Saturday, December 9, 2017

Shadow of War

Release date: October 10th, 2017
Developed by: Monolith Productions
Published by: Warner Bros. Interactive
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4
Available on: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

Reviewed by: TheyKeepOnRising
Estimated play time: 40 hours
Completion: Completed on "Normal" difficulty, full ending

The return of Talion the Gravewalker.

Although its controversy is currently being overshadowed by other more popular titles, Middle-earth: Shadow of War has been no stranger to discussion around its questionable business practices. This time, the commotion revolves around the introduction of loot boxes into a full-priced, singleplayer game that didn't have any in its previous installment. The reason I say "this time" is because some will remember that the first game in the series, Shadow of Mordor, was also surrounded by controversy up to its release. Prior to Shadow of Mordor's launch in 2014, the publisher Warner Bros. only provided early review copies to reviewers who agreed to a brand deal, which is a shady business practice that strongly encourages positive review scores from reviewers. This decision was puzzling since the first game was actually quite good, but impressions were now soured by Warner Bros. underhanded decision.

It seems this series is doomed to be controversial, which is a shame because Monolith Productions is the talented studio behind both titles. For those who aren't aware, Monolith is responsible for two of the most innovative games of their generation: F.E.A.R. and Condemned: Criminal Origins. F.E.A.R. is renown for its tense paranormal horror, fantastic enemy A.I., and brilliant visuals for the time. Condemned was similarly praised for its dark psychological horror and frantic melee combat. In fact, you could add the aforementioned Shadow of Mordor to the list, with its universally-praised "Nemesis System" that added depth and believable interactions from the orcs you encountered in the game. Monolith's ideas have raised the overall standard of games everywhere, and because of this, I'm always eager to support their work.

Monolith has a handful of great games that rightfully deserve praise, but they also have sequels to those same games that are often considered subpar by even diehard fans like myself. F.E.A.R. 2, for example, featured a story that contradicted the first game, lacked any gameplay innovation, and finished with an outrageous ending. Condemned 2 added a large focus on guns over melee combat, and tried to explain away the mysterious parts of the game as sonic voice magic (I'm not even kidding). With controversy and Monolith's track record for sequels in mind, there's plenty of reason to be worried about Shadow of War, but I cast all that aside to give the game the cleanest slate possible for this review. Will Shadow of War fall victim to the curse of Monolith sequels, or will it rise above and stand as yet another landmark game for the generation?

The intro seems rushed and highly questionable.

Taking place shortly after the end of first game (or so I assume because it's never clearly said) Shadow of War begins with Talion (the Gravewalker) and Celebrimbor (the probably evil elf ghost) forging a new ring of power in Mt. Doom. After the ring is complete, Celebrimbor is torn from Talion's body somehow, and then immediately captured by a dark force. Talion equips the ring of power, which keeps him from dying without Celebrimbor's possession, and tracks the ghost down to rescue him. He finds Celebrimbor is being held hostage by Shelob, the giant spider from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, who can now transform into a seductive elf form whenever she wants.

Shelob demands that Talion trades her the ring for the return of his elf companion, while Celebrimbor protests and seems he rather stay hostage than give anyone the ring. Talion agrees and the trade is made, with Celebrimbor pretty upset about the whole deal, but before anything can escalate, Shelob shows Talion a vision of the future. In the vision, Talion sees the human city of Minas Ithil falling to an orc invasion, so he rushes off to defend it and deal with Shelob later. The goal of the invasion seems to be for the forces of Sauron to acquire an artifact called the Palantir, which grants the wielder vision to see anything they want.

Everything I just explained happens within the first 10 minutes of the game, all with cutscenes and about a full minute of minor gameplay. We see Talion gets a ring of power and loses it almost immediately, Shelob is now an elf shapeshifter who can see the future and imprision ghosts, there's a human city ridiculously close to Sauron's legions that is under siege, and the Palantir from the Lord of the Rings trilogy is in possession of the humans that reside in said city. Why is a powerful artifact like the Palantir being kept in the city that is also the closest to the orcish hordes and therefore one of the least safe places it can be kept? This question is unfortunately never answered, and to me the intro seems rushed and highly questionable.

Abilities make you feel powerful and versatile.

