Middle-earth: Shadow of War (PlayStation 4) Review

By Thom Compton 28.10.2017

Review for Middle-earth: Shadow of War on PlayStation 4

From atop a lookout tower, Talion peers over and sees a small camp of orcs warming by the fire. As they seek much needed warmth from the burning tinder, Talion aims his arrow into the fire pit, and sends not an arrow, but himself crashing into the pit. As the firestorm quickly unleashes upon the enemies' now empty corpses, a remaining informant runs away, half on fire and screaming. He will certainly sound an alarm. Talion clears the forty feet or so between them with ease, and sucks intel on a nearby war chief from the flailing orcs melon. Talion is done with him, slitting his throat and moving on. This situation is commonplace in Monolith Production's Middle-earth: Shadow of War, as Talion and Celebrimbor square off against the armies of the evil Sauron.

Middle-earth: Shadow of War, for the uninitiated, is an open world action RPG that feels like a cross between the Batman: Arkham series and Kingdoms of Amalur. This time around, Talion is fighting against orc armies, while also slowly building his own to square off against Sauron's massive army. For a game so expertly crafted, however, it has far too many little issues to be called a truly paramount and near perfect title. That doesn't stop it from being a truly great RPG, however, so let's break it down.

In the interest of full disclosure, not being a big Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit fan, it's hard to tell whether or not the story deviates a tremendous deal from the main canon. Therefore, it is imperative the story only be judged on whether or not it's a good story in and of itself. Fortunately, it is. While it occasionally gets a bit confusing, the narrative manages to get better the further in you go. This doesn't feel like a single plotline, but like a massive war in which you are in charge of really digging in your heels and seeing it through to the end. The opening act manages to set the seeds very well by giving the events a good amount of time to actually build up. While many other games would simply drop us into the moment that culminates the introduction as a short tutorial, Shadow of War gives the events plenty of time to build, crescendo, and then settle down as the next act begins.

As the game continues, the story can get a bit off track, but fortunately, this helps build up the characters. Some missions almost serve as bottle missions to get to know some of the characters better, though that is unlikely the reason for their existence. This is pretty fantastic, though, as a few of the characters are otherwise downright boring. Shelob spends a lot of her time on screen looking like she might have given up her personality in a Faustian deal to look like your scantily-dressed aunt who doesn't really want to be there for the holidays.

Screenshot for Middle-earth: Shadow of War on PlayStation 4

Talion seems cut from the hero prototype begun so long ago by the likes of Beowulf, and he never adds anything of merit to most conversations he's in. Even the quasi-Obi Wan figure that is Celebrimbor manages to be more interesting at any given moment, and he mostly waxes on about his ring for the first act of the game. Fortunately, the parts make the whole better, because the interaction between these three is actually pretty riveting, though not wholly memorable. Some of the more interesting characters, like Castimir and Baranor, have moments of real character exploration, but it's largely for nought. Castimir simply isn't in the game long enough, and Baranor is all too often just an accessory for battles.

This leaves the orcs, who thankfully, are largely a brilliantly diverse bunch. An early orc ally, Bruz, is one of the funnier characters in the game. While perhaps they, as enemies, aren't as diverse as you might expect, as sentient beings, they are largely unique to one another. A few of them seem to threaten Talion with the same insults, thematically, but they feel much more interesting and engaging than the human cast manages to.

Combat is, as you'd expect, a return to the Batman style of quick combat that slows down to allow the player to see the finer details of what is happening. Thanks to a diverse and easy-to-navigate skill tree, expect to get some truly inventive and sadistic moves to add to your arsenal. Thanks to the Nemesis system, you will gain a reputation as the game goes on, leading to more varieties of battles, at least on the surface. This further gives the world agency, as your every kill echoes through the ranks, leading many Captains to know who you are on sight.

Screenshot for Middle-earth: Shadow of War on PlayStation 4

There are a lot of different types of missions, from Fortress conquests to online vendettas. The Fortress attacks are the newest addition, and are fairly enjoyable. At the beginning of the second act, you gain the ability to dominate enemies, which allows you to build an army. This army is used to attack fortresses, and requires some smart planning ahead of time to be successful. Captains have personalities after all, and this is factored heavily into attacking each fortress. Frankly, it's important when sending them on their own missions as well, as other Captains may very well be your Captain's Kryptonite. Then, like a Sack of Rome, the hard-built army descends on the fortress, and the culmination of hours of work is a truly triumphant battle.

