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Middle-earth: Shadow of War Review

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As a big fan of the Lord of the Rings series, Middle-earth: Shadow of War took me across Mordor to meet some familiar faces, some new ones, and most of all let me raise my army of Orcs in a war-torn land where it is every monster for himself. While Shadow of War has some pacing issues, and its end-game is barred behind a tedious Shadow War process, the game offered some rather exhilarating moments in its 20 plus hour campaign. The Nemesis system, that sees you take down Orc captains to weaken the enemy's hold on the region has seen a tremendous upgrade over the original, and the added fort system is great if you can get around its ridiculous microtransactions. 

Shadow of War is the sequel to the popular Shadow of Mordor and follows right after the events of the previous game. Celebrimbor has now forged the Ring of Power which he believes could be used for good rather the evil. Talion agrees and they set off to take down Sauron and his army of Orcs with some new threats like drakes and the Nazgul. Shadow of War's story is interesting throughout the campaign, and while its quests are often tedious, the great cinematics, accompanied by stellar voice acting, keep you in the moment at all times. This is a true Lord of the Rings experience so the same amount of effort and love put into the movies and series is seen throughout the game.

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The Ring of Power

As Talion and Celebrimbor, being one entity most of the game due to their spirits forging thanks to the Ring of Power, search for a way to bring down Sauron, their agendas often clash. While they both want the same thing, various characters in the game you meet in each region, try and sway each of them otherwise. Shelob, for example, can help them weaken the army, but Celebrimbor has trust issues. All the main characters met throughout the campaign do have a lasting impact on you which is a good thing as their personal stories, and the effort behind each one's role in the campaign is effective. Some returning faces keep the pace going, and some rather nasty betrayals give you that feeling of the Ring of Power's control over its wearer. 

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Shadow of War took me to various places across Mordor, each of them offering a unique look and feel to the game. From the jungles of Nurnen to the fiery mountains of Gorgoroth. Each location was big enough to feel as if you are in a vast location of Mordor, without it getting too overwhelming in size. The towers have returned to the game which can be used to fast travel and search the area for collectables, and each and every location is filled with the ongoing war of the Orcs and captains to slay or take control of. 

Talion starts of slow and clumsy in the game and his parkour is questionable, but after a few hours in the skill tree he is agile, and quite the orc killer. Different skills now let you move faster, double jump (a must in the early game) and use Talions power with Celebrimbor to defeat the hordes of orcs you will come across in the game. The same attacks from the past game are present with some newly added features too. 

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A glaive attack can sweep enemies off their feet by holding down the square, and you can freeze an enemy to pummel him a couple of times before he collapses. The combat system is all too familiar as it is basically copied and pasted from the Arkham series. Talion will bounce around a battle slashing an orc, freezing one to build up combo, dodge an attack with triangle, and then unleash a knockout attack when the combo gets high enough.

Sure, the combat system is nothing new, but it works very well. Talion feels like a true orc slayer and as the game progresses more orcs with more power, and ways to counter Talion's attacks are introduced to keep the rhythm going. Talion can also go in all stealth if need be by using bushes to hide away, and his bow and arrow to take enemies out from afar. Thanks to some spirit juice Talion can also teleport to an orc, cut his head off and teleport away. 

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An average combat scenario would see me head into a compound, stealth kill as many guys as I could, be it from afar, hiding in bushes, or just taking one down from the sky above, and then when I was caught go all loud with Talion's abilities and his sword. It was these moments in Shadow of War where I appreciated the amount of effort put into the game's combat system. There is always a way to get out of a nasty situation. Be it shooting an explosive barrel next to you, commanding a Caragor then jumping on its back and slashing enemies away from me, or simply poisoning the enemy's grog and killing them to avoid all combat from the start. 

Each and every orc captain in the game has been carefully crafted to make sure your life is hell when you face them. Each of them has unique traits that you have to know about before you fight them, which will give you an upper hand. I have to say that most of the time I never interrogated a worm, which basically reveals info on a selected captain, and I survived without knowing their weaknesses and traits. It was all about trying something once and if it did not work, then I knew that particular move was useless. For example, vaulting over an enemy would freeze him in place, so after trying it on a captain and it failed then clearly I had to find another way around him.

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Sure, I could have done my research and learnt about these captain's weaknesses beforehand, but after you have killed your hundredth orc, you kind of get what the game throws at you and learn to find a way around it. The only time interrogation was a must was when I was infiltrating a compound. This would give me insight to the captain so I could kill him quick and easy.

