Middle-Earth: Shadow of War review

A grand showcase of its enemy AI it may be, but this follow-up to Shadow of Mordor has a few balance issues.

There's a whole lot going on in Middle-Earth: Shadow of War — things you do, things that happen to you, and things that honestly just happen around you whether you like it or not. That's the beauty and the curse of developer Monolith's still-novel Nemesis System™: it makes for a wonderful world of algorithmically-determined surprises. But after several dozen hours with the game, I get the feeling the devs don't have total control over their own unruly beast.

If you missed Shadow of War's slightly less generically subtitled predecessor, Shadow of Mordor, you probably don't know the story. That's fine. It's not a good one and continues to not be in the sequel. Even if you do care, Shadow of War gives you a several-second rundown at the top: vanilla video game dad #37, Talion, watched his family be (gasp) murdered, then he got possessed by an elf from The Silmarillion. The recap explains Talion was tragically fated to get rad superpowers and forge a new One Ring, thereby making him even more rad, until he immediately loses it in the opening cutscene.

All of the above puts Talion at odds with the big bad of The Lord of the Rings universe, Sauron, yet again. More importantly, it pits him against the Dark Lord's colorful band of black-blooded goblins, the orcs. That's where the Nemesis System comes in. As you cut, enslave, shame, and threaten your way through the horde, individual orcs develop personalities based on preset factors and your own actions. They become your allies and, of course, your nemeses, as it were.

As in the first game, Talion's ultra-potent ghost magic boils Shadow of War into a rock and roll power fantasy condensed version of The Lord of the Rings fiction. You teleport between foes, blow up their heads, piggyback on dragons, and beat up a Balrog. Not one drop of the Peter Jackson films’ remaining subtlety or majesty has been poured into Shadow of War.

But, hey, if you're going to game-ify a series about the slow seduction of power, you might as well go all the way. And boy howdy does Shadow of War ever go all-in. Besides the aforementioned silliness, I bumped into singing orcs who carried lutes into battle and at least a couple brought back to life with robot parts. The wildly unique, off-tone personalities of your foes (and eventual thralls) are always the most surprising part of the game.

These surprises are half the fun in Shadow of War. The combat is fine — a very Warner Bros.-appropriate blend of stealth, parkour, and hit-and-counter combat in the style of Arkham Asylum — but I'm here to see what happens next. Which orc will manage to kill me to earn a promotion? What new personality will he adopt after I "kill" him and he comes back seeking revenge? Will one of those I‘ve magically enslaved betray me at the most inopportune moment?

It's a game of systems that fire and backfire in your face. It's up to you to work through the pain and find creative counters. Failing that, you're meant to develop miniature revenge or frenemy stories against the orcs, ogres, and such that wrong you. It's a system designed to mathematically generate drama.

The problem is that drama needs conflict and an immortal ghost-man power fantasy isn't exactly conducive to a fair fight. I fracked my way through Shadow of War's goofily named menagerie on "normal" difficulty. And the hyperactive combat only gets easier as fallen foes drop better swords or armor and I delved deeper into the game's light dusting of RPG upgrades. Talion is canonically unstoppable, in that his ghostly friend just brings him back to life after each death; but he's also functionally so, in that his ghost powers put him leagues beyond an entire orc platoon's ability to kill.

Monolith seems to know it, too. Although it doesn't appear the developer found a satisfying way to balance the player's omnipotence and the Nemesis System's need to slap you around a bit. So instead the game "cheats."

Decapitated orcs come back with their heads sewn back on. Dismembered ones get high fantasy cybernetics. Occasionally, a revivified enemy will return to tell you how weird evil maggots filled up his corpse and sent him on his way. These, too, are wonderfully ridiculous wrinkles to the little stories Shadow of War develops for its procedurally generated adversaries. If nothing else, it's just plain impressive that there are so many uniquely voiced and modeled creatures.

But impressive and memorable don't necessarily mean "fun." By the fourth or fifth time you knock a particular nemesis's teeth back, the sense of danger and unpredictability seriously peels away. The game wants you to have a nemesis — needs you to, to prove that the core concept works — and if regular gameplay can't give you one it will force them on you.

The obvious solution is to bump up the difficulty, which you can do anytime. But that just reverses the problem in my experience. Instead of cheating you into artificial drama, Shadow of War cheats you into a bloody puddle.

I tried to assault a high-ranking warchief on the game's harder difficulty setting. I was ambushed by an orc captain right outside the chief's keep, but forced him to retreat. Once inside and dueling, there were two more ambushes — then a third one by the orc I'd just beaten. A "friendly" captain I'd enslaved earlier eventually came to my aid... Only for his on-screen nametag to flip from blue to red as he said he was betraying me. Even then, I didn't run into real trouble until every named orc started flashing with the word "adapted" as I tried to stun or vault over them to attack from behind. That meant they were immune to most of my abilities.

Other players have told me to play with my food more — to let enemies retreat, reduce their levels by "shaming" them, and to otherwise just not finish them off or recruit them. That feels antithetical to the game's core promise of getting incensed and attached to foes over time, just like the difficulty settings' artificial spikes. I don't want to plan my own surprise party and tell myself I'm shocked when someone wheels out a cake.

When the game does surprise me, though, it's still a delight. I do remember running into the singing orc for the first time and telling myself "I'm coming back for you later." I did want to get back at the shield-bearing captain who cut me down because I couldn't figure out how break his defenses. I was excited when I finally broke a legendary soldier's iron will with repeated shaming; enough to mind control the rare unit to my side.

I trundled through a desert of open-world game cruft and transparent attempts to force those moments, but they did occur naturally at times. Those peaks are worth the valleys, I think, but some ham-handed balance keeps Shadow of War from being quite the perfect revenge-tale-generator it could have been.

Verdict: Yes