What is Middle-Earth: Shadow of War?
A sequel to the Lord of the Rings inspired Shadow of Mordor, Middle-Earth: Shadow of War plonks you back into the shoes of the undead ranger Talion and his grumpy wraith companion, Celebrimbor, who just happens to be sharing his body, as you do. The game opens with the pair forging a new ring that gives them the power to maraud across Mordor, so they can defend the folks of Middle-Earth from the murdering orc invaders and Sauron's army of ne'er-do-wells. Along the way, you'll need to recruit and build your own army, settle vendettas with formidable orc-ish commanders and secure Middle-Earth's many fortresses, in preparation for the final showdown with Sauron.
How do you play Middle-Earth: Shadow of War?
Playing as Talion, most of your time will be spent sneaking around Shadow of War's Lord of the Rings-themed open world, searching for collectibles, side quests and playing through story segments. Walled cities and fortresses crawl with enemy orcs, who you'll need to fight through to reach your next objective. Whether you prefer to be sneaky sneaky, slowly picking them off one by one without being detected, or simply diving in, sword swinging madly instead, you have the freedom to approach each situation as you see fit. Combat is a somewhat button-mashing affair, with a few time-sensitive special moves you can pull off as and when the relevant buttons appear on screen to stealth kill, parry or temporarily stun. Missions generally revolve around travelling from A to B, taking out the enemies on your way, perhaps avoiding some large fireballs along the way, or taking a detour to steal a 'siege beast' for flinging bombs down into the crowds of city-storming orcs below you.
Perhaps the most notable aspect of Shadow of War is its 'Nemesis system'. Groups of orcs are often lead by more powerful orc commanders, each with their own unique sets of strengths and weaknesses. By using your wraith companion's mind-reading powers, you're able to discover which orcs are immune to arrows, weak to poison, or scared of Caragors, the giant sabre-tooth cat beasts you can ride around on. Such information you can use to your advantage, when you come face to face with the commander in question. Beat him, and you'll weaken the enemy forces - but should he defeat you, he might get promoted, making him much tougher for when you decide to try and settle your vendetta later on.
Later on in the game, Talion will need to raise his own orc army, recruiting his own commanders, grunts and captains to his cause. Giving you the option of sending characters off to complete missions for you, perhaps tasking them with assassinating a rival captain, infiltrating the enemy army or simply training them up for battle, at certain points in the game, you'll have to rely on your orc army to defend your captured fortresses from attack by Sauron's forces, which is where all that training, underhanded tactics and planning is likely to pay off.
How easy is Middle-Earth: Shadow of War to pick up and play?
In general, Shadow of War is a complex game, aimed at experienced players. Given that Shadow of War takes place over such a large open area, filled with various side quests and objectives, knowing where to head next when it comes to following the main story missions can be a bit of a challenge. While they are generally marked on your map, given that the land in general is usually patrolled by groups of orcs, you may find yourself running into a band of enemies that are a bit too strong for you to handle. Dying is really just a formality though, and aside from causing a few orcs to get promoted in the background, you'll respawn at a safe point a short distance away from where you died, ready to fight again.
However, the game does come with three different difficulties - Easy, Normal and Nemesis - with the latter two constantly adapting to how you play to keep things fairly challenging. Easier difficulties make your character harder to spot when in stealth, makes combat with tough enemies more predictable by making them less likely to try unexpected tactics, and just generally makes bad guys easier to kill.
It's also worth noting that, while the majority of the game is fully-voiced, with full subtitles, a decent reading ability is advised due to the amount of strategic information you glean from enemies, as well as various map descriptions and memos that pop up - all of which are text only, and all of which are integral to knowing where to go and what to do next.
While light on sexual content and bad language, Middle-Earth: Shadow of War contains substantial bloody violence and gore. Frenetic battles see you battling with fantastical creatures (orcs, trolls and goblins), using swords, arrows and knives, accompanied by frequent blood spurts, decapitations and dismemberments, leaving pools of blood and body parts in your wake. Using the main character's wraith skills to read orcs' minds for intel on their commanders ends in their heads exploding in a shower of blood and brains, as the headless body falls limply to the ground. Cutscenes show an orc decapitated in slow motion with a close up camera, a woman killed by a blow to the head, and soldiers impaled and slashed to death.
Format Reviewed: Playstation 4