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I’ll never forget the day that I took the fort of Seregost. The cold winds bit into my skin with the ferocity of a hungry Caragor, while my army gathered itself. I’d spent hours assembling this rabble, dominating the most dangerous Orc captains around. I’d “recruited” the likes of Krakhorn the Agoniser, Ogbur the Ruinous and Flak the Poet to my side, ensuring that they were strong enough to survive the impending siege.

I’d surrounded them with Uruk footsoldiers, tricksters and archers. The fort of Seregost was surrounded by my stoneskin Olog-Hai tanks, I had a drake that I could summon at any time and the power of a new ring with which to command the souls that I’d dominated into my service. A mighty army, that was opposed by several war-chiefs and their leader Dugz Evil-Eye.

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I had an ace up my sleeve however. Several in fact, because I’d sent a few of my captains into the inner circle of the warchiefs, ensuring that they’d be promoted to bodyguard status before my assault began. I raised my sword, my army charged and we tore our way through defenses while my spies stabbed their warchiefs in the back.

I disconnected his foul head from his neck

The fighting was intense, the capture points soaked in the blood of many an orc as my drake poured fire on my foes. Eventually making my way into Evil-Eye’s throne room, I dismantled his remaining bodyguards before I disconnected his foul head from his neck. Dugz was on his knees, his mind split between begging for mercy and threatening to find a way back from death to enact revenge on me should I continue with my plans to turn him into a snack for my Graugs.

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Dugz might as well have asked Sauron to release the Nazgul from their torment. It was the most satisfying of sword strokes, a beautiful connection of steel and flesh that coated my sword with vengeance and blood. Seregost was taken, my army had triumphed and the Bright Lord had prevailed.

I’d finally slain a foe whose forces had been a persistent thorn in my side, a selection of nemeses who had managed to blindside me several times and grow in stature at my expense. Who was laughing now? Who was the lord of Mordor? I was, and I was damn glad that I had a family of the most brutish Orcs at my side to celebrate my conquest with. Even if they did smell like spoilt grog.

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This is just one of many stories in Middle-Earth: Shadow of War. 2014’s Shadow of Mordor may have been a stock-standard sandbox in the Batman mould, but it’s the Nemesis system that elevated that first stab into the darkness into a project that managed to distinguish itself. It may have had its fair share of annoyances that were worth a nitpicking, but it’s that one incredible idea that saved developer Monolith’s debut into the territory of Lord of Rings from being cast back into the shadows.

One Nemesis System to rule them all

An idea which hasn’t just been upgraded in Shadow of War, but redesigned to be an even bigger focus than ever before. One Nemesis System to rule them all, one Nemesis System to find them and in the darkness bind them. Shadow of Mordor’s biggest fault was that everything that it offered players, had been done before.

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The acrobatics of Assassin’s Creed, the combat and predatory nature of the Batman Arkham games all got drunk one night and had a threesome with J.R.R Tolkien’s lore, resulting in a bastard child that didn’t manage to live up to its lineage entirely. In Shadow of War, Talion finally feels like the engine of destruction that he was supposed to be: A living highlight reel of the best action sequences from the Lord of the Rings trilogy on two legs.

creating a cumulative effect that just feels better

It’s the fixes to combat and exploration which are immediately evident. They’re minor but many, creating a cumulative effect that just feels better. There’s no more of that slight stickiness to the left analogue stick when you move Talion around. Chaining combos and Wraith attacks feels smoother, as do your acrobatic moves around the wastelands of Mordor.

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So many small changes, coalescing together to form something that manages to overcome it’s more derivative influences and forge its own path. Talion’s arsenal hasn’t changed much in the last three years, but having a chance to pump points into the skills that matter more to you feels welcome and fresh.

Prefer to build Might from the damage you receive because you’re clumsier than a Graug at a dance? There’s an option for that. Want to call in a Drake to assist you in combat because you’re tired of getting Caragor fur everywhere? You’re sorted. Everything from stealth through to your Wraith abilities carries with it at least two modifiers now, of which you can choose to have one active at any given time.

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leaner,meaner and more focused

The end result is a ranger who is leaner, meaner and more focused by the time you’ve got a handle on how Shadow of War plays, with your specific strategies influencing how you want Talion to grow. Shadow of Mordor might not have been original, but its fundamental ideas were solid. Now, they’re close to perfect in their polish.

They say that a hero is only as good as his villain. I think Shadow of War may be the sole exception to that rule, because it’s difficult to root for Talion and Celebrimbor. An odd couple pairing of a stereotypical taciturn swordsman and a ghost from the past who hides secrets of his own, the only time that Talion actually manages to be more than a stereotypical warrior with revenge coursing through his blood is when he gets a chance to interact with other characters. Also maybe during the finale of Shadow of War but spoilers and all that.

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It works best when you die

I liked the brief interactions between Talion and Celebrimbor, but you can’t anchor an entire game around a pair of bickering grave-walkers. Fortunately, everything else around Talion and his unfriendly ghost pal makes up for their lack of personality. Here’s the thing with the Nemesis system: It works best when you die.

While perishing in combat goes against the grain in most video games, in Shadow of War it’s a boon. The Nemesis system is a revenge list, a to-kill collection of the nastiest Orcs in the land who have risen to become serious threats in Mordor. Orcs who rule fortresses and an army of vicious buffoons. These are the people in Talion’s crosshairs.

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But why have enemies when you could have friends?

