In the abstract, Monolith’s Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is perfectly suited to my gaming sensibilities. The follow-up to Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is another single-player action game with a strong narrative arc and a robust third-person combat system set in an open world with lots of collectibles. The overall experience is reminiscent of Assassin’s Creed, albeit with a greater focus on combat and far less concern for history.
That’s not a bad thing. Shadow of War follows through on most of its early promise, delivering a fun game with responsive mechanics, an engaging feedback loop, and plenty of big-budget polish. Then again, the combat was excellent in Shadow of Mordor so that’s not much of a surprise. It’s the packaging that makes the game a bit more difficult to parse.
The problem is that Shadow of War is trying to be two games at once. One of them is a self-contained and linear narrative experience. In that game, you play as Talion, a Ranger fused with the ghost of an elf named Celebrimbor who bestows Talion with a number of useful powers, including immortality. To battle Sauron, the duo has forged a new ring of power that gives the wearer the ability to dominate and enslave other people, inciting an conflict in which multiple factions fight for control of an artifact that will determine the fate of all Middle-Earth. The grandiose presentation lives up to everything fans expect from Lord of the Rings, with all of the elvish assassins and sexy spiders one could ask for.
The other game is an open-world sandbox with a bunch of Orcs. In addition to the usual collectibles, the interactive meat in Shadow of War is found in the Nemesis system, which populates Middle-Earth with Orc Captains with impressive titles and a bit more personality than the regular grunts. The game world is divided into several distinct regions, each of which has one major fort that you must capture before you can proceed. To do that, you need to defeat Orc Captains and use the ring to force them to join your army.
The A-plot gradually drifts into the background as the Orcs demand more and more of your attention. Taking down a fort is a protracted process. First you have to kill a few grunts to draw out a Captain. Then you have to go through that Captain to reach the Warchief and weaken the fortress you plan to invade, repeating the process multiple times for multiple Warchiefs. Climbing the ladder is satisfying in a way that uses mechanical structure to communicate a sense of progression, but the timetable obscures the importance of the ring, which is supposedly one of the most powerful artifacts ever created.
The result is a single player game that wants to distract you from its own narrative. Sometimes you’re advancing the story to take down Sauron. Sometimes you’re playing Middle-Earth: The RTS. Rarely does it feel like you’re doing both.
Of course, many large sandboxes have a similar arrangement, and in fairness, Shadow of War handles both aspects quite well. Shadow of War has plenty of huge battles and epic set pieces that capture that cinematic Tolkien flavor.
The sandbox, meanwhile, is expertly constructed. Talion’s rapid movement speed makes the map feel both manageable and accessible. You can’t run twenty feet without bumping into an Orc, but you can always to outrun any enemies so you don’t have to engage unless you want to. That’s a huge point in the game’s favor. You seldom get mired in a situation that you can’t escape, which allows you to absorb the game on your own terms.
Unfortunately, the game struggles to bridge the gap between those collective strengths, and what’s strange is that it almost feels deliberate, as if Warner Bros. drove a wedge between the narrative and the sandbox in order to make the game more profitable. One half of Shadow of War is a thrilling fantasy adventure. The other is a product, and you get the sense that the game is far more interested in the latter.
A lot of that has to do with with pacing. Games that have a strong central narrative are usually set up to help players reach the end of that narrative. You don’t want the journey to be too easy – the hero should have to overcome a few obstacles – but neither should it feel like a chore, and at a certain point, the Nemesis system becomes a time sink. You repeat the same routine until you unlock the next area, at which point the whole process starts over again. Artistically speaking, there’s no justification for that kind of dallying in a single player game. It’s busy work that extends the play time without adding any thematic weight.
Many gamers only buy a handful of games every year, and there is an argument to be made that the extra length adds value for certain players. Shadow of War offers a decent amount of content if that’s your primary consideration. I’m nowhere near the end, but I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen so far and I’m looking forward to spending a bit more time slaughtering orcs. If you’re looking for consumer advice, Shadow of War is a reasonable bargain.
At the same time, if that extra content was integral to the core experience, then Warner Bros. wouldn’t be so eager to give players a way to skip it. That’s where microtransations become an issue. If you haven’t heard, Shadow of War allows players to spend real money to purchase Loot Boxes that contain in-game enhancements, including weapons, experience boosts, and other perks. Those experience boosts are particularly noteworthy, insofar as they drastically decrease the amount of time it takes to level your character and reduce the total length of the game.
That’s the part that chafes. Gear is being sold in neon wrapping paper that states, unequivocally, that much of the game is filler. Shadow of War is a bit too long, but instead of opting for the artistic solution – cutting out the parts of the game that are superfluous – Warner Bros. found an economic one that benefits the company at the expense of the player. Again, that feels cynical and deliberate. The publisher has manufactured a creative problem in order to sell a mechanical solution that no one asked for.
As a fan of single player experiences, that’s more than a little troubling. If you’re looking for a good story, Shadow of War’s open world is a tax that withholds the thing you actually paid money for. I doubt I’d still be playing video games if that had always been the norm.
Other people have already commented on the ethics of microtransations, so I’m not going to dwell on that too much here. Video game publishers need to make money and I don’t have an issue with Loot Boxes as a concept, especially as it relates to character skins and other innocuous frills that don’t have much impact on gameplay. However, Shadow of War was warped to serve corporate interests, and I just don’t see any way in which that makes the game better for the consumer.
The fact that that’s not a deal breaker simply speaks to the quality of the original design. Shadow of War is built on a rock solid gameplay foundation, and that shines through despite all of the flashy marketing gimmicks. Even so, the game is yet more evidence that the powers that be view video games as a financial vehicle rather than a legitimate artistic medium, which is disheartening as a longtime champion of gaming as an art form. Video games are now openly sacrificing artistic integrity for the sake of profit, and no one is bothering to pretend otherwise.
I’d like to think that that has diminishing returns, but I could be wrong (just ask Visceral). Video games have the ability to delight and entertain audiences with powerful emotional experiences. Forcing developers to build better slot machines is a waste of that creative potential. Shadow of War exists at a crossroads, and I honestly don’t know which path the industry is going to choose.