Middle-earth: Shadow of War is a thrilling, chaotic sandbox where every bloody beheading is your own damn fault

Middle-earth: Shadow of War is at its best when things are nearly - but not quite - going horribly, terribly wrong. Case in point: I, as Talion, burgeoning Brightlord on a mission to grow his turncoat orc army in order to triumphantly shatter the multitudinous fortresses of Mordor, have just run into a right old clusterfuck. And it’s brilliant. 

Hitting the last of three control points that need capturing in order to access the boss fight at the end of the assault, I've stumbled into three named, high-level orc warriors at the same time. These War Chief stand-offs act as stand-out punctuation during each systemic, castle-crashing set-piece, and if they don't retreat to come back later in the game, can be killed, recruited, or de-levelled to deal with later in a weaker state. They're tricky, stand-out battles within battles at the best of times, and now there are three of them. And one of them is a troll. 

Now, Talion is an agile chap. Capable of all of the vaulting, wall-leaping, insta-countering abilities he displayed in the previous game, Shadow of Mordor, his skill-set has now expanded (literally and figuratively) to deal with the wider, multi-levelled demands of War's vast sieges. He can ride war-beasts over walls, for instance, before charging into battle and cleaning up with a flurry of spear-swipes. He can pick out distant targets with his bow, before hurtling toward them in spirit form for an instant, heavy hit. He's part Batman, part, Superman, part Aragorn, part warlord, and part Assassin with a capital 'A’. But now he's surrounded by dozens of orcs, is fighting three War Chiefs at the same time, and one of them, as I pointed out earlier, is a goddamn troll. Also, there's a Drake flying around overhead, intermittently setting the ground on fire with no fixed agenda, but that's my fault for releasing it earlier. 

But then a series of wonderful things happen, all stemming from Things Nearly Going Horribly Wrong. Talion goes down, smashed to his knees and the bottom of his health bar by one of the non-troll Chiefs. With life and death separated only by a single QTE, things are looking dire. But in an epic moment of triumph, I heroically nail that timed button-press and get my boy back on his feet. An instant later, an arrow hurtles through the air and runs our attacker’s skull clean through. One of my archers has been watching things unfurl, and has delivered a clutch-save at blistering, eyeball-popping speed. 

Moments later, the second chief goes down, one of my own trolls dropping the finishing blow atop a foundation built of my own, hard-fought aggression. And then 30 seconds later, I myself finish The Bad Troll. After an age spent diving around his stoney fist-smashes, sliding under his overhead slams, and abusing well-timed stuns to deliver welcome, rare bouts of sustained damage, I eventually end the duel by stabbing him in the leg and he's dancing around in panic trying to shake off a spider. My side released those spiders elsewhere, ten minutes earlier. Totally paid off. 

Because this is the core of Shadow of War. Regardless of the seeming luck at play here - the surface-level, circumstantial wins at the hands of other players - all of this is down to me and the decisions I made before initiating the raid. That archer? I put him into the battle. If I hadn't done that, he wouldn't have been there to make the kill in the first place. That Good Troll? Just a minute or so before his moment of glory, I'd fought through a previous mob in order to save him from bleeding out. If I hadn't done that, he wouldn't have been in the fight either. And the spider that caused that undignified, pivotal distraction? One of a horde, released by one of my own War Chiefs, the direct result of a skill I chose to equip him with before the battle started. 

Shadow of War is made of these decisions. When things go well, you'll see their results in broad strokes, like I do early in the assault, as my siege trolls work together with my wall-assault orcs to rapidly shatter the keep's boundaries and allow a torrent of my troops to flood the first capture point, doing 90% of my first job for me. That stuff is cool, and cinematic, and empowering, but it could easily be a scripted set-piece, a case of the game playing itself into order to give me a pre-canned moment of glory. It isn't, but it works so well that could be. Instances like the near-disastrous triumph I detailed above though? That's when you really see Shadow of War at its best. That's when you see what it's doing under the hood. And it turns out it's doing a lot. 

You see, the speed and ferocity of the first part of my assault is no accident either. My own War Chiefs’ specialties (each has a choice of three that can be equipped before battle in exchange for currency, those selections in turn dependent on the orcs I’ve recruited from previous missions) didn't conquer by happy circumstance, but rather as a direct result of being chosen to counter specific properties and powers of the fort and its denizens. My warriors were buffed to resist the poison showers I knew we would meet me the walls. Those walls fell quickly because I chose assault troops I knew could topple their specific, structural make-up. The giant spiders… Okay, the spiders were just to mess people up once I'd blown open a clear route from outer walls to inner sanctum, but they bloody well worked. No-one likes spiders. And certainly not giant spiders. Giant spiders are jerks. 

To emphasise the power of systemic strategy in Shadow of War, you need only compare this tale to that of a less fortunate player I spoke to after the demo. One of his randomly rolled enemy War Chiefs had sprung up with a minimum of exploitable weaknesses. With only the demo’s pre-supplied troops and resources to work with (having been unable up build a long-term meta-army for all occasions, as he would be able to in the complete game), he had a nightmare of a time getting to the final boss. Make no mistake, strategy and forward planning are going to be a major part of Shadow of War. This is a game where you really do make your own luck. 

That said, it's not always good luck. Take my version of that final battle for instance. Recognising that the fortress overlord had a weakness to arrows, escalating to a full-blown susceptibility to being ‘pinned’ (to ground, with an arrow, through his foot) I quickly ascend the climactic arena's high walls to a balcony holding two enemy archers. Swiftly breaking their will (a simple matter of getting close and holding B or Circle), I turn them to my side to ensure a permanent rain of arrows upon the battle. I set about my bloody work on ground level, and with their help, I do very well indeed. 

But then, just as I near victory, one of my noble acolyte archers misses his target. And I get in the way of his shot. Just as my health reaches a particularly low ebb. And then I die. 

I try to be angry, but I can’t be. The brilliant, systemic, dynamic reality running the situation - and the knowledge that the same organic cause-and-effect is exactly what lead to all of my earlier, emergent glories - means that I just can’t. The game hasn’t actively screwed me. This is just ‘one of those things’, the culmination of a raft of moving parts powering an unpredictable engine of causality. In fact, the knowledge of that just makes my present situation hilarious. Because hey, while the archer might have missed the shot, my having recruited him in the first place means that ultimately, in a round-about way, it was basically all my fault. Because that’s the thing. For good or bad, in Shadow of War, everything is. 

David Houghton
Long-time GR+ writer Dave has been gaming with immense dedication ever since he failed dismally at some '80s arcade racer on a childhood day at the seaside (due to being too small to reach the controls without help). These days he's an enigmatic blend of beard-stroking narrative discussion and hard-hitting Psycho Crushers.