Middle-earth: Shadow of War is a third-person action game that plays like equal parts Batman: Arkham Asylum and Assassin's Creed. While playing the game, you will be largely chasing markers on your map, fighting thousands of orcs, and completing a couple dozen quests. There is an ability early on you can unlock that will allow you to mind control orcs, and mind controlling an orc officer will add him to your army and allow you to give him specific orders. There are a handful of regions, and each region contains its own orc stronghold that has an Overlord at the top, Warchiefs in the middle, and dozens of officers at the bottom. Later in the game, your time will be spent managing strongholds and attempting to max the power of your orc forces.

Combat begins fairly basic, with Talion being capable of attacking and parrying with his sword, jumping over enemies, and firing his bow, but more abilities can be unlocked as you level up and spend skill points. Orcs come in different classes, and each class needs to be handled in a specific way or you will be immediately punished. Orc Berserkers need their attacks parried, orc Defenders need to be attacked from behind, and orc Spearthrowers need to have their attacks dodged. Using the wrong strategy against an orc can result in immediate punishment, such as trying to attack a Berserker directly, or trying to parry a Defender. There are a handful of different classes with different strategies required, and since you can be swarmed with dozens of orcs at once, it can be challenging to respond to each class correctly.

The longer Talion fights in combat without being hit, the more his Might meter will be charged. Once fully charged, Might can be used to unleash a powerful special ability, including an instant-kill attack against non-officer orcs, or even a drain attack that can mind control a non-officer orc instantly and heal Talion some. Successfully killing enemies will charge a second bar called "Elven Rage", which turns Talion invincible and allows for dozens of instant arrow attacks when used. There's also a third bar called focus, which charges automatically over time, and allows Talion to slow time when aiming his bow, and use other abilities like his ghost sprint or multi dominate. Having so many abilities can make you feel powerful and versatile, but keeping track of so many meters is exhausting.

Orc personalities range from ridiculous to bad ass.

Once again, the best part of the game by far is the Nemesis System, a term coined for the way orc officers will respond to you and remember encounters you have. For example, you may defeat an orc in combat by lighting him on fire, and the next time you see him he will be scarred from the burns and terrified of any fire he sees. Another example, an orc may remember if you jumped over him in combat, so he will adapt and counter your attempts to jump over him in the future. The system was fantastic in the previous Middle-earth game, and is even better in Shadow of War by having more ways the orcs can react and adapt from your actions.

The orc officers themselves have a fantastic variety of personalities and traits, ranging from ridiculous to bad ass. You can learn what strengths and weaknesses individual orcs have, and attack them with an orc from your army who will have an advantage over them. Additionally, orcs have levels and rarities, which should be considered when recruiting them to your forces. Orcs above Talion's level cannot be recruited, but can be publicly shamed to bring their level down and later controlled if you want them badly enough. "Epic" and "Legendary" orcs will have fewer weaknesses and more strengths, making them generally more valuable to have.

A significant change to the orc control system is that orcs can now break free from your control and betray you. This isn't really explained in the game as to why they can now sometimes break free, but it creates some great gameplay moments. I had a bodyguard named Black-Blade, an epic orc who wore a hood and carried a sword gushing with shadowy dark magic. He would quickly dispatch any orc foolish enough to oppose me, and was generally a cool bodyguard to have. What was meant to be a pretty standard encounter against an orc Warchief turned into chaos when Black-Blade showed up unexpectedly and turned on me, killing me and becoming my new nemesis.

Stopping to manage your inventory is extremely tedious.

For the purpose of this review, I made myself a goal to never open a loot box in Shadow of War, or visit the Market (where loot boxes can be bought or opened) even a single time. The interviews with the developers up to release claimed that the game was balanced to a point where the player will never be pressured to buy a loot box in order to progress, and I wanted to test this claim by removing it as an option as entirely as possible. With that in mind, I can honestly say that I never felt the need to purchase a loot box due to balance, but the game absolutely throws it in your face as much as possible. Every time you enter the menu, the Market button is flashing for attention, and almost everything in the game feels built in a manner so it will eventually lead to purchasing a loot box.

For example, one of the new mechanics implemented in the game is an equipment system, which consists of swords, daggers, bows, armors, cloaks, and rings. Each of these impact a certain attribute, and items found come with different item levels and rarities (much like the orcs). Additionally, each of these items can be augmented by gems, which also come in different tiers of power. Since you level up very quickly in this game, items become outdated fast, and you will find yourself looking to improve your gear so you can handle more difficult situations. Stopping to manage your inventory every few levels is extremely tedious and unfulfilling, especially since none of the items stood out as unique or beneficial for anything but the raw stats.

