Middle-earth: Shadow of War Review - A Nemesis Reborn

Published: October 26, 2017 9:00 AM /

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On the very rare occasion, a game will launch that completely changes a genre. These special games shake up the entire fabric of what we know as gaming; they not only challenge us as gamers but also push other developers to reach these new heights. Super Mario 64 revolutionized platformers changing how games control in a 3D environment. The unique mixture of action, inventory management, and fright in Resident Evil 4, changed the survival horror genre for years.  In these same ways, Shadow of Mordor revolutionized the way we look at even the most minor villain in an action RPG with its groundbreaking Nemesis System.

The Nemesis System takes the ordinary grunts you come across in a game and gives them new meaning. Horza, a random Orc I came across in the world, was lucky enough to land a fatal blow. He rose to the rank of Captain and acquired the title "Fire-Brander". Should he then go on to defeat other Captains or even the man-filth ranger again, he will continue to rise until he is a Warchief and commands his own army. This dynamic system takes player agency to a new level. Your failures and success in Shadow of Mordor have a profound effect on the world and who lead Sauron's Army. Every Orc and Olog in the game could be your next archenemy or your next champion.

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Introducing Horza: branded by fire, soon to be dominated by Talion

As crazy as this may sound, no game since Shadow of Mordor has been able to reproduce this dynamic system. Shadow of War not only brings back the system but expands upon it by adding fortresses that are ruled by an overlord and filled with Orcs to be conquered. Once captured, it is your job to staff the fort with your best defenders. You can also train your followers to increase their level, give them special weapons, mounts, or even their own band of followers and defenders. This system creates a new level of depth for the game that continues long after the quests end.

The story had its highs and lows. It picks up right where the first game left off continuing the story of Talion and Celebrimbor. You even start out with most of your core move set from the first game and ability points are plentiful as well so the action picks up right away. Skill points are gained everytime you level up or complete certain quests and Nemesis Missions. If you missed out on Shadow of Mordor, the sequel does a good job of quickly filling you in on what's happened so far and exactly why your dynamic duo is in Mordor.

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Talion and Celebrimbor caught in the endless battle between life and death

While certain story arcs were interesting, the writing team tried to weave too much lore into what they wanted to tell. The story follows a more linear path through Act One. You start in Shelob's layer where Talion must give up the new ring of power in order to save Celebrimbor. Through her visions, Talion learns that the Gondorian city of Minas Ithil is in trouble. The first act introduces several characters that will each go there own path in the Second Act. While this lead to additional quests, many of the storylines never fully developed. Because of that, like with the first game, I was much more invested in my Uruk followers than I was the other characters in the story. With that said, there is a small story arc that introduces something new to fight that is incredibly epic. I don’t want to spoil anything for you, but let me say, I really wish the game had more fights like this.

The game is split into four acts. The first three progress through the story like normal but the Fourth Act is an epilogue and changes the game into a tower defense/strategy experience. While I really enjoyed Shadow Wars, it is outside of the main game and would have been better suited without an "Act" number to go with it. In total there are 10 rounds in Act 4. Each round has you protecting at least one, but usually more, of the bases you captured in the main game. By this point, make sure you are extremely skilled in dominating Orcs because it’s going to become necessary to keep your ranks stocked with the best commanders.

When Shadow of Mordor ended and the credits had rolled, I had no reason to re-enter the world after I had the platinum trophy. The bonds I had created were with the army I recruited which left very little re-playability for me. Shadow Wars fixes this. I am well above 90% on the road to another platinum and I don't see my time stopping with Shadow of War anytime soon. Shadow Wars and it's corresponding online mode have given me a reason to continue to pick the game up. For me, I generally only spend this amount of time with a game after it's over in games like Destiny and World of Warcraft where your progressions carry forward. This is a testament to how fun Shadow of War's second by second gameplay is.

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To War!

Throughout each conquest, high-level enemy commanders will attack your base. Each commander that attacks is just another opportunity to dominate a new ally and make the battle that much easier. Be careful, if you die during the battle your team will suffer major consequences. The team of Orcs that killed you takes over your keep and his minions will even capture members of your team, that is if any are left alive. It then becomes your task to re-enlist new members to go take back your fort.

This is where the controversial loot box system takes hold. From my experiences with the game, there have been countless Uruks to turn to my side of every skill level. Within each Shadow Wars battle, you will face off against at least one legendary Orc, but usually more, that you can capture if your level is high enough. Each round gets progressively more challenging, so you will want to be skilled at turning them to your side, otherwise, Shadow Wars could become extremely demanding. This increase in difficulty could make the loot box system tempting if you are looking to speed up progression.

