Finally playing Middle-earth: Shadow of War in 2024

Over the past few months I have been on a mission to play some of the games from my backlog. You can check my dedicated articles for this on Mad Max and Batman: Arkham Knight, both of which I had never touched before, but finally got around to playing recently. For Middle-earth: Shadow of War, however, it’s a bit of a different story. 

Instead of only playing this game for the first time like the others, I have actually tried the Middle-Earth games and bounced off of them rather hard. I tried to get into Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor (2014) several times, but failed to become engaged in what the game had to offer. After giving up on that game I decided to just leave it behind and try get into its sequel, which is Middle-earth: Shadow of War (2017), but even this game had trouble keeping my interest. 

I had already tried to play the game from the start once or twice before, but found it boring. It seemed like I was just thrown into a pit of orcs and left to mindlessly mash attack and counter until I died. This time around I did manage to stick through the opening, but I completely maintain that the start of this game is a real slog and the developer Monolith Productions really should have put more effort into making this important part of the game more enjoyable.

It is only after a few hours of play and unlocking some key upgrades that Shadow of War really takes off. Even worse, in terms of onboarding and progression, is the fact that the Nemesis System doesn’t really get going until you have sunk many, many hours into a playthrough. Tutorials for it are still ongoing as the hours tick by and again I am left feeling that all of this could have been balanced better.

Before we get deeper into that I have to mention that most of my playthrough was on the Nemesis difficulty. This is a replacement for a hard difficulty as it is positioned after “normal difficulty”, and it seems like it is the way the game was supposed to be played.

After the Nemesis System was fed to me for so many years as this ground breaking piece of game innovation, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t that impressed. Is it a fun touch when an orc I cut in half appears again, but now he’s been mostly rebuilt with metal and wants revenge? Yes, but most of this feels random and the integration into my playtime just wasn’t as deep as I’d been lead to believe after all this time.

Despite these downers I still had fun with this game. The combat is very satisfying, looting and scrounging for any advantage over the mountains of orcs kept me coming back and there is a decent amount of variety between outright combat, stealth and using several beasts to turn the tide of this war.

But these period of fun in the middle hits a wall much sooner than I wanted. Once a few key upgrades are under your belt the challenge the game offers you falls off a cliff. You can recruit or kill key orcs in the armies to take over a stronghold in just a handful of minutes (which would have taken at least a few hours of work before) and powerful AOE attacks completely supplant the rest of combat. Once there are hundreds of orcs on the screen, trying to take them on one by one with blades and arrows doesn’t make sense when you can wipe out dozens with an explosion instead.

After finishing the main campaign I did play through the two expansion campaigns, The Blade of Galadriel and The Desolation of Mordor and found both severely lacking. Both take away many of the fun tools and mechanics from the main campaign and, while a smaller, sharper set of mechanics can sometimes be welcome, both fail to capitalise on this narrower approach.

This is perfectly illustrated by The Blade of Galadriel. In the main game Talion has access to close range melee, long range archery and elemental damage (poison, frost and fire). To keep combat engaging, some bigger enemies will have resistances to one or more of these so that players need to swap them up to stay ahead in fights. In The Blade of Galadriel the elemental damage is all swapped in for light damage… and then the majority of minibosses and regular bosses are all immune to light damage and archery. I simply cannot fathom the decision to take away gameplay mechanics and then also create enemies which resist the few remaining mechanics that the player has left.

Problems like this made both The Blade of Galadriel and The Desolation of Mordor rather annoying to play through and I don’t think the story of either made the gameplay worth your time. If you finish the main campaign and you really want more, give them a try, but only if you don’t have to pay for it.

On all platforms I recommend finding a steep discount on bundles that include all the content for Shadow of War so you don’t have to buy each DLC separately.

Lastly, on the topic of money, it is worth mentioning the insane monetisation that was present in this game at launch. Infamously, Shadow of War had a greedy orc cartoonishly rubbing its hands as players spent real money in the in-game shop. In what was either the most blatant slap in the face of gamers ever, or the developers railing back against publisher-forced monetisation, this orc was a symbol of the cash cow this game was supposed to be. Thankfully all the monetisation in Shadow of War has been stripped out which is good for your wallet, but it leaves many areas of the game feeling empty and unfinished.

The main end goal of Shadow of War is waging wars using proxy orc armies in a kind of strategy environment. It is this areas that publisher Warner Bros. wanted people playing, and paying, indefinitely, but it can now be ignored.

It is maybe this monetisation, its removal and lack of updates since then which leaves the Shadow of War experience feeling disjointed. There’s a lot of good ideas, satisfying mechanics and overall fun to be had, but it’s completely uneven and much of the time you are left to make your own fun with the systems when the game fails to put things together smartly itself.

If you, like me a few weeks ago, haven’t sat down to finish this game, I recommend picking it all up for cheap. That way, if you bounce off like I did previously, you won’t waste money, but if you stick with it you can enjoy this experience that still has a lot to give, even years later.

The shadow of Arkham and future backlog adventures 

Through pure happenstance all of the games I have played in my backlog have been inspired by the Arkham Batman games and heavily use its melee combat. Arkham Knight, of course, uses an improved version of the combat that its series had been slowly improving on over the years, but both Mad Max and Shadow of War also liberally borrow from Arkham when it comes to close-range combat. 

Playing these three in a row wasn’t by design but it does give me a good perspective on how each of them drifts away from this core set of mechanics. In Arkham Knight there’s the Batmobile, in Mad Max there’s your car (the Magnum Opus) and in Shadow of War there’s the Nemesis System and your army of orcs. 

It is rather odd that all three games use these abstractions to make the melee combat less central to the overall experience. While that does mean grater variety in your playthrough, I can’t help but feel like these extra mechanics are also present because the Arkham combat, even years ago when these games first launched, had started to become tiresome.

On top of that it is / was an easy way to drop some proven close range action into the mix, especially for Mad Max that is more of a driving game and needed melee due to the fact that bullets are so rare.

Thankfully the next game I have planned for the backlog is Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, a game that doesn’t depend on the Arkham combat core. Like Middle-earth: Shadow of War, I have tried to get into MGS V several times but bounced off of it rather quickly. Can The Phantom Pain keep my attention this time around? Check back soon to find out.


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