Shadow of WTF

by Arthur B

Middle Earth: Shadow of War is essentially Fanfic: the Videogame.
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When we last left the story of the Ranger Talion in Shadow of Mordor, he’d started his day being murdered by the forces of Sauron and then things just kept getting worse. Given a strange sort of half-life by being fused with the spirit of Celebrimbor, the legendary elven smith who had forged the Rings of Power with Sauron, we followed their journeys together as they began their guerilla war against Sauron, using the power to control orcs’ minds to turn the Dark Lord’s forces against him.

All this Grand Theft Mordor shenanigans was fun enough, but whilst the original Shadow of Mordor was like the Saint’s Row of Middle-Earth, Shadow of War is its Saint’s Row 2: it takes the gameplay of the original and injects it with a hefty dose of absolutely bizarre nonsense that makes a farcical cartoon of the whole thing.

In literally the first cut scene, we catch up with Talion and Celebrimbor in the process of forging a brand new Ring of Power underneath Mt. Doom. The New Ring looks like a silly gothic version of the One Ring, where it’s black with silver writing instead of gold with gold writing. Celebrimbor has gone all-in on calling himself the Bright Lord and is intent on conquering Mordor, and Talion is along for the ride since he reckons overthrowing Sauron like this will ultimately be what's best for Gondor.

This project must wait a while, however, thanks to the intervention of Shelob. Now, friends, I realise you are used to Shelob being a big ol’ spider monster, but the producers of this game apparently decided that it'd be too hard to depict you having extended conversations with a giant spider, so she only spends a few seconds of this game in that form; for most of the time she's in the form that in honour of that Simpsons meme I think of as Stupid Sexy Shelob, where she's this dark-haired pale-skinned gothic lady in a flimsy dress. (“In this spider silk I feel like I’m wearing nothing at all… Nothing at all… Nothing at all…!”)

Still in the first cut scene, Shelob steals the New Ring, and when Talion and Celebrimbor ask for their toy back she's like “lolno, I’m just going to weirdly flirt with Talion for a bit”. Talion and Celebrimbor go off in a grump - particularly Celebrimbor because he's permanently grumpy and gets all jealous when Shelob gets sexy at Talion - and they go off to Minas Ithil, Gondorian fortress, where they reckon they can obtain a Palantir as a consolation prize. It's under siege by an orc army led by the Witch-King of Angmar, however, and is only days away from being conquered and becoming Minas Morgul (as seen in the movies). A certain amount of questing later, and the city falls, the Palantir is lost, but Shelob decides that owning the New Ring brings more Nazgul-themed trouble than it's really worth and gives it back to Talion all wrapped up in a package of enigmatic flirting. And that's when things get really wacky…

So, as you might have inferred from all this, this really isn't the game for you if you are very precious about Middle-Earth canon. Whereas Shadow of Mordor took a few liberties here and there but could conceivably be a tale that unfolded in that downtime between The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring, this is some developer’s wildly divergent fanfic exploding across the screen.

There's collectible shards of Shelob’s memories which eventually reveal that she and Stupid Sexy Sauron (in full bishounen mode) totes used to bang but then he dumped her when the armies of good came calling, so she's sad and wants him to suffer. There's a Stupid Sexy Nature Spirit who I am 99% sure is meant to be an entwife; Monolith have been coy on this point, but it could just be that the licence won't let them overtly declare that she's an entwife, even though it would make more sense for her to be that than anything else. There's a Balrog that you have to fight along with the Stupid Sexy Entwife, which at one point degenerates into an extended pro wrestling-esque brawl between the two big beasts. You have an elf ninja sent by Galadriel to harass the Nazgul. You have the revelation that Isildur became a Nazgul, having been resurrected after dying so he could be forced to wear one of the Nine For Mortal Men Doomed To Die until he got Nazgul’d. You have Zog, the orc necromancer, as the leader of a third side in the Mordor civil war you're fighting and whose main plan includes raising that Balrog you killed as a zombie Balrog. You have the ultimate fate of Talion, which is only exceeded in silliness by the ultimate fate of Celebrimbor (which involves full-on fusing with another character Dragonball Z-style). You have the final boss battle against Sauron, where he spends lost of the fight not in his badass armour from the flashback that begins the Fellowship of the Ring movie but in his bishounen form. You have the New Ring apparently having the power to take over the minds of Nazgul and, but for a last-minute twist of fate, Sauron himself.

