When Shadow of Mordor released in 2014, its “nemesis system” was brilliant enough that many people hoped it would define a new generation of games. Years later, that vision of industry-wide character hierarchies that learn, evolve, and remember the player never came to pass. Shadow of War, the follow-up, further sophisticates its legion of orcs, but that niggling question of “wouldn’t this system be cool in a different game” still sneaks up on you. And this time, given the limits of an expanded version of this system in a macabre world of orcs, it’s damning.
Shadow of War stars Talion, a buff-and-gruff protagonist who would be generic were it not for the fact he is technically dead. Talion becomes known as ‘The Gravewalker’ thanks to a vengeful elf wraith, Celebrimbor, who latches onto his body and keeps him alive. In the first game, Celebrimbor is introduced as the crafter of the Rings of Power—this is a Lord of The Rings game—and, by granting Talion otherworldly skills, he drafts him into a war to stop the forces of Sauron. By the end of Shadow of Mordor, Talion decides it is time for a new Ring of Power, one that cannot be tainted by the forces of evil. That’s where the second game takes off: Talion forges a ring to fight against the return of Sauron, but wouldn’t you know it, things don’t go according to plan. Immediately, the ring falls into the wrong hands. You’d think any of the people involved would have learned by now.
Don’t worry, you don’t need to be a huge LOTR fan to enjoy Shadow of War. There are all sorts special quests and collectibles that dive into the larger lore if you’re into that, but the story, on the whole, is silly. Characters are paper-thin and their story lines are largely boring if not nonsensical. In one egregious example, a main character betrays their morals at the last second without much explanation. But the narrative shallowness doesn’t matter. You are here for the orcs—or, excuse me, the uruk-hai if we’re being pedantic.
Your eventual goal is to build an army of orcs to defeat Sauron once and for all. This time around, your efforts are focused on the network of orcs who occupy/control various castles, each of which has its own chain of command. At the top, you’ve got mighty Overlords who run the place. You can’t just beeline to the Overlord, chop his head off, and call it a day. You’ve got to thin the lower ranks and infiltrate the castle before you can overtake it. Beneath an Overlord are Warchiefs, each of which defends a regional fort and specific areas of a castle. And each Warchief commands a wider pool of henchmen called Captains, which act as their bodyguards. While the upper echelons at the castle are initially set in stone, the larger infantry constantly shifts and vies for power. Shadow of Mordor smartly packaged these politics by tying them to orc culture itself, and Shadow of War widens the repertoire of events orcs can participate in.
An orc might try climbing the ranks by leading a hunt, raiding a camp, or killing a rival, among other things. That’s where you come in. Shadow of War is an open-world action game, and you have the freedom to meddle in orc affairs however you see fit. The game is segmented into a handful of different regions, each with its own battalion of orcs, and you can roam between them at will. Sometimes, you might stumble into an orc event without even meaning to, because captains are everywhere. You’ll know exactly when you’ve found a high-ranking orc. Not only does the game pause to zoom up on their faces, often, grunt orcs burst into a welcoming chant. If these special orcs catch sight of you, they will introduce themselves. Most of the time, Captains and Warchiefs threaten or mock you as if they are cutting a pro wrestling promo on you, which immediately makes it personal. These aren’t just tough enemies. They’re calling you out, trying to make you look like a fool. What are you going to do about it?
These introductions are the cornerstone of the Shadow of War experience. Each one tells you the proficiencies of the orc, which, along with intel you can gather about their strengths and weaknesses, is info you’ll use to attack your target. Maybe the orc is a “poisonous terror tracker” or a “cursed mystic trickster.” More importantly, it gives you a better look at your orc. Each one is randomly generated, with its own facial features, voice-acting, clothes, weapons, and class. Dig a little deeper and you’ll know what they’re into, what hurts them and what throws them into a rage. Throughout it all, I felt like I was on some messed-up dating site, browsing orc profiles, except they all contained sensitive health information for some reason. I was always excited when I crossed a cool or handsome orc that that had unusual abilities, because it was more likely that my fight with them would be memorable. I hated when I came across ugly or boring orcs, because there was a greater chance I wouldn’t remember them after the fact.