Shadow of Mordor may have given you the choice to dominate or murder rival captains, but Shadow of War encourages you to avoid the final thrust of the sword. You’ve got a hell of a task ahead of you, reclaiming a forsaken land of mystery and danger. Why not have some back-up by your side? You can still kill your way across Mordor, but there’s a better story to be told in enforcing your will on these sacks of piss and muscles instead, bending them to your side and using them to overthrow tyrants.

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a more personal connection to the characters around you

It’s these actions, that the Nemesis System truly caters to. There’s a freedom of choice here, that allows players to approach their targets directly or from the shadows. You can weaken opponents once you have enough intel on them, convert them to your side and further weaken a fortress before you lay siege to it or plunge straight in and hope for the best. Each fortress is a puzzle, one that takes hours to solve if you’re patient enough to plot your strategy or can be barely conquered if you’re impatient. The choice is yours.

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That’s the greatest strength of Shadow of War. While Talion and Celebrimbor’s story of conquering Middle-Earth with the power of a new ring is adequate, it’s the moments between the main chapters that creates a more personal connection to the characters around you. Moments where the axe of Ar-Hissu the Gorger met my neck and I was saved at the last second by a timely assist from Ghash Cannibal.

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There were other memorable adventures as well. There was a battle for my soul as the Nazgul attacked, there was a Balrog on the loose that could only be stopped by the assistance of an ancient forest spirit and there was betrayal. Glorious, magnificent betrayal as Orcs that I believed to be dominated would soon show their true colours and attempt a mutiny.

There was one instance where not one, but three of my captains had banded together to end my reign. It ended not with their demise but a fate worse than death as I used the power of the new ring to shame them and let them live on in pain and misery as a reminder to all Orcs that to cross the Bright Lord was something to be discouraged.

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Something else that fans might have found discouraging? Loot boxes and micro-transactions. To say that Shadow of War has had a bumpy road so far would be the understatement of the year. Shadow of War’s microtransactions have been the subject of many an article, a bone of contention the size of Sauron’s Tower and even more despicable in certain circles.

Are they wholly unnecessary? Yes, yes they are and few will argue that fact. Can you get through the game without being constantly reminded that you need to spend some Miriam in the market? Absolutely. I’m not the biggest fan of in-game markets, but after finally finishing Shadow of War after spending more than 30 hours playing it, I didn’t need to buy anything to help my progression.

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it’s bloody massive it is

Beyond a simple reminder early in Shadow of War that the market was there, the game never once pushed these loot boxes and war chests on me. I still think they’re the equivalent of the chocolate in the cupboard when you’re on a diet, but the Shadow of War marketplace is hardly intrusive stuff. It’s simply there, with its key bait being weekly specials and a chance to shortcut your way through Mordor with better loot for real cash.

Which is entirely at odds with the world that Monolith has created. Mordor is massive, filled with dozens of missions that’ll easily fill up your Mirian coffers. Story missions, side-quests and avenging a fallen online comrade are just some of the content on offer, with the post-game experience offering even more. It’s…it’s bloody massive it is.

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You look at Shadow of War, and you’ve got a game which took the model of Shadow of Mordor and said “let’s do this again but better”. You’ve got a story that plays so loose and fast with the mythology of the Lord of the Rings that J.R.R Tolkien is now classified as an Auger oil rig drill due to the amount of friction that his coffin-spinning has generated.

There’s a slow-burn story at the start that is bolstered not by its dull protagonist but rather by a far more colourful supporting cast of familiar faces and Orcs. Aesier help me, they’re smelly and grotesque soldiers who can betray at me any second, but they’re also like family to me whenever I hear a rival Uruk shout “RANGER!” for the 793rd time.

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Simply put, it’s the best use of the Lord of the Rings property since Peter Jackson started filming the original saga so many years ago on the beautiful plains of New Zealand.

Last Updated: October 5, 2017

Middle-Earth: Shadow of War
Summary
Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is Lord of the Rings turned up to 11. Improving on nearly every idea from the original Shadow of Mordor game, it’s a gargantuan sequel in both size and scope.
9.0
Middle-Earth: Shadow of War was reviewed on PlayStation 4
83 / 100

Darryn Bonthuys

Something wrong gentlemen? You come here prepared to read the words of a madman, and instead found a lunatic obsessed with comics, Batman and Raul Julia's M Bison performance in the 1994 Street Fighter movie? Fine! Keep your bio! In fact, now might be a good time to pray to it!

  • For the Emperor!

    Finished without buying? Fake news! 😛

  • Phaezen

    Serious question, as the release date is in 5 days

    What guarantee is there that the loot drop balance of the released game will be the same as it is for the review copies?

    • There sn’t, but the rate at which you earn in-game currency means you’ll never be out of ways to get loot. If that does change post release, we’ll sure as hell make a noise about it.

  • Admiral Chief

    SAXY!
    I NEEEEEEEEED IT

  • Admiral Chief

    Also, well done on the review D, I can see you dug it!

  • Pofadder

    I was so looking forward to this game, but then with all the hype about the micro transactions I almost lost interest. But reading this and other reviews stating they are not required I am super hyped again. Will definitely get it now. Can’t wait!

  • Pieter Kruger

    One of the 1st games I’ll play on the X1X for sure!

  • Chris Muller

    Great review! was already very excited for this game, now am somehow even more so 😀

  • Original Heretic

    Crap. Was hoping this would be bad so that I could avoid it.

  • Fox1 – Retro

    What happened to the minus 2 points for micro-transactions and loot boxes? 😉

  • Mabenito

    Spent 120hrs in ME:SOM, and excitedly looking forward to 400.

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