Monolith's Middle-earth: Shadow of War has a lot to live up to. As the follow-up to the critically acclaimed Shadow of Mordor, which The Guardian considered a contender for Game of the Year back in 2014, and one of the titles that grabbed a big spotlight during the E3 Expo in June, expectations for the open-world hack-'n-slasher set in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings universe were understandably huge. And for the most part, it would seem those expectations were met, judging by the game's average review score of 85.
That said, it may be that the weight of the predecessor's success and the sheer anticipation for a sequel led to Warner Bros. needlessly adding to the game. In his 7-out-of-10 review for GameSpot, Justin Haywald was especially critical of Shadow of War's final act.
"More than once I felt like giving up on this quest thinking I'd stumbled onto some optional side content that was clearly only made for obsessed completionists. But enduring on, I found that finishing every stage unlocks the final cutscene and credits. It did not feel worth it," he says.
"It tries to be larger than its predecessor, there are more abilities, more weapons, more Orcs, yet it leaves you wanting less"
Justin Haywald, GameSpot
"It's an entire section that should have been cut or severely truncated, and playing through the repetitious levels felt like padding meant only to make the game last longer."
The old mantra of "less is more" seems to apply to the entire game, according to Haywald. He continues, "It tries to be larger than its predecessor, there are more abilities, more weapons, more Orcs, yet it leaves you wanting less. But at its core, it's a fun experience with brilliant moments that provide fascinating insight into some of the untold stories of Middle-earth. I just wish it had known when to stop."
USgamer's Mike Williams, who awarded the game a 4-out-of-5, largely agreed about the game's size being larger without a real purpose.
"Shadow of War's biggest problem is really the sheer size of it. There's so much to do," he says.
"Shadow of Mordor was a 15-25 hour game. Shadow of War feels at least double that. When Shadow of War is at its best-you're flying across the battlefield freezing enemies, setting them on fire, and destroying whole armies with your Uruk crew-it's awesome. The problem is it doesn't quite sustain that satisfaction and momentum throughout the entire game."
Another questionable addition to Shadow of War is its online storefront, bringing microtransactions into yet another AAA title. GameSpot's Haywald explains, "...you can pay real-world money to earn loot boxes that have guaranteed high-rarity Orcs and equipment. One early quest in the game gives you a small sum of the paid currency to purchase some loot boxes, but you can also buy them from the store using an earned in-game currency called Mirian.
"The overriding sensation is that of a sandbox of super-powered predation and exploration in a world where you are the prime mover, and on a scale that dramatically outstrips its predecessor"
Matt Miller, GameInformer
"Although the random loot drops only include Epic tier rewards instead of the paid currency's Legendaries, the difference in quality between the two, in practice, isn't substantially different. And after finishing the game, even with buying a dozen or so 1,200 Miran loot crates over the course of my adventure, I was still left with over 70,000 Mirian in reserve. Like so many of the other game's systems, the storefront feels less predatory and more like a cluelessly unnecessary addition."
GameInformer, too, noted in its glowing 9.5-out-of-10 review that the online storefront in the game at least didn't detract from the experience. Matt Miller writes, "The lure of microtransaction shortcuts is unappealing, but their optional nature and alternate (if slower) in-game paths to the same rewards make it no more egregious than equally banal systems in other contemporary games. They offer a quick way to get ahead, but diminish the value of the same rewards earned through playing."
Despite the game's flaws, GameInformer was particularly enthralled with Shadow of War's environments and in-depth combat system, an evolution of the much-praised Nemesis system developed in Shadow of Mordor.
Miller continues, "Shadow of War is a playground of intense and emergent action scenes shaped by your choices and triumphs. Across a vast territory of five open-world regions, hundreds of missions unfold, many appearing in direct response to your previous actions, and pitting you against individual named enemies that remember you between encounters. Whether in the opening minutes of stealth or the frenzied melees that inevitably follow, combat is rich and rewarding, offering dozens of ways to bring down the denizens of Mordor. The overriding sensation is that of a sandbox of super-powered predation and exploration in a world where you are the prime mover, and on a scale that dramatically outstrips its predecessor."
For as much praise as GameInformer heaps upon Shadow of War, it and other publications all warn players that Monolith takes great liberties with the source material. Lord of the Rings fans have to accept that the game is creating its own fan fiction rather than staying true to Tolkien canon.
As USgamer's Williams notes, "Right off the bat, if you're a hardcore, veteran fan of Middle-Earth, I don't know if this is for you. Shadow of Mordor bent the lore of Middle-Earth, and Shadow of War has stretched that lore out on a rack and broken it. The game begins right from the end of Shadow of Mordor, with Talion and his Wraith sidekick Celebrimbor actually forging a new Ring of Power.
"This is an alternate timeline where Tolkien was part Michael Bay. Enjoy the ride. Let go."
Mike Willimas, USgamer
"The Balrog? Remember in Lord of the Rings where they had a bit of trouble with that thing? You'll fight one here. Just divorce yourself from trying to fit this in-between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. This is an alternate timeline where Tolkien was part Michael Bay. Enjoy the ride. Let go."
Controversial adaptations of source material aside, IGN, like GameInformer, had very little negative to say about Shadow of War in its 9-out-of-10 review. "The way it expands the Nemesis system with far greater variety and fortress sieges makes even better use of the stand-out generated characters, and its battles with memorable uruk captains remain challenging all the way through the campaign and into the clever asynchronous multiplayer beyond," says Dan Stapleton.
Shadow of Mordor was a hit in its own right, selling over 3m copies so far. Shadow of War may receive an ever bigger push, particularly as Microsoft has used the title to highlight how beautiful Xbox One X-enhanced games can look. GameInformer has already labelled the title a "visual treat" and with an Xbox One X and a 4K TV, players will no doubt be impressed. With heavy hitters like Assassins' Creed Origins and Star Wars: Battlefront II, among others, on the way, Shadow of War will need to stand out to fight for those holiday entertainment dollars.