All of this will sound familiar if you played the first game, but the difference is in scope. The underlying ethos of Shadow of War seems to be more. More types of orcs, for instance: in the 45 hours I spent with the game, I kept seeing new stuff all the way to the end. Your playgrounds are bigger this time around, stocked with more points of interest, quests, collectables, and types of toys to torment your prey. The number of things you can do in this game is overwhelming at first, because you’re barely eased into it. It’s all just there from the get-go, though you might not know how to use it for best effect. Maps are bursting with things like spider sacs, deadly fly nests, beasts, and drinking wells, all of which you can manipulate to terrorize orcs. There are also plenty of combat options: you can sneak, you can teleport, you can materialize animals or allies, you can freeze and poison enemies—the list goes on and on. And with Talion’s ability to swiftly climb everything, the game often feels like it is brimming with possibility.
Even minor things have complexity. Every ability in the skill tree has three sub-abilities, only one of which you can activate at a time. All gear has stats and can be upgraded to grant you extra skills, like setting an enemy on fire, provided you complete a gear-specific challenge first. All gear has sockets, where you can add upgradeable gems that grant extra health, damage, and more. There are even daily challenges now. A lot of this didn’t feel essential to the experience, nor did it feel like it improved the game. Some of it didn’t even make sense. For instance: if the ring I crafted at the start of the game was so unique and mighty, why was I equipping rings dropped from random orcs?
Regardless of all this new stuff, I fell into a familiar pattern playing Shadow of War. First, I’d go into a camp, any camp. I’d walk through the front door, as if everything was cool. Someone would always sound the alarm to sic more orcs on me, but I didn’t care. Talion is so powerful that you can kill or run away from anyone with ease, at least on Normal difficulty. Then, I’d go into Wraith World, a detective-style mode that lets you see things of interest, like footprints or distant orcs, even through walls. I’d pinpoint orcs who had information on Captains and Warchiefs, and I’d go after them. Once within my grasp, I’d “dominate” them, forcing them to tell me what they know. I was never certain why Mordor’s leadership let so many grunts walk around with such valuable information, but hey. Within 10 minutes, I would have a full dossier on every orc of interest. Then, it was time to track them down.
Once in their vicinity, it was time to plan. I’d scope out the map and see what I could use against the Captain or Warchief. Any listed weaknesses would be go-tos, but you aren’t always lucky enough to have any of that stuff lying around. If you’re patient, you can wait around to see if the Captain walks by a Caragor pen that you want to blow open, or a campfire that you can detonate, as two quick examples. Certain attacks or scenarios can “daze” Captains and Warchiefs, and you can capitalize on it by railing on them with your sword, bow, or dagger.
Fights are hardly ever one-on-ones, however, as you are constantly surrounded by lesser grunts who all attack you at once. You can handle it, though. Shadow of War’s combat system, which is lifted from its publisher’s Batman Arkham series, make combos the name of the game. The higher your combo, the more damage you do. Big hit streaks power up your ‘Might,’ which you can use to do special moves like Executions. Every kill within this beefs up your ‘Wrath,’ which, once full, allows you to unleash ‘Elven Rage,’ a move that slows down time to give you unlimited Executions. The trick to maintaining a high streak is anticipating and parrying external attacks, which threatens to pull you out of a combo. You can also deploy special moves in-between regular hits without snapping your streak. Thus, all battles followed a certain tempo, almost as if you are mentally juggling a soccer ball. Even death had a certain rhythm to it, thanks to “Last Chance” button prompts that can save you.
The beauty of it all is that, no matter how much carefully you plot an orc death, things can and do go wrong. The fun is in learning to improvise while everything goes to shit. One time, I landed a critical that set my sword, along with all the dry grass surrounding me, on fire. Orcs ran in every direction, screaming, and before long, I was on fire, too. Another time, I was hunting a specific orc, only to encounter two different orcs who were feuding with one another. I barely escaped, only to have yet another orc, this time an assassin, sneak attack me. I killed that one, only to stumble on yet another captain while I was low on health. He was looking for revenge on his brother, who I had fought earlier that day. What he didn’t know was that brother wasn’t actually dead. Fun fact: sometimes, orcs come back to life, stronger, angrier and uglier than before. None of those compare to the pain of having a grunt kill you, though. Any orc on the totem pole fortuitous enough to land the last blow on Talion can get promoted into a Captain. It only happened a couple of times for me, but no matter what I was doing before, I would always drop everything to go after these assholes. How dare they?
