What you won’t like
Some story flaws and lore violations
Monolith introduces interesting characters like Shelob, inserting the giant spider into the story as a kind of temptress in women form. Only four Shelob-related missions involve an event of intense gravity that I won’t spoil. It seemed like Shelob should have been woven into more of the story, as her role in the story was fascinating. But the writers of the narrative also made a strange oversimplification in their tale that parted paths from the Tolkien lore.
Some violations in Tolkien lore happen early on in the game. It isn’t too serious, but I’m not sure why Monolith’s writers chose to oversimplify the Last Alliance of Elves and Men. Celebrimbor, the wraith in Shadow of War, was a great elven smith of the Second Age, when Sauron came to power. Celebrimbor made the rings of power and taught Sauron his craft. But Sauron forged the One Ring on Mount Doom in Mordor, as the One Ring to control all the others. When the elves and men discovered their danger, they gathered under the banners of Elf lord Gil-Galad and Elendil of the men of Numenorean descent. They led the Last Alliance of Elves and Men against Sauron, and they were victorious. In the Peter Jackson films, the film shortened this to show Elrond as one of the elf leaders. But in a Shadows of the Past mission in Shadow of War, we are told that it was Celebrimbor’s war against Sauron. That’s simply not true. Celebrimbor may have played a role, but he was not a war leader.
Then, a bizarre turn of the story goes unexplained for a long time. Shelob says something early on that seems like an ominous warning to Talion. She says to Celebrimbor that “you and Sauron are one.” That’s a twist that could make a lot of sense, as Sauron is known as the Great Deceiver, and Celebrimbor the wraith may be pulling the wool over Talion’s eyes. But we don’t get to follow up on this accusation at all, because Talion never asks Celebrimbor what Shelob meant by that remark. That seems a little too implausible, even if the lack of a query is convenient.
These might seem like nitpicks. But the bigger problem is that the grand story narrative isn’t woven through all of the missions, especially the Siege Battles. About three of the eight major campaigns focus on the story of Talion, Shelob, Celebrimbor, and the elf Eltariel, a new character.
I would rather have seen this story have a much greater arc, stretching across all of the campaigns and bringing them into the drama that keeps you going. After I finished a few of the campaigns, I didn’t really feel like finishing the rest of them. That’s because I felt I had already gotten through the true ending of the game.
It’s a small world after all
Despite the large and enticing map of Mordor, you can’t go everywhere you see a fortress. It just has five locations where you can explore: Minas Ithil, Cirith Ungol, Seregost, Nurnen, and Gorgoroth. And of those, the latter three are completely new imagined fortresses, as they weren’t described in Tolkien’s world. I imagine that Monolith will be able to add new fortresses as DLC. But it was a bit of a disappointment when I figured out that I couldn’t visit every marked location.
And this leads to a larger problem, where you go over familiar ground many times. I fought for control of the five fortresses many times (as many as 10 times, since the fortresses change hands and you most both attack them or defend them). While I enjoyed the battles, I resented being forced to fight for them over and over. You can have different outcomes with different Orc captains, and that makes the missions replayable. But these were devoid of any story relevance, and they turned out to be a grind in the long hard slog to finish the game. It starts to feel a lot like padding aimed at making sure you get your $60 worth of gameplay.
Some bugs need fixing
I played an early version of the game for the PS4. I ran into frequent clipping problems, where a character runs into an object that they shouldn’t be able to do. Like a character becoming part of a stone instead of standing next to it. Hopefully Monolith will fix these bugs by launch day. You may notice some flaws, but they aren’t showstoppers and may not be there in the final version.
Time is your enemy
Sauron’s forces have a habit of wearing you down, and it’s annoying to fight them over and over again. It’s not easy recruiting Orc captains to your side. You have to fight them in combat and break their morale. Once you do, you can recruit them. But some are ranked too high above you to be recruited, and some need to be humiliated, so their ranking comes down and they can be recruited after a second battle. Too often, I wound up killing the broken captains, applying too much force when I wanted to recruit them to my side instead. Some of the captains can’t be recruited. So the simple task of getting more captains on your side for a big battle takes a lot of rinse-and-repeat action.
Running places is a drag
Running fast is an improvement over the slow running in Shadow of Mordor. But the problem with running fast on the PS4 is that I have to push the left stick down often and press the X button at the same time to sprint. And the problem with sprinting is that it takes a while to run to a spot where I can join a mission. Why can’t I just skip the running and join a mission directly? This is a part of the user interface that, along with the long loading times, makes the game stretch out forever. You can fast travel between some parts of the map, but you still have to do a lot of running that simply isn’t fun. Call me a couch potato gamer, but I got tired of running.
Middle-earth: Shadow of War is a huge open world, but it is more of a grind than it should be. It is a towering achievement that lives up to its hype. Monolith seemed to oversell a few features, like the idea of Orc tribes. You see a lot of internecine combat among Orcs, but I didn’t notice any clear factions. The story has a lot of gravity, but it sadly doesn’t stretch across all of the campaigns. I wished Monolith brought more structure to that narrative. And, as I’ve pointed out, a number of flaws make the experience fall short of the kind of impact that the game could have had.
It sets up a challenge for Monolith to do better in the next game. I’m looking forward to getting more of the story of Talion’s tragedy. We know it’s going to end in a sad way, since Talion has been erased from the history books by the time of the The Lord of the Rings. I just hope that the storytellers make the journey both heart-rending and memorable. They’re standing on the edge of greatness now, and I hope the next game will fulfill the destiny of making Talion’s story a part of the Tolkien canon.
Middle-earth: Shadow of War came out for PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4 on October 10. Warner Bros. sent us a PS4 code for the purposes of this review.
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