Press Start: ‘Middle-earth: Shadow of War’ plays with power
Games that offer players near limitless power normally get boring pretty quick.
Not "Middle-earth: Shadow of War." Despite the dozens of god-like abilities I wielded as I tore my way through Mordor, I never once felt overpowered. Combat always felt fresh and fun—even after my literally 4,000th kill.
But other problems, such as a repetitive tower defense system that overstays its welcome and annoying Nazgūl fights, diluted any otherwise enjoyable romp through J.R.R. Tolkein's fantasy universe.
In many ways, "Shadow of War" feels identical to its predecessor, "Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor." That's fine with me, considering it's been three years since "Shadow of Mordor's" release. I've been itching to again wreak havoc in the orc-filled playground.
The nemesis system returns in "Shadow of War," and it's still one of the greatest mechanics I've seen in a video game. Each of the game's areas includes an army consisting of orc captains, warchiefs and a overlord, each more powerful than the last. All have strengths to consider and weaknesses to exploit when hunting them down, making each encounter feel like a boss fight for which you must properly prepare.
The fun of the nemesis system only highlights how annoying fights against Nazgūl can be. These creatures seen in several story quests have no exploitable weakness, which really strips away what makes "Shadow of War's" combat so engaging. Battles became button-mashing affairs instead of strategic bouts.
Nazgūl encounters aside, the nemesis system has been upgraded with some neat features to make it even more compelling. Captains can now have blood brothers, and killing one might cause the other to attack you out of thirst for vengeance. Captains also can ambush you from behind, leading to unexpected fights for which you might not be ready. Captains you dominate over to your side can betray you at a moment's notice.
All of these mechanics working together led to a fluid, flexible system that constantly surprised me. It's still impressive to me how captains you burn or shoot with arrows might survive and return with wounds and dialog unique to their previous encounter with you. As silly as it sounds, each captain feels like a unique character with his own personality, making fights that much more thrilling.
One particular captain gave me endless trouble. I would hunt him down, only to have him get the upper hand and kill me several times in a row. That only raised his level, gave him a new title and gave him new dialog with which to taunt me the next time I found him. You can't imagine the satisfaction I felt once I finally killed him, silencing him for good.
Expanding on the nemesis system, "Shadow of War" includes overlord-commanded fortresses you must overtake. This is done by expanding your own army of dominated orcs and eventually attacking fortresses, and it results in a frenzied battle with hundreds of orcs on the screen. After taking a fortress, you put one of your own orc captains in charge as overlord, which is another one of the many ways "Shadow of War" makes you feel infinitely powerful.
In the game's final act, however, this features becomes nothing short of tedious. In order to see "Shadow of War's" true ending, you're required to defend all of the fortresses you've conquered from invading forces in progressively more challenging missions. Preparing for each battle requires finding intel on, dominating and leveling up dozens of orcs. Losing a battle resets your progress. It's nothing short of a repetitive, grindy slog.
Worst of all, the entire last act feels like an attempt to convince players to use "Shadow of War's" loot box mechanic. By using a currency primarily earned by spending real-world money, players can buy high-level orcs to use in their armies—significantly reducing the grind required to see the game's ending. It's a shady practice I can't condone.
Fortunately, spending real money isn't required to enjoy the game from start to finish. I spent at least 40 hours killing thousands of orcs in "Shadow of War," and each battle was a delight that required me to prepare and think on my feet despite my myriad powers.
"Middle-earth: Shadow of War" expands on the engaging nemesis system that made 2014's "Shadow of Mordor" so fun while offering a tower offense and defense mechanic that becomes cumbersome by the game's conclusion. Loot boxes you can buy for real money dilute the experience, but "Shadow of War" has dozens of hours of enjoyable content.
Final score: 8/10
"Middle-earth: Shadow of War" was reviewed on the Xbox One with a review copy provided by the publisher's PR agency, fortyseven communications.
Video game columnist Jake Magee has been with GazetteXtra since 2014. His opinion is not necessarily that of Gazette management. Let him know what you think by emailing email@example.com, leaving a comment below, or following @jakemmagee on Twitter.