There's a reason Monolith’s Shadow of games don’t have The Lord of the Rings in their titles. You might assume that the brand recognition of Middle-earth alone (playfully aped in The Lego Movie as Middle Zealand, after all) is enough to sell a franchise – even one building on a successful debut with Shadow of Mordor back in 2014. In fact, the thing to take from Middle-earth: Shadow of War’s title is that it’s about Tolkien’s world more than his established characters.
Shadow of War takes cues from the likes of The Witcher 3, Assassin's Creed and the Batman: Arkham series.
This shared goal, coupled with the events of the first game (which aren’t thoroughly recounted), have seen the pair form a bond and now forge a new Ring of Power; one unknown to and uncorrupted by Sauron’s influence and filled with the power of Celebrimbor’s wraith form.
It's here we meet the first diversion from established Tolkien lore, which predictably invited controversy during the game’s development. The Great Spider Shelob (encountered by Frodo and Sam in The Return of the King) is depicted as a more ethereal being which generally takes the form of an attractive woman, rather than a hairy arachnid.
While it makes it easier to relate to the character, the depiction does seem unnecessarily sexualised and doesn't do much to make her compelling as a somewhat bystander in the story. Nonetheless, she’s called on to drive the plot forward with Galadriel-esque visions.
It must be said that the main characters in general are fairly uninspiring, despite the extremely cinematic and often epic presentation of the action unfolding around them. While Troy Baker's voice work as Talion fits perfectly, the warring sides of one being (himself and Celebrimbor sharing a body) can be akin to a married couple bickering, rather than two strong personalities arguing over fundamental disagreements. Their conflict isn't nearly as engaging as the world they occupy.
A big part in making this take on Middle-earth compelling is the Nemesis System, which returns to bring enemy captains to the forefront. The process often starts with interrogating a 'worm’ (a lowly orc) to gain intel on a captain's weaknesses, which will help you to defeat the boss-type characters in more convincing fashion. Later you can send death threats to achieve the opposite effect, boosting their level to heighten the challenge and thusly reap greater rewards.
A big part in making this take on Middle-earth compelling is the Nemesis System, which returns to bring enemy captains to the forefront.
What isn't clear is just how unique these characters are to each player. Will one maggot-infested captain who came back to life multiple times to taunt us appear in other games? Or is there a complex system of procedural generation at work, weaving in these memorable encounters on a somewhat user-by-user basis?
Either way, you can bump into the edges on occasion when you come across the same voice actors depicting multiple foes, but adding a personal touch does make these duels more exciting. Especially when three or four gang up on you at once and present an almost overwhelming challenge, the brutes then being promoted while taunting you on their victory should you fall.
The general orc populous are fairly obedient in only attacking one or two at a time, plus they’re either unwilling or unable to interrupt most cinematic actions like execution kills or draining the life out of grunts to regain health. Challenge comes in facing sheer numbers - which are now more common with the introduction of large-scale fort battles - though they can often be whittled down before entering open combat by engaging with the forgiving stealth system, which incorporates instant melee kills and a silent ranged bow (along with plenty of flashier abilities acquired through an upgrade tree).
Shadow of War’s world is separated into different regions, all with their own crop of captains to work through, missions to tackle and collectables to pick up. Looking at the world map brings back the Assassin's Creed comparisons - comparisons to Ubisoft games in general, really - as you're often unable to clear the map of its many, many symbols. Enemies also respawn fairly constantly, meaning there's only limited satisfaction in cleansing an area of filthy orcses.
In the end, Shadow of War is a great game let down by drawbacks which range from nagging to difficult to ignore. The sheer number of systems and sub-systems alone mean you're still being introduced to new mechanics and working out how the game works long into the second act.
If you relish the thought of jumping back into Tolkien’s world, Middle-earth: Shadow of War is a no-brainer; there's hours of exciting entertainment to be had. Ultimately though, there's an inevitability to where the story is heading, making it difficult to feel that you're the catalyst for any great change in a world on the brink - but perhaps that's the point.