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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (477)

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Greak: Memories of Azur 3.5/5
Yaga 2.5/5
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Middle-earth: Shadow of War   PC (Steam) 

Middle-Earth’s Last Gasp    3.5/5 stars

2017’s “Middle-Earth: Shadow of War” (“SoW”) is the not-entirely-unexpected sequel to 2014’s “Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor,” which marked the first Licensed game release based on the works of British linguist and mythologies, J.R.R. Tolkien, that didn’t completely suck. Warner Bros., the huge TV and movie studio, owns all visual media rights to adaptations of Tolkien’s original IP, and in an unsurprising move, decided to make a sequel to their one successful ‘Middle-Earth’ game, then cram it completely full of microtransactions, loot boxes, and poorly-balanced gameplay systems designed specifically to frustrate players and push them in the direction of making microtransactional purchases in order to make the experience more tolerable.

Thankfully, gamers from both the unwashed masses and the online media revolted against this aggressive and predatory monetization, and the resulting blow-back forced Warner Bros. to reconsider their stance on in-app purchases. A mere 8 months after release, Warner Bros. allowed the game’s development studio, Monolith (not to be confused with the Japanese studio, MonolithSoft), to remove the entire microtransaction system from the game and rebalance it to be playable and enjoyable without the need/ability to throw real money at imaginary problems.

While I enjoyed “Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor” more than I expected to, I didn’t really think a sequel was necessary. The first game’s DLC epilogue did a fine enough job of wrapping up the story that I was quite content to see it end. When “SoW” was launched infested with more Ubification than most Ubisoft games, I simply pretended it didn’t exist. However, with the removal of the in-app purchases and rebalancing of the entire experience, I was willing to give it a chance, but only on a deep, deep discount. Even after purchasing the game during a sale, I managed to forget about it and let it sink deep into the strata of my backlog for several years.

However, with the recent furor over the ruination of Tolkien’s seminal Fantasy setting by the likes of Amazon (“The Rings of Power” streaming series) and Wizards of the Coast (“Tales of Middle Earth,” a Magic: The Gathering crossover), I figured I’d go back and experience some Middle-Earth from before everything went to pot. Unfortunately, “SoW” is right at the tipping point, sharing many similarities with its solid predecessor, but ultimately coming up short in a number of ways.

Presentation
Like its predecessor, “SoW” is built in the Firebird Engine. As a 2017 game, it does hold up fairly well from a visual perspective, with well-done motion-capture and lip sync for the large variety of Orcs and Ologs the player will meet, dominate, and/or murder. There are significantly more human characters in this sequel, but they don’t look nearly as lifelike and convincing as the Orcs. Environments are large, and slightly more diverse this time around, with a tropical region, and snowy region, and a sandy desert region of Mordor all available to explore, along with a ruined formerly-human-inhabited city in Minas Ithil/Morgul. However, in spite of the variety available, environments do tend to look somewhat samey, simply by virtue of the bland color palette employed.

Audio is nearly indistinguishable from the preceding game, with the same stable of professional voice actors returning to reprise their roles. There are no celebrity cameo appearances that I noticed, and the small number of characters who appeared in Peter Jackson’s movie adaptations are voiced by sound-alikes. The soundtrack is fine, and generally reminiscent of Jackson’s movies as well, though I found it to be more understated this time around.

Technically, “SoW” cleans up all of the minor little nit-picks I had about the previous game. There are no little technical hangups or quirks, and the entire game runs smoothly and without glitches. Even the cutscenes, which generally looked terrible in the previous game due to being pre-rendered at low resolution with tons of screen tearing baked in, now look excellent, though it is noteworthy that any cosmetic changes the player has made to returning main character, Talion, do not appear during cutscenes, rendering him in his default appearance only. However, even with the removal of the most egregious Live Service trappings – that I like to call ‘Ubification’ in mockery of Ubisoft’s heavy overuse of them – “SoW” still has a handful of these things, and they don’t always work right. For example, moving a dominated Orc from one region of Mordor to another requires connecting to an online server, for some reason, and that server occasionally bombs out or fails to connect, likely because the game is 5 years old at this point, and maintaining robust server capacity isn’t free. Furthermore, there are annoying online vendettas the player can participate in to avenge other players who were murdered by specific Orcs. By far the worst offender is the (fully optional) PvP mode that allows players to pit their Orcs against other players’ Orcs in a battle arena, or even entire assault forces of Orcs against other players’ fortresses. While the concept seems fine in practice as a form of asynchronous multi-player, in reality, it’s full of hacked, nearly-invincible Orcs, without any way to directly battle a specific player, such as someone on your friend list.