With that said, I never felt the desire to spend real money to buy loot boxes in the game. Just for completing the campaign you get a sizable amount of gold, the real-world currency. After that, there have been at least 2 daily quests every single day with a reward of 50 gold each. The special packs only cost 240 gold, so you can have multiple packs with guaranteed legendaries each week for just doing the dailies. Outside of that, you also purchase packs of the lower tier chests with the in-game currency a well as gold chests for completing quests, Online Conquests, and Online Vengeance missions. I haven’t had much luck getting legendary orcs from the smaller chests but upon completing the Spoils of War Chest, which is unlocked by gaining experience from online matches, I received a legendary and two epic orcs along with some boosters.

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Sweet loot from the Spoils of War chest

Even with the legendaries I received from the store for free, I have only felt compelled to put a couple into the game so far. For me, there hasn’t been much need since I’ve been able to recruit as I fight each battle. Win or lose I generally walk away from each Shadow Wars round better off than I started. For me, the loot boxes have added an additional, but not necessary, chance at gear, orcs, and upgrades.

I would recommend not even touching the market till you are higher level and have completed Act 3 at the earliest. At that point, if you wish to restock up your troops you should have a plethora of Gold and in-game currency to buy some chests to speed up growing your ranks. The orcs you acquire are based on your characters level so make sure you open chests at a point when you will use them. The game is completely set up though to continue progressing through the ranks even if you never touch the marketplace.

The online aspects are fun but greatly underutilized. My fortresses have only been attacked online once since launch day. On top of that, every fort I have attacked have been greatly under leveled for my team. Hopefully, this part of the game continues to grow as more players have time with the game. I would love to be able to log in any random night and enjoy a new challenge, but it's just not there as of now.

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Beautiful landscapes with nothing to do but dominate orcs and collect loot

While the Nemesis System still shines strong, in other ways Shadow of War lacks depth. The world doesn’t really feel lived in. The buildings and cliffs that are there seem to only serve the purpose to house more orcs. With many of the open world games we have had this year, the worlds have almost been a character themselves. They have been alive and vibrant. It was great seeing them expand the territory from Shadow of Mordor, but for the next game, I hope they touch more on making these beautiful worlds come to life and feel lived in. What are these Orcs doing when Talion isn't there? The game already has a tribal system in place for Orcs. Show us where they come from and what they do when they are not attacking. I understand that they love grog, but I doubt they are always standing next to that same container.

The collectible hunt in the game wasn’t bad, but discovering their location on the tower became weary after the first map. I actually liked the stories and history that went along with the relics Talion recovered. On the rare occasions when it wasn't something I was interested in, I could easily skip past the dialog. I really wish the same could be done for the crazy amount of orc introductions you will experience throughout the game. Celebrimbor's words and poems were easy to find and his quests offered glimpses into his past and work as tutorials as you unlocked new abilities. Shelob's collectibles, on the other hand, wasn’t fun to solve at all. Even in HDR, the dark pictures were often not distinguishable enough to make out. I generally just moved the controller around till the rumble was strong enough and worked on it from there. It was cool seeing her backstory but the mini-game I could do without.

Overall, I loved my time back in Mordor. I can’t wait to see what the upcoming expansions have in store for this world. While the game is not without its flaws, having the Nemesis System back makes it all worthwhile. Tolkien fans will love diving into the lore and seeing characters from the books but may hate some of the liberties the game takes for it to exist in this world. Thankfully you don’t need to be a fan of Tolkien or even The Lord of the Rings to enjoy this game. If you love the combat and environments from the Arkham or Assassin’s Creed series then I highly recommend you check Shadow of War out. The game builds upon some of the best aspects of these series while upping the ante yet again with their latest version of the Nemesis System.

Our Middle-earth: Shadow of War review was conducted on PlayStation 4 with a code provided by the publisher. The game is also available on PC via Steam and Xbox One.

Review Summary


Middle-Earth: Shadow of War like its predecessor is built upon the dynamic "Nemesis System." While the sequel offers an interesting story, it often becomes convoluted between the various arcs it wants to go in. Thankfully, the second by second gameplay has never felt better. With the addition of Shadow Wars, the best parts of the game will continue long after the story ends.

(Review Policy)


  • The Return of the Nemesis System
  • Dynamic Gameplay
  • Epic Shadow Wars


  • Convoluted Story
  • Beautiful but Shallow World

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| Staff Writer