Finish that and the game sort of says ‘well done. Here’s the real me’ and expands into something so dauntingly huge it’d be a lot scarier if it wasn’t enjoyable to play. Bearing in mind that just getting to act two could easily take double that 12-15 hours if you go after all the collectibles, miscellaneous objectives and enemies that cross your path, and you’ll start to get up a feel for the scale we’re talking about here. And then, after around 30-40 hours, you’ll unlock the rest of the map…
So ‘big’ is a good word to describe Shadow of War, with as many expletives in front as you see fit, to get across just how fucking huge this is. It might not quitehave the polished craft of things like The Witcher 3, or the variety of an Elder Scrolls, but overall the bar for quality is high, and with so much to do it’s both immensely easy, and satisfying, to get lost in.
At the core of it all is Talion, a Ranger bonded to Celebrimbor, the creator of the rings of power and now a grumpy undead wraith with the power to resurrect Talion when he dies. Together they have a shared goal of… something, something Sauron. The game’s so big and the options so wide that it’s easy to lose the thread as you wage literal war, meet/help/rescue allies and get to grips with the expanded Nemesis system (more on that later). It’s not really a criticism, just another indicator of the size of the game – with all the distractions it can be days before you pick up a mission strand where you left off.
The main thing, then, is travelling an expansive and beautifully made Lord of the Rings adventure playground – picking various story missions, murdering orcs, stumbling into an evening’s worth of distractions, and murdering orcs. Seriously, so much orc murder. The fighting system is a counter-based thing that sees you hacking enemies and deflecting their incoming attacks – think Batman Arkham’s ‘triangle to win’ combat. Simple but effective, and richly deepened through a range of upgrades and environmental options.
For example, unlocking insta-kills for a perfect counter is a literal game changer and there’s plenty of ways to craft something that works for you. Although the skills tree’s structure often means unlocking unwanted things to access something cool. but it usually pays off. The combat can incorporate so many layers that quick wits are as important as reactions. Some enemies have their own tricks and are immune to some of your attacks. When that happens you’ll find yourself desperately improvising, trying different combinations, shooting down fly nests that might induce panic, or releasing a caragor beast to chew a few people for you. Anything to level the playing field. There are times you feel like a fantasy Jason Bourne, rolling around a table, trying to grab whatever comes to hand to help you beat a tricky opponent. Its moments like that, that can see the smallest encounter spiral into a story in its own right.
That story creation, in part, is thanks to the Nemesis system’s return from the previous game. It creates a seething hotbed of orc captains that live, die and rise up the ranks as you play. Both by their own in-fighting and your own actions – let one kill you, for example, and they’ll get promoted, creating your own personal – wait for it – nemesis. They all have strengths and weakness you can root out by interrogating certain characters or finding intel in the world, and preparation is easily as important as reparation.
It’s a great system because on top of all the structured and plotted content, so much of it is unique to you. You end up with personal vendettas, grudges and, ultimately, resolutions as you make and break enemies. Like the previous game you can ‘dominate’ the orcs you don’t kill to build your own army. I had a tricky opponent I encountered numerous times before I finally beat him. Once I had, I made him my bodyguard and he literally save my life. I was genuinely gutted when he died.
As well as sending your minions off to kill enemies or work as spies, you can now use this army to attack and hold citadels in various regions, forming large set piece battles you shape through recruitment, backstabbing treachery and just plain murder. Trying to take these various bases is a big challenge and almost a game in its own right as you weaken its defenses and warchiefs before charging the walls. That’s all while building your own forces to storm it, resulting in a huge battle, hundreds of orcs strong. You can also attack, or be attacked, by other players bases online, giving more motivation to build a powerful army.