Story
“SoW” picks up right where “Shadow of Mordor” finished off, with our hero, a mostly-dead Ranger of Gondor named Talion and the Elven Ringwraith, Celebrimbor (the original smith who made the Rings of Power), whose possession of Talion’s body allows the two to move freely around the countryside while also preventing Talion from bleeding out from the numerous wounds he has suffered, have successfully forged a New Ring to supplant the tainted One Ring that the Dark Lord, Sauron, uses to control the minds of men and Orcs alike.

Unfortunately for the duo, it’s not long before the monstrous spider queen, Shelob – who, in this game takes the form of a sexy human woman highly reminiscent of Milla Jovovich – manages to trick them out of the New Ring and claims it for herself. The game’s first Act revolves around a thoroughly-defeated Talion and Celebrimbor, stripped of their powers, attempting to figure out their next move. Celebrimbor is furious about the loss of the New Ring, while Talion is more trusting of Shelob’s willingness to help the duo by sharing visions of the future that have been granted to her by the Ring. The duo end up in Minas Ithil, the last Gondorian-held city in the fringes of Mordor, where they endeavor to help the Gondorians hold back an unrelenting tide of Orcs from further east. We are introduced to a number of new characters, including Idril, the spunky daughter of the city’s ruler; Eltariel, a she-Elf spy and assassin sent to Mordor by Lady Galadriel herself; and Baranor, a black guy from the in-universe Haradrim race, who serves as a Gondorian commander and love interest for Idril.

While at first glance, these new characters appear to be in the same vein of Intersectional Wokeism that sank Amazon’s “The Rings of Power” series, they are actually much more faithful to Tolkien’s original lore and have decent in-universe explanations for why they’re there. Baranor, specifically, would seem incredibly out of place in Gondor, but his backstory explains how he was sent to live in Gondor in a hostage-exchange situation between Gondor and the Haradrim, very similar to the way real-world ancient civilizations exchanged high-ranking citizens’ children as hostages to discourage hostilities between the two groups.

Ultimately, Minas Ithil falls. However, Shelob has an abrupt change of heart and returns the New Ring to the Dead Bros for Act 2, which involves traveling the full length, breadth, and width of Mordor, dominating Sauron’s Orcs and using the Dark Lord’s own armies against him in a civil war for control of the numerous gigantic forts and strongholds that dot the blighted nation. Throughout this time, we are treated with fragments of Shelob’s memories that detail her tumultuous past relationship with the Dark Lord, and explain her motivations in helping Talion and Celebrimbor. Other plot threads meander haphazardly through Act 2, allowing Talion to aid a handful of Gondorian survivors – including our new named characters, who naturally are protected by Plot Armor – and work alongside Eltariel in furthering her own opaque ends.

Act 3 begins with a stunning plot twist and betrayal that’s actually pretty good. I didn’t see it coming, but it makes sense and is entirely within the realm of reasonable outcomes based on the massaged version of Tolkien’s lore presented by the game.

Yes, “SoW” really does seem to want to stay true to Tolkien’s original work, but like Peter Jackson’s movies, sometimes needs to take liberties and change things for the sake of streamlining the plot or manipulating canonical events to allow the new adventures that take place in the game to fit neatly into the gaps. Super hard-core Tolkien purists will, like the previous game, find plenty of nits to pick, but more casual fans of the IP who primarily enjoy the movies more than the books will definitely find a good story here.

“Sow” is, however, significantly padded when compared to the previous game, with roughly double the run-time for the base experience, clocking in at around 60 hours. There are two story-based DLCs, both of which serve as epilogues for the main story, but neither of which actually feels relevant or like it should have been made in the first place, with one following Eltariel’s post-game activities and the other following Baranor into a Roguelite mode where he must conquer a region of Mordor using human allies instead of Orcs, without dying.

Personally, I found all of the DLC for this game to be horrible, to the point of skipping most of it, even though I own the complete edition of the game. Likewise, while the base story is good on its own, it definitely feels drawn-out and a bit tedious compared to the previous game’s brisker pace.

Gameplay
“SoW” copies 90% of its gameplay mechanics from “Shadow of Mordor.” At its heart, “SoW” feels very much like a knock-off of Ubisoft’s ‘Assassin’s Creed’ series, only with the unique addition of the Nemesis System, by which the game world is populated by a large number of unique, procedurally-generated Orc Captains and Warchiefs with a wide variety strengths and weaknesses that Talion must either work around or exploit when attempting to either kill the Orc in question or recruit him into the Army of the Bright Lord.

