Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor was one of 2014’s most welcome surprises. Despite a questionable application of J.R.R. Tolkien’s canon, Shadow of Mordor won fans over with its fast-paced, fluid gameplay, dynamic world and incredibly inventive Nemesis system. Middle-earth: Shadow of War (PC, PS4, Xbox One) the game’s supposedly bigger-and-better sequel, has some incredibly large Ranger boots to fill.
According to the first round of reviews, the game has succeeded — sort of.
Whereas the reviews for Shadow of Mordor were enthusiastic (sometimes even bordering on breathless), the reception for its sequel tends more toward “polite.” Yes, Shadow of War has all the stuff that made its predecessor great, including the Nemesis system, which ensures that no two players will have the same experience. On the other hand, the story and characters feel a little phoned-in, which is the last thing you’d want to hear about a property associated with the most beloved fantasy novel of the 20th century.
Based on early impressions, Shadow of War seems like an agreeable time-sink, but probably not destined for the same heights as Shadow of Mordor. Read on to see what the critics thought. Tom’s Guide will have its own impressions available as soon as we get some more time with the game.
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Justin Haywald reviewed Shadow of War for Gamespot, and liked it enough to award it a 7/10. The combat is as entertaining as ever, and large-scale siege warfare is a welcome addition to the series, he said. However, he wasn’t as keen on the story, or the game’s ending, which leans too heavily on said siege warfare.
“[The Orcs] strike the perfect balance of humor and absurdity against the dull seriousness of the human cast, and you'll wish the quirkier denizens of Mordor could be constant companions instead of the brief vignettes that flash across the screen when you either kill or are killed by one.”
“With an army of Orcs at your back, both pressing the offensive on a castle and protecting it are equally exciting, and the final entrance into the main hall of a fortress for the final fight feels as reverent and grand as walking into a towering cathedral in real life.”
“The overarching narrative outside of the broad "tour Mordor, fight Sauron's forces," feels directionless. Part of that's because you don't spend enough time with any secondary characters (except for Gollum, whose brief appearance is somehow still too long).”
“Shadow of War continues on, but with its momentum drained completely. What should be an exciting climax instead descends into a tedious slog for a cutscene that doesn't quite feel worth the time and effort.”
Of all the major outlets to release the first wave of Shadow of War reviews, IGN easily liked it the most. Dan Stapleton loved the intricate interplay between the Nemesis system and the siege battles, as well the memorable Orcs. He wasn’t a big fan of the game’s obtrusive microtransactions, though, or its graphical glitches.
“It’s great to constantly run into colorful characters with names like Khrosh the Pickler, Grom the Corruptor, and Borgu the Bard, who serenades you with his lute before he attacks.”
“The biggest new features of Shadow of War are its fortresses, which you can conquer with a large-scale invasion force of brainwashed uruks that you customize and upgrade before each assault. The battles are impressive in that there are probably between 100 and 200 uruks running around hacking each other to bits.
“A quick word about the controversial microtransactions: you can and totally should ignore them completely.”
“Their beauty is sometimes disfigured by some nasty pop-in that can leave terrain textures looking almost literally like something out of Minecraft – it’s especially pronounced on stone walls in ruins. (From time to time I’ve also spotted enemies with completely blank faces that pop in after a few moments.)”
Patricia Hernandez at Kotaku didn’t have a solid recommendation for Shadow of War. She enjoyed parts of the game, but care for enjoy the ugliness of the narrative, or the fact that the Nemesis system no longer feels as inventive as it once did.
“Despite my criticisms, Shadow of War’s purgatory is seductive.”
“With Talion’s ability to swiftly climb everything, the game often feels like it is brimming with possibility.”
“The fundamental issue here is that being good at Shadow of War means the process becomes routine.”
“The story, on the whole, is silly. Characters are paper-thin and their story lines are largely boring if not nonsensical.”
Like many their fellow reviewers, Philip Kollar and Chris Plante at Polygon liked Shadow of War, but expected a bit more after Shadow of Mordor’s soaring successes. The game is fun, but it seems content to stop there, rather than being refined or really memorable.
“It feels like magic how each character evolves, depending on whether you make them an ally, humiliate them before their peers, or simply melt off their flesh.”
“The Nemesis System is still a wonder that has yet to be replicated. The movement and combat are thrilling.”
“Having the game’s real finale locked away behind those dozens of hours — hours that, while fun, are devoid of story missions, side quests, cutscenes or other distractions that help mix up the pace — is a disappointment.”
“If you’re a longtime Lord of the Rings fan who found Shadow of Mordor’s looseness with canon distasteful, this sequel is only going to make you angrier.”
There’s too much padding in Shadow of War, according to PC Gamer’s Andy Kelly. There’s a ton of stuff to do, he said, but most of it doesn’t amount to much. Still, the Nemesis system remains intriguing, and lends itself to some extremely memorable moments.
“But it all comes back to the orcs. They’re the reason I kept playing, even when I was losing interest in everything else. A motley, gruesome, ill-mannered crew of swines that are a constant joy to fight and befriend.”
“When you arrive at Minas Ithil you find the streets filled with battle-hungry orcs, siege machines, and Gondorian soldiers defending their home. The sense of scale is impressive.”
“Shadow of War is almost entirely self-serious and in love with its own sense of grandeur. Its only really funny character, an Aussie orc called Brûz the Chopper, is wasted as a walking tutorial.”
“There’s just too much going on. Too many menus, too much clutter on the screen, too many half-baked features. I would have preferred a smaller set of lean, refined systems to all this bloat.”