In the first game, figuring out unwritten rules of the nemesis system was a constant source of delight. This time around, some of that sheen has worn off. I knew for example, going in, that orcs could come back from death, and I knew that enemies would remember our encounters. By comparison, all the other ‘twists’ didn’t feel like a big deal. Things like surprise attacks from assassins felt less like like like interesting curveballs than they did annoyances, like blocking a troll on Twitter only to have them come back under a slightly different username. The only time the game surprised me was the time an orc accidentally killed me and broke my best sword with his bare hands. Even then, Talion outclassed him so profoundly in their next encounter, and my revenge was so immediate, that the whole exchange felt like a trifle. The game gifted me a more souped-up version of the blade I had lost, which could have been a trophy, except soon afterward, I replaced that sword with something that had a higher attack. At some point, I must have destroyed that weapon for points. I don’t even remember the orc’s name now, or his face.
Typically, my efforts were laser-focused on orcs with rank. I sought out Captains first, so I could clean out a Warchief’s bodyguards. Then I’d challenge a Warchief, which, while more tenacious than Captains, were never a big deal to take down. Finally, once I cleared out an opening, I’d search for candidates to take their place. By this point, the entire nemesis board would be visible to me. I’d go through each orc one by one, scanning their profiles as if they were resumes. Then, I’d appoint my top picks at the castle. To prepare for the next segment, I would dominate a handful of more orcs from the wider pool. These orcs would act as my army for the next major portion of the game, though they could shift in standing if time passed within the nemesis system.
Once a castle was fully infiltrated, I’d mount a siege attack. All sieges require leaders, and that’s where those extra orcs I conscripted would come in. Each leader can be packed with upgrades, such as mounted cavalry, shock troops, siege beasts, archers, and even flying drakes, all of which are purchased with points you accrue from killing orcs and breaking down extra weapons. Sieges may look like a spectacle, but if done correctly, they are mere formalities. I would walk from one point to another during these segments, instantly capturing points thanks to how meticulously I took down every single Warchief. After these points were secured, my spy would come out and join me in the attack, so I never had to actually fight much during these segments. At the end, I’d take on the Overlord, and that was that. The only time I had trouble was when I stubbornly decided to take on the highest-level castle before the end of the game. In that instance, the Warchief could not only heal himself, he also had a “death defying” ability that would bring him back to life. I took a day to kill another slew of orcs for better gear, and came back with a fury, mounted Graug and all.
The fundamental issue here is that being good at Shadow of War means the process becomes routine. Find intel. Target underlings. Go after Warchiefs. Attack the castle. Defeat the Overlord. Appoint your favorite orc as new Overlord. With so many maps this time around, I grew fatigued of this procedure halfway through. And because Talion is so overpowered, I barely died—so there were fewer chances for orcs to remember our previous encounters.
It may be unfair to criticize the Shadow games for the failure of other games to adopt its signature mechanic, but after 40+ hours of playing Shadow of War, I’m left feeling that the nemesis system is wasted on this series. It may be rich in its complexity, but it is applied to an ugly world and subject matter. The orcs spout taunts, but they don’t have real personality. I remember them by their weaknesses (or looks) more than anything else—which is to say, their defining characteristic is a mental catalogue of how they can be killed. You don’t draft orcs to your cause, you ‘dominate’ them by controlling their minds. Every time, Talion would growl angry lines ( “KNEEL BEFORE ME”) and the game would emphasize the orc’s terrorized face, right before exploding its head into a pulp. Navigating Mordor at all makes me feel like a serial killer, thanks to an unsettling soundtrack that sounds straight out of a horror movie. Heck, Talion’s abilities allow him to slink about in darkness, or teleport around, as if he were hacking through a summer camp in a Friday the 13th movie. Talion can easily mangle his prey, and like Jason, the fucker just will not die. Where other open-world games like Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Red Dead Redemption, or Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag invite you to explore lovely locales, Mordor is a horrible and dreary place. Here, all culture revolves around murder. It’s the sort of place where it is not unusual for maggots to reanimate a corpse. And since the nemesis system regularly replenishes the army of orcs, the whole endeavor feels useless. Mordor is always churning more evil. You can’t make a difference, or put a real dent into any of it. To dwell in this place, or to influence its politics, feels like indulging in something hateful. Staring into the void and all that.
