Middle Earth: Shadow of War is the sequel to the highly popular and enjoyable Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor. It was a somewhat blasphemous and fascinating take on the classic Tolkien Legendarium, having its protagonist seek to use necromancy as well as other dark magic to fight the Dark Lord with his own power. You know, the one thing that is constantly warned against by Tolkien as self-defeating but we kind of would be curious as to how it would go.
Since this is a direct sequel, a brief recap is warranted: Talion is a Ranger of the North without the powerful blood of Numenor running through his veins. After a sneak attack by Sauron’s forces, he ends up being possessed by the elven smith Celebrimbor. Talion manages to do a good deal of damage to Sauron’s war machine but the realization that the Dark Lord is just getting started is enough to get him to convince Celebrimbor to make a new ring.
The game starts immediately after Talion sneaks into Mount Doom and proceeds to smith himself a ring with Celebrimbor’s help. I would have actually enjoyed sneaking into Mount Doom and am a bit disappointed that Talion didn’t have to do so. Either way, Celebrimbor pours his life force into the New Ring (along with yours) but has it almost immediately stolen. This is meant to explain why Talion goes from an orc-slaying badass Ringwraith to a complete weakling again but also actually fits the fact the Rings of Power can never be trusted.
Unfortunately, this is also where the story starts to go completely off the rails and never quite gets back on them. Specifically, the New Ring is stolen by Sexy Shelob. Yes, the giant spider who almost ate Frodo. Apparently, she can assume a form that can best be described as “Morrigan from Dragon Age in an evening dress.”
Much has already been made of this bizarre lore change, somewhat akin to Godzilla becoming a hot Japanese school girl, but I could meet them halfway on this. Plenty of mythological creatures assume the form of sexy women to eat people because ancient peoples had serious issues with misogyny: vampires, sirens, succubi, kelpies, deer women, and so on. It’s just Shelob doesn’t have her one characterization trait and instead works as a kind of anti-Galadriel, putting Talion on the road to destroying Sauron. Because, apparently they used to date.
Oh sweet Eru.
Seriously, you have no idea how badly you must screw with the lore to get me to not support more pale raven-haired witches in fiction. Not saying it’s a fetish but it’s a fetish. Anywho, Talion has to use his unholy powers, diminished as they are, to try to help protect Minis Ithil from an invasion of orcs. I mean, technically the citadel should have fallen a thousand years before, but this Sauron is just getting started.
Talion meets a cute pint-sized Eowyn named Idril, her Haradrim captain, and father before asking, “Could I please have your palantir because the ghost in my head wants it before Sauron gets it?” This goes poorly and becomes a bickering conflict between Talion wanting to save lives and Celebrimbor seeking absolute power to defeat Sauron.
The story is pretty complex and spread across multiple zones of Mordor. Some of the ideas are quite interesting as you apparently meet an Ent-Wife (or their patron Maia), you have to deal with a cult of necromancers, contend with a Balrog waking up, and finally have the Nazgul introduced since Sauron is well and truly tired of Talion/Celebrimbor’s bullshit.
Frankly, some of these would have made pretty good games themselves and I kind of think it’d have been hilarious if instead of Sexy Shelob, they’d made Durin’s Bane be the beautiful woman who stole Celebrimbor’s ring. That would have been ridiculous but not necessarily lore breaking. Who says the Balrog can’t be female? Plus, as a Maia, the idea they can assume a human form goes with the territory. She’d probably be a redhead, though.
Sadly, the weird lore breaking gets even worse as the game goes on as we find out the identities of the Nazgul like Helm Hammerhand, Isildur, and a group of Chinese-themed twin sisters (DLC only). There’s also a guy who was clearly meant to be Al-Pharazon but they changed his name, which is about the only smart move they did. This is just silly because the people who know who these people are don’t want to see them stuck with entirely different characters. It’s like revealing Darth Revan’s true identity was Luke Skywalker all along. Even if you explain that he was transported back in time via a wormhole, that doesn’t make it less stupid.
Unfortunately, as silly as the world-building is and the game’s inability to commit to any of its interesting ideas (I’d happily play an entire game of Talion versus a Balrog), the storytelling is by far the best part of the game. The gameplay is decent but the attempt to make it a much-larger open world game and introduce base management elements doesn’t really improve it. The previous game benefited fantastically from the Nemesis System where artificially generated orcs are used to harass Talion, but this has a lot more predetermined ones that are less interesting. There’s also a lot more of them so by the time you’ve killed your 50th Captain, you’re kind of sick of them.
Perhaps the most egregious of trying to push the gamers into unnecessary time-wasting content is that to get the “true” ending, you must do ten sieges of your bases by Sauron’s forces. Sieges are not particularly enjoyable, and these are lacking in any form of story. It’s just time-wasting busy work for a short cutscene that should have been at the end of the game anyway.
I feel like the game doesn’t make use of its set pieces very well, either. You have an entire mission chain in the area around Mount Doom and you never get to go inside but for the New Ring forging scene. The New Ring’s powers are also not particularly well-defined with mind-control being an ability you had in the previous game. I feel like when introducing something like a new Ring of Power, you need to be a little more grandiose in your ambitions. There was more to complain about the game, like loot boxes, but, thankfully, the developers removed those.
In conclusion, Middle Earth: Shadow of War suffers from the fact that they wanted to appeal to the broadest audience possible and that meant making some very big compromises in the lore. I like the original characters for the most part and wouldn’t have had a problem if they had just made Sexy Shelob into another previously unknown fallen Maia. It’s already fanfic with Talion and company, that doesn’t mean it has to be bad fanfic. It’s still a lot of fun playing this game, branding orcs and mind-controlling them, but it’s not as fun as its predecessor due to the slog as well as attempts to push the sieges as a main gameplay element.