Somewhere around the 12-15 hour mark, depending on how many side quests you take on, you’ll reach a very satisfying conclusion in Shadow of War. There are huge spectacles, fantastic battles, memorable characters and Talion, the immortal Ranger, grows into a formidably powerful and fun character to play. There is a great sense of progression, exploration and development, and a lot of enjoyment to had.
And that’s act one.
Finish that and the game sort of says ‘well done. Here’s the real me’ and expands into something so dauntingly huge it’d be a lot scarier if it wasn’t enjoyable to play. Bearing in mind that just getting to act two could easily take double that 12-15 hours if you go after all the collectibles, miscellaneous objectives and enemies that cross your path, and you’ll start to get up a feel for the scale we’re talking about here. And then, after around 30-40 hours, you’ll unlock the rest of the map…
So ‘big’ is a good word to describe Shadow of War, with as many expletives in front as you see fit, to get across just how fucking huge this is. It might not quite have the polished craft of things like The Witcher 3, or the variety of an Elder Scrolls, but overall the bar for quality is high, and with so much to do it’s both immensely easy, and satisfying, to get lost in.
At the core of it all is Talion, a Ranger bonded to Celebrimbor, the creator of the rings of power and now a grumpy undead wraith with the power to resurrect Talion when he dies. Together they have a shared goal of... something, something Sauron. The game’s so big and the options so wide that it’s easy to lose the thread as you wage literal war, meet/help/rescue allies and get to grips with the expanded Nemesis system (more on that later). It’s not really a criticism, just another indicator of the size of the game - with all the distractions it can be days before you pick up a mission strand where you left off.
The main thing, then, is travelling an expansive and beautifully made Lord of the Rings adventure playground - picking various story missions, murdering orcs, stumbling into an evening’s worth of distractions, and murdering orcs. Seriously, so much orc murder. The fighting system is a counter-based thing that sees you hacking enemies and deflecting their incoming attacks - think Batman Arkham’s ‘triangle to win’ combat. Simple but effective, and richly deepened through a range of upgrades and environmental options.
For example, unlocking insta-kills for a perfect counter is a literal game changer and there’s plenty of ways to craft something that works for you. Although the skills tree’s structure often means unlocking unwanted things to access something cool. but it usually pays off. The combat can incorporate so many layers that quick wits are as important as reactions. Some enemies have their own tricks and are immune to some of your attacks. When that happens you’ll find yourself desperately improvising, trying different combinations, shooting down fly nests that might induce panic, or releasing a caragor beast to chew a few people for you. Anything to level the playing field. There are times you feel like a fantasy Jason Bourne, rolling around a table, trying to grab whatever comes to hand to help you beat a tricky opponent. Its moments like that, that can see the smallest encounter spiral into a story in its own right.
That story creation, in part, is thanks to the Nemesis system’s return from the previous game. It creates a seething hotbed of orc captains that live, die and rise up the ranks as you play. Both by their own in-fighting and your own actions - let one kill you, for example, and they’ll get promoted, creating your own personal - wait for it - nemesis. They all have strengths and weakness you can root out by interrogating certain characters or finding intel in the world, and preparation is easily as important as reparation.
It’s a great system because on top of all the structured and plotted content, so much of it is unique to you. You end up with personal vendettas, grudges and, ultimately, resolutions as you make and break enemies. Like the previous game you can ‘dominate’ the orcs you don’t kill to build your own army. I had a tricky opponent I encountered numerous times before I finally beat him. Once I had, I made him my bodyguard and he literally save my life. I was genuinely gutted when he died.
As well as sending your minions off to kill enemies or work as spies, you can now use this army to attack and hold citadels in various regions, forming large set piece battles you shape through recruitment, backstabbing treachery and just plain murder. Trying to take these various bases is a big challenge and almost a game in its own right as you weaken its defenses and warchiefs before charging the walls. That’s all while building your own forces to storm it, resulting in a huge battle, hundreds of orcs strong. You can also attack, or be attacked, by other players bases online, giving more motivation to build a powerful army.
This scale overall is as much a strength as it is a weakness at times, however. There’s plenty to do which helps change the pace up, but, occasional set pieces aside, it’ll all too often involve a bit of sneaking and a huge fight. No matter how much fun the combat is there are moments where it becomes a bit of a chore. So much hacking. There are little monologues various orc captains give to introduce themselves when they find you and, as they can pop up without warning, you can often find yourself unexpectedly forced to stop and listen. Sometimes up to three times when you’re fighting a 50 odd orcs. Guys, kinda in the middle of something here.
Why not create something new rather than slip a half ton of fantasy spider into evening wear?
Tonally it’s all over the place as well. On the one hand Talion and Celebrimbor have all the sparkle of a graveyard - a dour tone that fits the books perfectly - but there are moments with some of your orc followers played so much for comedy it’s hard not to hear canned laughter in your mind. Elsewhere, the source material is treated with all the respect Michael Bay shows an 80s toy line. You get to fight a significant creature from the lore largely by pressing square to punch it in the kidneys and then shooting a glowing weak spot.
Then there’s Shelob, the monstrous primordial spider, now a sultry woman in a black dress split up to the thigh for… I just have no idea why. It’s such a weird choice because she’s actually a well performed character - malevolent, threatening and memorable. Why not create something new rather than slip a half ton of fantasy spider into evening wear? There are plenty other new faces that work perfectly well.
One thing that does feel exceptionally forced are the loot chests. These work much like you’d expect, popping open like pinatas to spew out various levels of gear. In this case mainly legendary and epic orc followers. I bought a few and got some cool soldiers but I didn’t feel like it made any great difference. You can buy them with in-game money and real world cash and, for a game that doesn’t have a huge online component, feel like someone somewhere was forced to find a way to monetize the game - pressing the mold of more multiplayer focused ideas against Middle Earth until it left a mark, rather than filled the container. There are online missions like vendettas and challenges, but unless you plan to spend a long time invading other players citadels I can’t see any value to the chests beyond Warner Brother hoping you’ll give them some money.
But, for the most part, this is big spectacle and richly layered experience. The different regions are beautiful and varied to explore, while Sauron's forces are alway entertaining to meet and beat. If there are moments that don’t quite click or things that fatigue a little it’s because of that scale. There’s almost an Assassin’s Creed 2 feel of map spatter to all the markers for towers, collectables, bits and so on. I’ve not 100%-ed it but you’re easily looking at a triple figure time should you try. This isn’t a game to get in for the weekend, it’s something to buy and cancel plans for the year.