One of the first people you meet in Middle-earth: Shadow of War is a woman with midnight black hair and a dress torn in intentionally strategic locations. You'll then learn that she's a version of Shelob, a giant deadly spider creature. The game explains her mysterious human form in time, and while fans of Lord of the Rings lore might have trouble embracing this unique interpretation of Tolkien storytelling, it shows that Shadow of War is a game that's willing to take risks with its source material. And, in a way, this example represents the full arc of the game: off-putting in the beginning, disappointing in the end, but seeing how they explain it all is an exciting ride.
Like its predecessor, Shadow of War is populated by powerful Orc Captains that have specific strengths, weaknesses, and personality traits defined by the game's Nemesis system. The number of fears, special abilities, and beneficial powers are much more robust than the first game, making it important to find a strategic approach to taking down some of the game's more powerful foes. The amount of information you get about each Orc once you've revealed its vulnerabilities can feel almost overwhelming, but you quickly adapt to the game's shorthand and what traits to look out for.
Your primary goal is to raise an army against the forces of Mordor by recruiting every Orcish leader you meet. These characters strike the perfect balance of humor and absurdity against the dull seriousness of the human cast, and you'll wish the quirkier denizens of Mordor could be constant companions instead of the brief vignettes that flash across the screen when you either kill or are killed by one. One especially colorful character I met was an Orc prophet who yelled at me about some serpent cult he was a part of; I ended up killing him, but it left a lot of questions in my mind about how Orc religions work.
Most of your time in Mordor is spent killing Orcs. Building off the first game, Shadow of War has a free-flowing combat system that lets you dominate creatures one-on-one but still stay in control when surrounded by a dozen or more adversaries. That momentum slows when too many things are happening on-screen at once, though. When an enemy captain is ready to be coerced over to your side an icon above his head turns green. Incoming attacks can be countered following a flashing prompt, and you have a slew of different abilities to take out legions of enemies. But the chaos of battle can make targeting opponents frustrating.
That's a shame because Shadow of War's most memorable moments revolve around its large-scale Siege battles, where you take over Orc-controlled fortresses using your own loyal followers. With an army of Orcs at your back, both pressing the offensive on a castle and protecting it are equally exciting, and the final entrance into the main hall of a fortress for the final fight feels as reverent and grand as walking into a towering cathedral in real life.
In the moment, these tense battles are the core of the Shadow of War experience, but the overarching narrative outside of the broad "tour Mordor, fight Sauron's forces," feels directionless. Part of that's because you don't spend enough time with any secondary characters (except for Gollum, whose brief appearance is somehow still too long). Characters you meet in the game have relatively short asides that range from the absolutely boring "save some Gondorians" to the furiously funny "learn how fight pits work with Bruz the Orc." It's hard to get invested in the stories of less interesting characters, and once you've completed a few of their quests, they disappear forever anyway. And, like most open-world games, after you've spent a couple hours running around collecting trinkets, it makes an NPC's entreaty about an imminent enemy invasion feel less immediately pressing.
But, narrative problems aside, some of the setpieces are breathlessly fun. You ride a drake, team up with some ridiculous Orcs, fight an imposing, flame-winged Balrog, battle the Ringwraiths. It's a greatest-hits compilation of the most bad-ass moments from The Lord of the Rings. After a slow-building introductory act, the game gains momentum as it crashes toward what seems like a final standoff against the forces of evil. And this fight addresses criticism of the previous game; it's an epic multi-stage battle that does still have QTEs, but no more than the ones you find while playing through the game normally.
Bafflingly that battle isn't the end of the game. Shadow of War continues on, but with its momentum drained completely. What should be an exciting climax instead descends into a tedious slog for a cutscene that doesn't quite feel worth the time and effort. In the game's actual final act, you cycle through the four fortresses you explored previously for a total of 20 more defending siege battles. If you haven't upgraded the Orcs you met early in the game--and up until this point, there was no reason to--you have to replace and upgrade your entire retinue of Orcs to match this more powerful invading force.
It's an entire section that should have been cut or severely truncated, and playing through the repetitious levels felt like padding meant only to make the game last longer.
The enemies you face level up with each encounter, so you're also forced into upgrading each castle over and over again, either by building up your current Orc army or finding new fighters and replacing the old. This Sisyphean quest has no corresponding significant characters to keep you company or explain why it's important to tackle the defense missions in the order you do. It's not even clear, exactly, why you want to do them at all.
