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Game Masters: ‘Middle-earth: Shadow of War’ review

Is the follow-up to 2014’s ‘Shadow of Mordor’ the one game to rule them all?

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Talion and his ethereal (and literal) better half Celebrimbor are back in the follow-up to 2014’s Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor.

Everything is bigger in Middle-earth: Shadow of War — but is it better? Let’s find out.

‘Someone else always has to carry on the story’

Monolith Productions have decided to continue the story of Talion and Celebrimbor that formed the backbone of the first game. Talion, a sort of emo Aragorn who has read one too many books by that other fantasy author with “R.R.” for middle initials, is a custom creation by Monolith.

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Celebrimbor on the other hand, as serious J.R.R. Tolkien fans will know, was created by the famed father of Middle Earth himself, an Elven craftsman intimately connected with the Rings of Power and the One Ring itself.

The first game’s story was criticised for taking quite a few liberties with established Middle-earth canon, and Monolith doubles down in the sequel. Did you know, for example, that the giant spider Shelob, she who almost ate Frodo on his journey to Mount Doom, moonlights as a sexy human with a penchant for revealing dresses? She must rue the fact that Middle-earth does not have any goth metal bands for her to front.

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Different people will have different takes on whether the liberties taken with established Middle-earth history and characters affects their ability to enjoy the game.

‘Many that live deserve death’

For me at least, and I’m sure for many others, the this isn’t a game that you play for the story. This is a game you play because you like Arkham-style combat and the ability to kill thousands of orcs in a variety of creative ways.

On this front, Shadow of War delivers beyond all expectations. The visceral, satisfying combat of the first game returns, ramped up another degree.

What sets this series apart from similar action games, beyond the licensed setting, is of course the Nemesis System, which is expanded and even more brilliant this time around.

As you play Shadow of War you’ll encounter a variety of enemies with different strengths, weaknesses, back stories and personal objectives. You’ll develop relationships with them as you attempt, successfully or otherwise, to kill them and/or turn them to your side.

No other game of this type manages so successfully to turn what is usually a nameless mass of enemies into a group of distinct individuals, and the result is that every encounter feels more significant than it would be in a vanilla hack-and-slash game.

The other side has its own hierarchy of command, and it’s up to you to find the best way to disrupt it and turn things in your favour.

‘He stands not alone’

Instead of fighting alone or with a few companions, Shadow of War sees you recruiting an entire army to take on Sauron’s forces. Here again the Nemesis System shines. The creatures you turn to your side all have their own traits and personalities, allowing you to build a personal connection and a real sense of ownership of your ever-growing band of warriors. The scale of encounters keeps ramping up as the story unfolds, and while you may start off as a lone ranger against a horde of enemies, you’ll soon start evening the odds considerably.

‘All’s well that ends better’

So, bigger, yes. Better? Definitely. Shadow of War does what a sequel should, improving on the best parts of the original and adding exciting new features. Much has been written about the inclusion of loot boxes, and this is the only real misstep the game makes, if you can discount the already mentioned lore issues. Fortunately, while the constant reminder of their existence is irritating, you don’t need to buy loot boxes with real-life cash to enjoy and complete the game.

Monolith has created the quintessential orc-killing simulator, and while Tolkien probably wouldn’t approve, any action game fan would be hard-pressed not to.

  • Score: 9/10
  • Platform: Xbox One, PS4, Windows
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