At some points the game’s own logic curls in on itself and starts gnawing on its own innards. The New Ring, so far as I can tell, does nothing beyond giving you the mind control powers you already had in the previous game and provide another bit of gear you can level up with loot drops. There’s one bit where the first orc captain you mind controlled breaks free of your control and starts a rebellion against you, and the game even flags this as an unusual and worrying event… but never bothers to explain how it actually happened. Nor does it explain why my ability to make all my followers’ heads explode at will stopped working on him. It’s just a random thing which happens to pad out the side quests and waste time without any real explanation of how it happens or any further consequences going forwards, beyond allowing you to unlock a more severe version of your “shame an enemy captain so they lose levels” power.

In short, plotwise the game is absolutely bananas. It also has this weirdly gendered approach to things; Shelob and the entwife both have monstrous forms and sexy forms, and use the sexy forms for talking and monstrous forms for fighting, whereas Sauron also has both but will happily fight in both and actually spends more time fighting in his bishounen form than in his spiky armour form. There's also a really dodgy handling of race: precisely one PoC character shows up, and he's a leader of the otherwise overwhelmingly white Gondorians (which apparently clashes with canon since the Gondorians, as descendents of the Numenoreans, apparently ought to look like north Africans), and at first it goes uncommented-on and that's cool. Then, however, it turns out he started life as a Haradrim who was sent to the Gondorian court as a hostage (this sort of arrangement happened a lot with medieval noble youths) but then identified more with and adopted Gondorian culture. What this boils down to, then, is that the only black person of any significance in the game is a dude who abandoned his own culture because he realised the superiority of a white-dominated culture. Toss in the fact that the Haradrim serve Sauron (a bit of canon they decide not to change here) and it's really not a good look.

As with Shadow of Mordor, it's the orcs and the associated nemesis system that saves things. Whilst the plot spirals off into wild nonsense, the orcs remain there, grumbling away to each other and getting in your face. The much-vaunted region conquest system new to this game is essentially a further elaboration of the orc management system, and it's clear that a lot of brainstorming went into coming up with increasingly wild orc personality bits that can be applied to them. (There's orc bards! They play the lute and sing at you!) Here, the development is more evolutionary than revolutionary.

As a mashup of absurd fanfic theories, well-meaning clumsy racism, and sexy spider ladies with dresses that look like they are in danger of falling off if they relaxed their shoulders, Shadow of War is an incredible car crash. As another open world in the series to flip about in Assassin's Creed-style and mess with orcs in, it's alright, but not alright enough to hold my interest once the plot runs out of absurdity to offer up. There's a point the game reaches where Monolith clearly ran out of the story they want to tell but felt like they hadn't offered enough gameplay, so you have to do a bunch of grindy, repetitive siege defence missions to unlock a final cut scene which shows you nothing you could not infer from the previous cut scene, but I skipped that.

Still, you'll probably want to play to the final act to get the end of Talion's story (because make no mistake, that grindy stuff is all essentially a coda to Talion's tale, which for all intents and purposes has its ending set in stone already by the end of the penultimate act) if you enjoyed Shadow of Mordor. Monolith have gone on the record as saying that they deliberately were a bit cautious with Shadow of Mordor, concentrating on getting the Nemesis system right and learning the ropes of this whole open world business, whilst Shadow of War represents their fully realised vision of what they wanted to do with this franchise, and as bizarre as that vision is I can't pretend that they don't commit to a particular approach to the material and then nail the execution.

Given that this is unambiguously the end of Talion's story, I suspect it's also the end of this series - though given the eccentric imagination on offer here Monolith might surprise us. To be honest, I’d kind of like to see them working with a fictional franchise which had more compatibility with their general approach and sense of humour; Warhammer orcs would fit the Nemesis system and Monolith’s writing approach nicely, for instance...
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