Middle-earth: Shadow of War is finally out in the wild. Its launch was tainted with some not-so-minor controversy over its use of loot crates and their gameplay-impacting nature. This is definitely a troubling trend, and one that doesn’t look like it’s going away (I’m looking at you, Battlefront II), so I was actually apprehensive when I loaded up Shadow of War for the first time. I was expecting to be bombarded with thinly veiled attempts at manipulating me into paying money for content. But, 16 hours in, I’ve had none of that.
In fact, I’ve had and am continuing to have a hell of a lot of fun with Shadow of War. Here’s eight reasons why I’m digging it.
You can disable the loot crates
Full disclosure: I haven’t tested this, because I’d already started the game when the heads up came along. There are a number of outlets reporting on the fix, though, and it’s as simple as rejecting the terms of service. Uncheck the box that says you confirm to the terms, and you can still play the game, except with the online functionality disabled. Because this ‘online functionality’ includes loot crates, they’re gone. You also lose the option to raid other player’s bases and perform nemesis-style missions (where you avenge other player’s deaths in your own game world), but you will never have to deal with being incentivised to use microtransactions. Plus, it also helps that…
There’s a tonne of content
When I first opened the world map to figure out how big the game was, I was concerned it was small. After completing the first section, the game opens up into a much bigger world, and the obviousness of main quests and side quests disappears into a world teeming with content and things to do. There’s a bunch of collectables, orc towers to topple, hidden elvish words to sniff out and decipher, plus a whole lot more.
There’s nothing wrong with the story
I’ve read a lot of hate towards the story in Shadow of War, but I don’t really understand it. The storyline of the original game wasn’t exactly of Tolkien calibre, and it’s the same thing here. But that’s not the same as the storytelling being terrible. Granted, the first game was dealing with revenge, which makes it a little easier to push the plot forward. In Shadow of War, Shelob is a major player, and apparently she has a human form, too. That’s a little odd at first, but use the tried-and-proven fantasy genre explanation for it—because magic!—and you’ll get over it pretty quickly. More than a dozen hours in, and I’m enjoying the storyline, particularly when you meet…
Brûz the Chopper
Shadow of Mordor had Ratbag, and he was honestly pretty annoying, albeit occasionally funny. As far as orcish companions go, Shadow of War blows it out of the water with Brûz the Chopper. FYI, Brûz is pretty much pronounced “Bruce”. Brûz may be voiced by English actor Gideon Emery, but he puts on a fantastic deep-voiced ocker (should that be orc-er?) accent for what quickly proves to be one of the greatest companions of all time. Brûz acts as a guide for some of Shadow of War’s newer mechanics, but he does it in such an entertaining way that you’ll grin like an idiot whenever he’s on screen.
The WWE-style intros
This feature was in Shadow of Mordor, but it’s been turned up in terms of the hamminess and, more importantly, relevance to your encounters with once-(sometimes-literally) burnt, twice-angered orc nemeses. It does break the fourth wall a bit in terms of how, like Assassin’s Creed, time inexplicably freezes for these dialogue moments. But it doesn’t matter, because they’re so much fun, punctuated by tongue-in-cheek orc names and ghostly companion Celebrimbor’s always-serious pronunciation of their names. It gets better, too, when you’ve already defeated them at least once before, as they bear the scars of your last battle and make call-backs to where that particular battle went down. It’s a nice personalised touch that helps push the emergent narrative.
There are so many freakin’ orcs in Shadow of War, and they work together quite well to take you down. It’s easy to go from full health to a downed state if you’re not careful. Even the regular orcs can be tricky if you run into too many varieties. The shielded ones require different tactics to the trolls, for instance, and then there are the ranged bastards that ping you from afar. To get back health, you have to steal life from an enemy, but that’s usually always impractical in the middle of a fight. Despite scoring some of the better combat unlocks, the fighting definitely feels tougher this time around and, unlike Shadow of Mordor, you can’t counter your way to scores of easy kills.
Shadow of Mordor let you ride flesh-loving caragors and head-smashing graugs. You could eventually upgrade with a Shadow Mount ability that let you do that instantly, and at range. Those two mounts return in Shadow of War (alongside Shadow Mount), but you can eventually unlock the option to summon them. This is particularly handy when you get cornered by multiple higher-level baddies, eager to take you down so they can rise through the ranks. But the best bit is the new mount: dragons. I haven’t yet unlocked the option to summon one, but I did get to fly one over a battle, and it’s basically the A-10 Warthog of Middle-earth. As soon as I get the option to summon one, you’d better believe I won’t ever spare a thought for caragors or graugs.
The Nemesis System was one of the greatest parts of Shadow of Mordor. It’s been expanded beautifully for Shadow of War, and lets you build an actual orc army. If you want to play stealthily at the start, you can shift around a base and convert the archers, or any other orc fool who you stumble upon. When things go south, it doesn’t matter because you have a makeshift orc battalion to help you in the fight. They’re also handy to use as impromptu health power-ups, if you get stuck. They can be summoned, too, and you can even assign a bodyguard to protect you when you’re out and about. Then you have to contend with the relationships between orcs, which sometimes means they’ll betray you. It helps keep the orc-slaying fresh.
That’s why I’m loving Shadow of War. In fairness, I’ve yet to encounter the apparent grind of the final act of the storyline, but what I’ve played in the lead-up to that is thoroughly enjoyable. It’s one of those open-world games where I fully intend on doing one thing only to realise, hours later, that I’ve been distracted by dozens of other temptations along the way. Let me know what you think of Shadow of War in the comments section.