Talion has changed in Shadow of War and now instead of having the same old sword the whole game there is a fairly decent equipment system that makes the game feel more like an RPG. Killing orcs and completing missions will give Talion gear that he can equip across different parts of his body. A new cape, sword, armour, ring, and dagger all make for different ways to build Talion. Legendary and epic gear have perks that do specific things to him too, like grant health steal, more might built up and so forth. The thing is, you first need to unlock these perks by completing challenges. At least these are not too hard to finish and you can do them while just playing the game. Kill a set number of enemies with headshots, or counter three attacks in a row without being hit. Simple enough.

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Nemesis System

The Nemesis System is Shadow of War's biggest feature and it is so detailed and precise that it does get overwhelming at times. Instead of just killing orcs you now have the opportunity to control them and turn them onto the "good" side. After doing so, they are basically your puppets which you can use against the armies of Sauron. It also goes without saying that the Nemesis System is in a way a game by itself. The world around you is always moving and the captains and armies are always trying to kill something.

As the game goes on and you play your role as the Bright Lord, these conflicts are forever changing and it is up to you to take advantage of them in each region. On the map, you will see what is going down from an assassination attempt, to just stealing grog from another captain. If you choose to go and be part of this then you will either walk away with both captains dead, they will kill you, or you could see it as an opportunity to take control of both of them and make them part of your army. Once that is done it will affect the overall standing of the orcs in that region. If you chose to take control of them, you could then send these controlled captains to perform the same assassinations, or even send death threats to other orcs. Your army is your army and the way you use them is up to you, but in the end, they will all come in handy when you assault a fort. 

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About midway through the game, the ability to attack a fort comes in and this is where Shadow of War becomes a tactical game. When you attack a fort you need to now prep your army of orcs and choose their squad upgrades. These range from different minions that walk with you and fight, or the number of shielded orcs that will accompany you through the fight. The higher your levels of each orc, the more powerful your army feels in battle. The idea of this siege is for you to take control of the fort, securing you the ability to grow your army and progress in the game. 

Things then get switched up later on in the game when you unlock the Shadow Wars. This is where the tables are turned on you and you as the fort owner need to stop the enemy army from invading your fort and taking control of it. The same situation takes place but this time your armies and squad upgrades will fortify your fort with different defences such as wall spikes, lava that pours out the side of the walls, and even drakes that can help you fend off the invaders. 

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Shadow of War shines the most and the least during these moments. These fight can get tedious especially near the endgame and often they are tough given that your power depends on the army of captains you have and if you have not been training them in the arena, recruiting them on a higher level, or sadly buying them with microtransaction, the fights will be hard to get through. 

In the last few battles of the game, I had hundreds of orcs around me, captains screaming at me from every direction, and I was defenceless. I did not have the time to gamble an orc's life away in the arena as if they fail the training they die, and I was not going to buy chests that gave me orcs. It was a disaster, and in a way, the game's endgame is locked behind this mode and it is a grind to get to the end without spending money on in-game purchases. 

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It was here that Shadow of War went from an excellent game to an ugly grind. Unfortunately, the microtransactions that were rumoured in the past are true. You can buy chests and get orcs from them that you can place in one of four regions. If they die, they are dead and you will have to buy more. Sure, you can grind to find new ones, but chances of you getting a legendary one in the wild are slim. 

Throughout the first three-quarters of the game, there is no explanation to what these boxes do and what the orcs inside would be used for, so when this hit me I realized that I opened the box way too early and got level 15 orcs. I was now level 50 and facing the same levelled invaders and those orcs I got in my one and only box was as good as bloat flies. 

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Still, I managed to power through this speed bump, but chances of me going back to defend my fort against high-levelled orcs with my pathetic army are next to nothing. I think I will stick to some online vendettas rather, these let me take down captains that killed other players, and maybe try and attack another online player's fort just for the fun of things. 

Middle-earth: Shadow of War is an excellent game that does offer microtransactions. They are ugly but unnecessary. Sure, these are "completely optional" as the developers say, but if you don't buy, then you will need to make sure you have enough firepower to keep your forts strong enough to defend through to the end of the game. Luckily this only comes in very late in the game so this is fair warning to make sure you recruit and train every orc possible to avoid needing to do it last minute. 

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In the end, Shadow of War took over my life for a week as I experienced everything it had to offer. It is one of the most interesting Lord of the Rings adaptions to date and makes for a fantastic action RPG. Just mind those ugly microtransactions as they are not good at all. 

Available On: PS4, Xbox One, PC | Played On: PS4 Pro | Release Date: 10 October 2017 | RRP: R1096

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