Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor brought together many things that I loved both in gaming and in the world of Tolkien. It was a Lord of the Rings game with a solid story and had taken inspiration from my favourite gaming series by modelling the combat on that of the Arkham series and gameplay mechanics from Assassin’s Creed. The main highlight however was the Nemesis System which created random Orc Captain Enemies that would truly challenge the player and shape their gaming experience. Now the long awaited sequel is here and I have been chomping at the bit to get back into this world, but does it live up to the hype and promise?

Shadow of War brings our two heroes Talion and Celebrimbor back together once more following the climatic end to Shadow of Mordor. Their fight against the evil that is Sauron continues and now Celebrimbor has forged a brand new ring of power in the fiery heart of Mount Doom to challenge the power of the original One Ring he was tricked into making. However no sooner as the ring is completed the two are torn apart leaving Talion to search for Celebrimbor only to find him captured by the shadow spider Shelob. Taking human form, Shelob forces Talion to give up the new ring in order to free Celebrimbor and gives him a dark ominous vision of Minas Ithil under attack from an Orc army. Celebrimdor wants to go and claim the powerful Palantir artefact before the Orcs can claim it whilst Talion wants to help save this Gondorian citadel to help his people. With the new Ring of Power in the hands of Shelob and our heroes at odds about their objectives, already the opening of Shadow of War is full of conflict.

The opening act to Shadow of War serves as both a taster for what the main game will offer and a tutorial section as Talion and Celebrimbor must work together in order to claim back their new ring whilst defending Minas Ithil as it teaches newcomers the basic to gameplay whilst refreshing it for those returning from the first game. Straight away the sense that this game is bigger in scale than Shadow of Mordor hits you as you approach the Citadel to see it under siege from Orcs. Visually the refinements to the original game engine is striking as you make your way to the citadel to see the building stretching into the sky whilst battle rages all around you. As the player you really do get the sense that battle is raging all over the citadel and not just in the area you are in with the tremendous sound effects really bringing the sensation of a battle to you especially if you game wearing a headset.

The combat is just as slick and responsive as before and is just so dam satisfying when you take on multiple enemies with the counter system, melee attacks and bow for ranged attacks coming together in a beautiful blend of badassery. To stop it becoming too repetitive, the AI of enemies has been tweaked and now different types of enemy will attack you at once from the grunt level Orc to the beserker capable of parrying normal attacks to shield bearers who require attacking from behind. Thankfully the game accepts that it is a sequel and so doesn’t revert Talion back too much in terms of skills with some of his abilities from the first game now making up part of this default movement and combat style before you head into the new look skill/upgrade tree for him. I also loved how war trolls are now part of the regular enemy line up, monstrous brutes capable of sponging damage whilst preventing Talion’s usual trick of flipping over them to attack from behind. The flow of the combat is so smooth with everything clicking in place so effortlessly with each fight and really is just satisfying as hell just as the combat in Arkham will give you that “I’m Batman’ feeling as you stand over the fallen bodies of your enemies.

The stealth side is also back and dare I say it, feeling more Assassins’ Creed then ever as Talion can hide in bushes, kill from ledges and perform stealth killings from above, below and up to unsuspecting enemies. Movement is so fluid now as Talion can pretty much climb anything and jump to vantage points making the stalking and tracking of enemies a real second nature now. The level designs are excellent once again providing many different vantage spots and places to climb as you navigate around an enemy camp or stronghold in freeplay or the impressive main fortresses that I will come to in a bit, but everything just feels more refined and enhanced from the first game with the focus on improving what players loved in the first game instead of just drastically changing just for the sake of it.