To make matters worse, almost every single system is connected to the new in-game currency called Mirian. To fully access your equipment's abilities, you need to spend Mirian to unlock it. To be able to equip the gems you have collected, you need to spend Mirian for each piece of equipment. If you want to bring special siege weapons or a squad of Spearthrowers while attacking or defending a stronghold, that cost Mirian as well. At first, the currency is fairly easy to acquire since it is rewarded by quests, but later on when you are regularly defending your strongholds, Mirian becomes a scarce resource. Although Mirian is not a currency you can directly purchase from the Market, you can find it in loot boxes, which can be purchased with gold bought with real money.

Run, climb, and jump should never be the same button.

While the new mechanics that encourage microtransactions may seem like they are the worst part of Shadow of War, I actually found them to be but minor annoyances compared to my major issues with the game. A disclaimer before I go any further: the complaints I have are (as usual) based entirely on my opinion, and you may or may not feel the same for some of these items. This list of complaints formed from my 40 or so hours playing Shadow of War, so your mileage will certainly vary depending on how much time you play the game for, and how thorough you are with completion. I also loved Shadow of Mordor (the previous entry), and earned the platinum trophy in that game, so it's not a matter of me disliking this genre.

This may be a surprise to some, but I found the combat to be unforgivably bad for the entirety of the game. While I had no issues with the previous game Shadow of Mordor, here I found my character blatantly ignoring my commands and performing suicidal actions. It was a struggle to get Talion to perform the correct attack, and often times he would use it on an ally or a minor enemy instead. Sometimes Talion would turn around and slide 15-20 feet in the opposite direction just to attack the wrong orc. This was extremely frustrating when trying to brand a fleeing orc officer, and Talion turns around to grab an offscreen enemy instead. Coupled with the punishing rock-paper-scissors combat with specific orc classes, I died dozens of times and ragequit more than I have in recent memory.

Most of your time outside of combat will be spent running around the map, which is made far worse by just how terrible I felt the climbing mechanics are. Talion would grab onto walls when I didn't want him to, and sit there awkwardly as I struggled to get him down. Certain statues can be destroyed while Talion is standing on them, and getting him to stand in the specific spot was always a trial of patience for me. While struggling in a fight against a horde of orcs, I tried to climb up a tower to escape the stunlocking attacks, and watched in horror as Talion performed a swan dive once he was nearly half way up the tower. This is a perfect example of why run, climb, and jump should never be mapped to the same button.

Conclusion: Is Middle-earth: Shadow of War worth the price of admission?

This review took me a lot longer than I was expecting, mostly because there were many days I simply could not bring myself to start up Shadow of War. Knowing I was about to endure what I felt was the most uninspired and frustrating game I have played this year was not a great motivator to pick up my controller. But to my surprise, after dozens of hours played and approaching the end of the game, I found myself blindsided by what I believe was one of the best an unexpected story twists this year. Suddenly it became clear to me: I understood what story the game was trying to tell, buried beneath hours and hours of padding and game mechanics practically designed around microtransactions. It was with this realization that I reached peak disappointment with Shadow of War, because with more time and less corporate influence, this would have been a great game.

If you've made it this far into the review, then you have probably anticipated my verdict for Shadow of War. I felt the story was bland, the gameplay was broken and repetitive, and everything I previously loved had been redesigned to orbit around loot boxes. Save for a single moment of brilliance towards the end, nothing about Shadow of War felt better than a mindless chore or a box to check from a list. Do yourself a favor and pass on this one, and pick up a game from a publisher that respects its playerbase. It might be worth buying once its 20$ for the GOYT edition, but certainly not before then. If you are looking for a game to play instead of Shadow of War, here's a quick list of good alternatives released this year:

  • Horizon: Zero Dawn
  • Nioh
  • Nier: Automata
  • Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice
  • Uncharted: The Lost Legacy
  • Assassin's Creed: Origins
  • Nemesis system
  • Moment of brilliance near the end

  • Boring, uninspired story
  • Tons and tons of padding
  • Equipment system is irritating
  • Frustrating combat and movement
  • Random punishing difficulty spikes
  • Everything designed around loot boxes

Verdict: Avoid