Talion can freely and fluidly swap between melee, ranged, and stealth combat, with options to mount and ride a small number of animal-type enemies, and the ability to climb on pretty much any vertical surface. Normal Orcs swarm the game’s environments in large numbers, but can be killed relatively quickly and easily, though getting ganged-up on by a huge number of them is dangerous in and of itself. If Talion is killed by a regular old Orc grunt, that Orc will immediately be promoted to Captain and gain a unique name, appearance, and set of perks, becoming Talion’s Nemesis in the process.

Nemesis Orcs can come back from the dead numerous times – provided they haven’t been decapitated – often changing their title and appearance, depending on the method Talion used to kill them. However, it is, like in the first game, possible to cheese the Nemesis System a bit simply by not dying very much. Death is tougher to avoid in the early game, since Talion and Celebrimbor are back at square one, stripped of the perks and powers accumulated in the first game, but I didn’t die once during Act 2 and only once in Act 3, due to the fact that one of the random traits a ranked Orc can gain is the ability to negate the ‘last chance’ mechanic that allows Talion to perform a simple QTE to avoid a fatal blow and recover some health.

The Nemesis System has also been modified further in that the player can customize recruited Orcs to an extent, leveling them up, giving them gangs of followers, improving their ‘rarity’ and thus their base stats, and even giving them specific elemental weapons. These upgrades were all part of the microtransaction system that was excised from the game, and the balance still feels a bit off. Instead of costing real money, these upgrades all cost varying amounts of an in-game coinage called Mirian. Apparently, some Orcs still like to hoard these ancient, probably-Elven coins, and Talion can accumulate them from said Orcs and by completing missions – including optional mini-objectives within missions. However, the amount of Mirian it takes to really trick out one Orc feels prohibitive compared to how time consuming the coins are to accumulate: It’s quite obvious that simply buying these upgrades with cash money would be appealing to certain people, compared to slowly grinding for in-game money.

Lastly, some of the RPG-esque mechanics have been changed from the previous game, and not for the better. Instead of skill trees, Talion and Celebrimbor now have skill lines, with each skill in a given category featuring 2-3 augments, but with only one augment able to be active at once. It can be very tedious and frustrating to open the skill menu and switch between skill augments during a battle – thankfully the game pauses while in the menus – in order to exploit a Captain’s weakness or, in the most egregious case, switch between the ability to dominate low-rank Orcs and the ability to restore Celebrimbor’s quiver of spectral arrows by draining said Orcs.

The rune system has likewise been replaced with a less-desirable loot system, with common, rare, epic, and legendary categories, each dropping from same-rarity Orc Captains. Common loot has no special properties, while rare loot has one random perk that must be unlocked by doing a specific thing while wearing it, epic loot has one random unlocked perk and another that must be unlocked in the same way as a rare perk, while legendary loot tends to have fixed perks and set bonuses based on the faction of Orcs associated with it, but can’t be upgraded to a higher level without doing something specific while wearing it. I personally found legendary loot to be absolutely worthless in this game, since it’s very easy to out-level it, and the unlock requirements for leveling it up aren’t exactly easy to fulfill (typically dominating an Orc Captain from a specific tribe of a specific level). I ultimately stuck with epic gear which randomly rolled with useful perks through the whole game, with the exception of my armor, which remained rare, since I never managed to get an epic suit of armor with the same good perk of applying poison on critical hits.

The closest thing to guided player customization of loot is the ability to slot one of three types of magic gem into each of Talion’s gear slots. These gems come in 5 rarities, with the ability to combine 3 gems into the next higher rarity tier. Red gems typically increase the damage of the equipped weapon, while green gems grant weapons lifesteal, and white gems are ‘lucky’ and grant an increased chance of a slain Orc dropping Mirian or grant Talion faster experience point gain.

In general, I didn’t really like the changes made to the skill and equipment systems in “SoW” compared to the systems in “Shadow of Mordor.” They definitely feel like they were changed to exploit the original microtransaction system and to pad gameplay instead of streamlining things. That said, for the most part, everything in “SoW” feels similar enough to the previous game that it’s easy to recommend it to anyone who enjoyed the original.

Overall
“Middle-Earth: Shadow of War” seems to be the IP’s last hurrah, with subsequent games, streaming shows, and trading card game expansions doing everything they possibly can to take a dump all over the Middle-Earth setting and Professor Tolkien’s groundbreaking work in the Fantasy genre. While the story in “SoW” wraps up nicely, the gameplay continues to suffer from foundational changes that were originally made to accommodate the now-deprecated microtransaction system. Likewise, the DLC is some of the worst I’ve ever seen, adding nothing of value to the base game. Fans of Peter Jackson’s movie adaptations of Tolkien will definitely enjoy this game, while hard-core purists may not.

Presentation: 4.5/5
Story: 3.5/5
DLC: 0.5/5
Gameplay: 3.5/5
Overall (not an average): 3.5/5

 

 


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