This is Middle-earth: Shadow of War's strength. Everything is earned, but not in the traditional sense. The game isn't really all that difficult, but it requires a lot of work to get to each of these grand moments. This works well considering that there are points where, despite the game's massive size, it just feels like there's nothing to do sometimes. It can occasionally feel endless and overwhelming, and it can be easy to lose interest because of this. These occasional moments of spectacle do wonders to reignite the player's interest, even if they have a tendency to be really far apart. It wouldn't be surprising to see a player ready to quit an hour or two before the next big thing arrives.

This is largely in part due to the remaining mission types. While vendettas are fairly enjoyable, they can feel a bit humdrum as the game goes on, even with new and distinct Captains. Many of the missions, like hunting Shelob's memories or destroying monuments, are really just collectible quests, though they manage to feel a bit different than the average collectathon. The main story quests range from attacking fortresses, saving captives, and following targets to gather more information. Thanks to good set-pieces throughout the game, these manage to feel unique for a while. In the later hours, though, they may not be enough to hold your attention.

Screenshot for Middle-earth: Shadow of War on PlayStation 4

Visually, Middle-earth: Shadow of War is very nice to look at, although, as one might expect, the further something is away, the better it looks. Some of the environments, like Cirith Ungol, aren't quite as interesting on the eyes, while areas like Nurnen and Seregost, are astonishingly beautiful and well realized. There are occasional moments of texture popping that might catch the eye's corner, but for the most part, the world is brilliantly built.

Equally impressive is the sound. From the growl of an Olog to the voice acting behind most of the Captains, this game is an aural delight. Little touches like the weird Mortal Kombat style way Captain names are announced through the controller manage to make the experience even more immersive.

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Sadly, it is at this point that good and bad must be tossed aside, and Shadow of War's ugly must be told. Early on, not exclusively but more than later in the game, many enemies can be stealth attacked while they are looking at you. Now, this isn't snuck up, the enemy saw Talion, and then he quickly stealth killed them. This is, they turn and saw him sneaking up, freaked out for a few seconds, and then Talion stealth killed them. This isn't to say the enemies are stupid - though they can be - but that stealth toggles on easier than it does off on the enemies. On a few occasions, when following a teammate or escort, if Talion bumps into them, they will stop running for as long as five seconds, almost as though Talion messed up their internal GPS, and they need to recalculate their route.

These are minor issues compared to some of the more annoying ones. One of which is the seemingly randomness of the world. Captains will often show up without making their presence immediately known, or may be in that group of enemies Talion is trying to dispatch, unseen. This can often lead to them being an added issue, and it doesn't always seem unfair. For instance, in the previously mentioned "Traitor's Gate" mission, Talion stumbled upon two different Captains while trying to stealth-follow someone. This resulted in the pursued knowing of Talion's location, and it ruined an optional objective in the mission. This sort of randomness happens a lot, to varying results. It creates a truly dynamic and living world, but it makes battles much more difficult in the process.


 
There are a host of other issues that plague the minute to minute excitement of the game. While the fortresses are a great addition, they don't look very different from one another once you breach the walls, aside from regional environment changes. The much maligned microtransactions really are a non-issue in the game (speaking to the industry is an article for another time), as they are largely unobtrusive and only really noticeable from the Options menu.

A bigger issue is how Talion occasionally feels like controlling a fish out of water as his movement can be hard to control from time to time. For the most part, he manages to go where the player wants him to, but sometimes he does it with uncertainty, while other times he can be a bit overzealous and grab onto the wrong ledge or scaffolding. Sometimes he doesn't seem to want to pull himself over a ledge. These issues, on their own, aren't vast, but as a whole, tarnish the otherwise fantastic experience of free running and fighting.

Middle-earth: Shadow of War is still a stellar and all around brilliant collection of art assets and programming. Its large story and even larger world manage to make this war feel truly vast, and because of the way the game builds upon your experiences, it feels like everything is truly earned and accomplished. While it comes with a handful of issues, it's a truly impressive work of software.

Screenshot for Middle-earth: Shadow of War on PlayStation 4

Cubed3 Rating

7/10
Rated 7 out of 10

Very Good - Bronze Award

Rated 7 out of 10

A handful of issues, some much more annoying than others, do not negate how solid of an action RPG Middle-earth: Shadow of War is. A tremendous achievement for the team at Monolith Productions, this is an exciting, if not sometimes slow, and too often unfair, title that manages to be as impressively fun as it is big. While those issues will definitely find their way into your grinding teeth and clenching hands at least a few times throughout the experience, Middle-earth: Shadow of War has more than enough merit to keep drawing you back in.

Developer

Monolith Productions

Publisher

Warner Bros

Genre

Real Time RPG

Players

1

C3 Score

Rated $score out of 10  7/10

Reader Score

Rated $score out of 10  0 (0 Votes)

European release date Out now   North America release date Out now   Japan release date Out now   Australian release date Out now   

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