience” expected from their hit licensed series.

News like this inevitably always comes as a blow for industry fans, particularly long-term devotees of such a prolific brand as the Tolkien-inspired Lord of the Rings, but from GTA V to South Park: The Stick of Truth to WB’s own Batman: Arkham trilogy, the list of past titles which have benefitted from extra development time goes on as long as The Return of the King: Extended Edition.

Monolith and WB don’t look set to rest on their laurels when it comes to providing samples of Shadow of War in its current state, though, with new livestreams uploaded each week and an E3 gameplay demo guaranteed to lie around the corner.

In other words, while you might wish that news of this delay had never come to you, that’s not for you to decide – all you have to decide is what to do with the time that’s given to you between now and October 10th. Why not check out this weekend’s new Skills-driven Shadow of War walkthrough video for starters?