There are bright spots, especially when you command orcs to do specific things. You can make orcs attack one another, and it felt good to have them succeed at their orders. Orcs you particularly like can become your bodyguards, which you can call upon at any time. Sometimes, orcs will throw down in the Fight Pits, which are automated battles you cannot interfere with. I would watch intently from the sidelines, curious if my orc could stand on its own. I’d find myself yelling at the TV, encouraging my orc to push harder. When I fought orcs, their special abilities would never get much of a chance to shine because I’d cut them down too quickly. But here, I watched in awe as my orcs strutted their stuff. In one particularly cool moment, I saw an orc make decoys that baffled and overwhelmed their opponent. I’d never seen that before. He won, and I felt proud. I went on to spend some time teaching my orcs special abilities, which made this part of the game Pokémon-esque. But I still couldn’t help but notice that whenever I found a cute orc out in the wild, I’d end up running away from them. I didn’t want to kill them myself, I didn’t want to chance the possibility that they’d die on the Fight Pits, and I certainly didn’t want to make them my slave. Interacting with them at all felt wrong, given the options available to me in the game.
For a moment during a questline about two of the only memorable orcs in the game, Shadow of War feels self-aware. A character tells me I am cruel, because I’ve dealt with a traitor by mentally breaking them. The moment passes quickly. Soon, Whatever contemplation this inspired was shattered by a pop-up notification that gleefully informed me that now, if I “shamed” an orc, there would be a chance for them to become deranged. I did that to an orc during this storyline. Later, I was shocked to find the maniacal orc out in the wild, with no memory of what had transpired. All they could say was that they regretted crossing me, that they shouldn’t have done it. I could hear the despair in his voice. I teared up, and moments later, I drafted him back into my army to see what would happen. He’s my bodyguard now, but I’ve yet to call him into battle. I feel too guilty. For all the praise that this series has generated over ‘emergent experiences,’ nothing matches how this series of events made me feel.
Much has been made about how Shadow of War brings in the industry’s favorite money-making system, loot boxes and microtransactions. The game actually doesn’t stumble here. I liked their inclusion as a means to gain more loot and orc minions, and I appreciated that you can buy at least a few kinds of boxes without spending a dime. I found that, through the normal course of play, I could afford a bevy of boxes that bolstered my ranks. It was a time-saver that saved me a few seconds if my orc ranks were depleted and I didn’t feel like recruiting new ones in the world. Instead of wasting time fighting yet another orc, I could just buy a box using the ample amounts of in-game cash I’d amassed and get some cool new additions to my roster. Given that Mordor’s whole spiel is that orcs are endless, the gacha-like quality of loot-boxes is a good fit. It also helps that you can earn loot boxes by doing daily challenges, or “online vendettas” where you kill the nemesis of players around the world. Plus, the player you help out also get bonuses. It’s possible that the post-game portion of Shadow of War, or the online castle sieges, push players more toward microtransactions and instills more of a desire to use loot boxes. We’ll report back on this next week, once we’ve spent more time on these sections of the game. But so far, during the lengthy main questlines, the temptation or necessity of spending actual money never happened in my game.
I’ve focused most of this review on the systems within Shadow of War, it’s because they are the most interesting part of the game. Its characters are forgettable. Shadow of War technically has things like strong female characters and heroes of color, but the game does them a disservice by making the missions involving these characters rote and uninteresting. You’ll be asked to do things like ‘Infiltrate this fort and kill X number of [insert enemy type here.]’ Or you’ll need to kill every enemy on the screen. Stuff like that.
Despite my criticisms, Shadow of War’s purgatory is seductive. Technically, it is the only game doing the nemesis system these days, and so there’s nowhere else to get this stuff, even as grimly executed as it is, anywhere else. When the game informed me that there would be no turning back after the final mission, I took stock of the nemesis board. I stopped and dominated more even more orcs. I didn’t need them. By this point, I was drowning in orcs. But like a Ring of Power whispering in my ear, I just couldn’t let go.