Middle-Earth: Shadow of War review for Xbox One, PS4, PC

Platform: Xbox One
Also On: PS4, PC
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Developer: Monolith Productions
Medium: Digital/Disc
Players: 1
Online: Yes

The more I play of Middle-earth: Shadow of War, the more I’m left wondering: am I missing something? Did I play the same game as everyone else?

Because reading through a lot of the pre- and post-release coverage Shadow of War, there’s been quite a bit of focus on loot boxes. I mean, just look at the game’s user score on Metacritic: an overwhelming number of people apparently had their experience with the game ruined by loot boxes.

But here’s the thing: I’ve played Shadow of War for a crapload of hours. I think I’ve gotten a pretty good sense of the game. And if it weren’t for the aforementioned press coverage, I honestly don’t think I’d have noticed those loot boxes.

Don’t get me wrong: they’re available. But I’ve seen what absurd monetization and microtransactions look like, and quite frankly, this just isn’t it. When you’ve endured a game that makes you pay for a new haircut and tattoos, being asked if you want to spend a few dollars to level up doesn’t seem quite so egregious.

It helps, I suspect, that the alternative here isn’t all that painful. You can also increase your stats by grinding your way through a seemingly endless amount of orcs…which, under normal circumstances, is something I might find annoying, but which is an absolute blast here.

This can be attributed to two things. First, the combat is amazing: just as Shadow of Mordor borrowed liberally from the best parts of Batman and added swords, Shadow of War refines what it did well in the previous game and builds on it. Slicing through gangs of roving orcs is a breeze, and the counter system works as perfectly and as smoothly as I’ve ever seen.

Secondly, the nemesis system — another highlight from Shadow of Mordor — returns, and it’s even more addictive now than it was the first time around. Shadow of War never lacks for low-level bosses for you to brutalize, and there’s nothing quite so satisfying as tracking down some grunt who got lucky and finished you off, and then exacting your bloody revenge.

On top of that, Shadow of War seems a little more interesting visually. It’s been awhile since I played it, admittedly, but my most vivid memories of playing that game involve the colours brown, grey, and green. Things still look bleak here, but they at least work from a wider palette.

Oddly enough, while I love nearly everything else about the game’s graphics, they’re also the source of my biggest problem: Talion’s face looks a little too much like the botched Ecce Homo restoration from a few years ago. Luckily you don’t have to see Talion’s face too often, but when you do, it’s a jarring reminder that it’s always possible for an otherwise amazing game to have a few flaws.

And speaking of flaws, if you’re a hardcore Tolkien fan, I should point you to this article if you’re wondering how faithfully Shadow of War is to its source material. It didn’t really bother me too much, since my connection with the material only goes as far as having read the books and watched the movies, but I imagine that if you really, really want to experience Tolkien, this probably isn’t going to do it for you.

Luckily for me, I didn’t go into Shadow of War wanting to re-live Lord of the Rings, I wanted to hunt some orcs. And this game delivers on that in more ways than I can possibly count — and it does so in a way that doesn’t require to spend one extra cent, near as I can tell.

Grade: A