Also available on PlayStation 4 and Windows
This review is dedicated to my mother who FINALLY realized that even though I'm an adult with a career, I'd rather get video games for Christmas than socks.
Shadow of War is the much anticipated sequel to Shadow of Mordor, and I had to force myself to resist the urge to pre-order it in my mortal struggle to stop buying things I can't afford. Fortunately my mother is a paragon of goodness and got me the Xbox One release for Christmas (bless her soul) knowing that I wanted to play it with the Xbox One X enhancements. Needless to say, this was the first game I played when I got home from visiting family.
Shadow of War takes almost everything that made Shadow of Mordor great and expands upon it. I say almost because the one thing that I felt took a hit in the sequel was the narrative. The story is very nicely tied up at the end (as opposed to the "screw you, buy the sequel" cliffhanger of the first game), but overall, it felt a lot less compelling and enthralling to me than Shadow of Mordor. With regards to gameplay, visuals, and replayability, however, Shadow of War definitely raised the bar. Whereas the first game's plot largely revolved around revenge for your murdered family, Shadow of War is all about Celebrimbor's bizarre obsession with Sauron and the realization of his goal to become a pointy eared zombie Hitler.
The game is absolutely gorgeous, and that's one of the reasons I wanted to play on Xbox One rather than PlayStation 4. While it still looks great on PS4 Pro, not only does the One X run the game at a full 2160p (as opposed to upscaled 1440p) but the One X uses the high resolution textures from the PC release whereas the PS4 Pro uses the lower resolution textures for the standard console releases. Either system will give you a beautiful game, obviously, but if I've got both systems, I might as well try to get the best image out of my 4K screen, yeah? And man, did it look beautiful. Cinematics looked photorealistic, and the environment looked absolutely believable up until you were practically right up against a wall specifically looking for flaws. It's a remarkable graphical accomplishment, and it makes me excited to see what developers will be able to do with the One X down the line.
If you've played Shadow of Mordor, you pretty much know what to expect from the game's combat, and the overall gameplay is basically Shadow of Mordor but more. You get to brainwash/recruit orc captains to fight for you, but Shadow of War takes that a step further and lets you conquer entire regions of Mordor and choose and overlord and warchiefs from your captains and assign captains to guard your warchiefs or ambush enemy captains. You have to defend these citadels from orc attacks, and you can even attack other players' citadels although the defenses are handled by AI. Still, though, that online component gives the game a lot of replayability, especially with the little big of customization you can do for your defenses and attacks. Regardless of whether you're perfecting your warchiefs' defenses or setting up your assault teams to attack and conquer other forts, you get a bit of agency; each warchief or assault team leader you add gives you three upgrade options that improve your power. For defense, for example, you could add spikes that prevent enemies from climbing your walls or a captive dragon that spews balefire out of your gate at attackers. For your assault teams, you could reinforce them with sappers that suicide bomb enemy gates or siege beasts that fling poisonous projectiles over enemy walls. It adds a certain element of strategy that gives the base attacks and defenses an added depth.
Shadow of War is, at the end of the day, an action RPG, but it's a bit different from your norm. The combat follows the formula that WB perfected in the Batman Arkham games and adapted for lethal Lord of the Rings combat as opposed to "don't kill people" Batman combat. When you gain levels and skill points, you have a few dozen different skills you can unlock that are always active, but each of those skills have two or three enhancements that you can unlock. The catch, though, is that one enhancement can be active per skill, so you have choose. Do you spend your skill points by unlocking one enhancement per skill, or do you go all-in on a skill and switch out enhancements as the situation calls for it? By the end of the game (the level cap is 60), you'll have every skill and every enhancement unlocked, and if you went for 100% completion like I did, you'll probably finish the game with three or four skill points left over with nothing on which to spend them. Those skills and enhancements should not be underestimated, though; they can mark the difference between victory and defeat, and they can easily turn a brutally difficult fight into a laughably easy victory.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is one of the greatest Lord of the Rings gaming experiences available, and I say that as an AVID and passionate fan of The Third Age (which seriously needs an HD remaster). The combat is intense at times can feel insurmountable, but aside from a few instances of BS immunity combos in enemy captains, it's completely manageable with some skill and patience. I didn't notice any major difficulty spikes nor did I notice any points where the game felt too easy. The whole thing had a very Goldilocks feel with regards to challenge, and the agency it gave you over strategy and how to attack enemy strongholds gave you the sense that you had real influence in the outcome of events in Mordor. If you enjoy the combat in the Arkham games, the definitely give both Shadow of Mordor and Shadow of War a shot, and if you're a serious Lord of the Rings fan, then there's no debate - this game is an absolute must play.
My Rating - 5 Neps
I'm a teacher.
And I like to play video games. I like to collect video games. I like to talk about video games, and I like to write about video games. During the day, I teach high school history; during the night, I spend my spare time gaming. Then I write about it.