More than once I felt like giving up on this quest thinking I'd stumbled onto some optional side content that was clearly only made for obsessed completionists. But enduring on, I found that finishing every stage unlocks the final cutscene and credits. It did not feel worth it.
It's an entire section that should have been cut or severely truncated, and playing through the repetitious levels felt like padding meant only to make the game last longer. But although the game's final act is the most egregious, there are several other systems that Shadow of War fails to justify.
Almost every item and Orc has some type of associated rarity (which scales from Common to Rare to Epic to Legendary), and with higher rarity comes more abilities. For Orcs, this means that they have additional, more powerful attributes that aren't available elsewhere. For weapons, it includes perks like "48% chance that a headshot lights enemies on fire." The buffs are useful, but the effects aren't so amazing that you'd keep a significantly underpowered weapon or Orc just for its benefits. It feels like a system tacked on purely to add another set of items to collect.
The menu systems for your Orcs and weapons is the part that feels most overburdened. It's grating that there's no way to sort or search through your own army if, say, you need an Orc with a cursed weapon and an immunity to beast attacks to take out an especially tricky opponent. But to find out what skills are active based on your current weapon loadout, you have to go to each item in your menu and read up on what you have equipped. There's no overview screen that lists out what effects you currently have active.
Like so many of the other game's systems, the storefront feels less predatory and more like a cluelessly unnecessary addition.
And buried within the weapon screens is yet another separate item menu, this one for gems. Gems are stat-boosters you find throughout the game that give each item yet another upgrade like increasing the chance that enemies killed with that weapon drop in-game currency or a 12.5% increase to the amount of experience you earn. They're helpful, but managing the upgrades for yet another set of items that are nested as a menu within your own equipment amounts to busywork.
Even with the Russian nesting doll of item menus, the most initially intimidating and complex of Shadow of War's systems is its skills menu. There are six primary skill tracks with points that have to be unlocked in order, and each skill has a separate unlockable set of 2-3 sub-skills (only one of which can be activated at any time). The ability grid is so dense and spread out that it's a chore to read through and decide what to put your points into every time you level up. And reallocating in the middle of battle (say if you want an area of effect attack to shoot out flames instead of poison), involves too much work and slows down battle too much to be practical.
As an example of how overwrought with options the skill system is, there's an upgrade that unlocks the ability to "collect items by walking over them." In normal play, you actually have to manually push a button to pick up every item you come across. It's an ability worth prioritizing when you're looking to spend skill points, but it's nonsensical that such a basic quality of life improvement isn't just the default way item collection works.
Despite the bloated feel of its systems, you earn all of these skill points, weapons, and Orcs at such a frantic pace that the game doesn't feel dragged down in the same way as it does by the final act.
Going beyond skills and menus, one of Shadow of War's more controversial additions is its online storefront where you can pay real-world money to earn loot boxes that have guaranteed high-rarity Orcs and equipment. One early quest in the game gives you a small sum of the paid currency to purchase some loot boxes, but you can also buy them from the store using an earned in-game currency called Mirian.
In our experience with the game, loot boxes purchased with in-game currency only earned us Epic tier rewards, instead of the paid currency’s guaranteed Legendaries. [Editor's Note 10/6 10:50 AM: It is possible to earn Legendary rewards from loot boxes bought with in-game currency, though they occur with less-frequency than Epic rewards.] However, the difference in quality between the Legendary and Epic Orc rewards, in practice, isn’t substantially different. And after finishing the game, even with buying a dozen or so 1,200 Mirian loot crates over the course of my adventure, I was still left with over 70,000 Mirian in reserve for buying plenty of more loot boxes. It’s also possible for Legendary items and Orcs to appear randomly in-game, so paying real money only serves as a guaranteed way to get one. Like so many of the other game’s systems, the paid storefront feels less predatory and more like an unnecessary addition.
And that addition sums up several of Shadow of War's additions--things like the storefront and the menus and loot system don't make the game terrible, it just would've been better without them. It tries to be larger than its predecessor, there are more abilities, more weapons, more Orcs, yet it leaves you wanting less. But at its core, it's a fun experience with brilliant moments that provide fascinating insight into some of the untold stories of Middle-earth. I just wish it had known when to stop.
Editor's note: GameSpot has updated the penultimate paragraph in this review to provide further clarification on the types of drops available through paid loot boxes. - Oct. 5, 2017, 5:33 PM PST