But perhaps the biggest improvement and most natural of evolutions in this sequel have to be the new and improved Nemesis system. I did feel that in the original game that the Nemesis system was being held back by the limitations of the world but happily Shadow of War not only gives it the breathing room it needs but now the entire game itself is really focused around the Nemesis system. For those unaware, the Nemesis System generates random Orc Captains to challenge Talion with the aim that they are more then just sword fodder for the player. At times defeating an Orc Captain may lead to them suddenly appearing again, remembering that you killed or defeated them and showing the battle damage of that encounter as they seek their vengeance upon you having learned from that first encounter. Should they take Talion down then they will grow in power and strength making them a more difficult fight next time around. But the enhancements made in Shadow of Mordor really take this up to a new level. Orc Captains can now have blood brothers, another Orc who can come to their aid in battle or seek vengeance upon you if you slay their brother. Each one has their own personality and I love the dialogue exchanges between them and Talion before, during and after a fight. It also means that every player will have different Orc Captains so no two playthroughs are the same, though the names and scripted dialogue may be the same, how the captains look and their skill sets will be randomised through the nemesis system.

This also comes into play once you unlock the ability to Dominate, to literally take control of orcs and make them join your army and fight for you. This really is the bread and butter of Shadow of War, with the aim to take back control of Mordor from Sauron from within but dominating his own forces to take his fortresses in different regions to weaken him and his army. By Dominating Orc Captains you can start to build your own army so choosing which captains to dominate or to remove will lead to having a strong diverse army needed to tackle a fortress and then to hold it once the region is yours. Through the Nemesis system, Orc Captains can grow stronger with every victory or weaker should they lose and so side missions will appear for each Captain which Talion can help ensure their victory which will make them stronger such as helping them in a duel with another captain or going on a camp raid or hunting mission. Now Captains can only be at or below the current level of Talion so for example if you are only at level 20, you can only dominate a level 20 or below captain and any captains in your army already will only be able to reach level 20. The stronger Talion is the stronger his captains can be and therefore the stronger his army will be which is very important when it comes to fortress sieges for two reasons. First the story mode will require a strong army in order to take on the different fortresses and their overlords in each region in the game but also in the new online mode of  “Online Conquest” which will task you to raid another player’s fortress in order to gain rewards.

How this works is that once you capture a fortress you must then defend it, by placing your own overlord there and positioning your captains to serve as war chiefs and defenders. The stronger the captain you use the higher your defence level will be and can be bolstered by giving them additional upgrades such as a fortress defences to command like poison spouts from the walls to damage attackers climbing the fortress walls or having a legion of shield bearing orcs to meet anyone should they break through the gates. You can even have siege beasts who can serve as catapults to rain down fire, poison or to curse the attacking army. However this is not a live interaction as what you tackle is only an AI representation of how that player has set up their fortress. Capturing that fortress will gain you rewards but it won’t effect their main game so killing or dominating their captains will not be reflected in their own main campaign efforts as it will not yours in the same way. Vendetta missions also return but this time are now online as well so where in the first game, should anyone on your friend’s list with the game, fall to a captain in their game, you would be given the chance to get revenge by taking on a mission to kill that captain with rewards shared. Now it is online, you can have anyone who is playing Shadow of War appear as a Vendetta mission in your game. Completing this mission and an Online Conquest raid will gain you gold chests as rewards, which can give you new gear for Talion to wear.

The new gear system is a vast improvement on the first game with Shadow of War allowing players to equip Talion with new armour and weapons to aid him in battle. Previously all you could do was add runes to his basic weapons but now you can equip new swords, daggers and bow with new armour and cloaks and rings. Each new weapon will have attribute boosts as well as a special skill such as the quick throw knife being able to have an elemental effect such as lighting the enemy on fire or to poison them. Armour can reduce damage from ranged attacks or boost combo damage for example. The higher the level the greater the bonus from them and some of the rare/epic or legendary pieces will have an additional challenge to complete to unlock an upgrade for it which can make it stronger and unlock an extra bonus effect. I also love the nice little touch that upgrading the armour will also enhance the look of it. Everything is designed to give you even more things to do in the game around the main story missions and I honestly spent hours ignoring story missions just to experience the Nemesis system and the world it creates.

That said, it would be amiss of me not comment on the elephant in the room, the controversial inclusion of micro-transactions in the form of loot crates. Now everything in Shadow of War is a single player experience as everything that comes with the online element is still AI controlled so you do not really tackle any other player in true competitive ways. What this system is designed to do and tries to capitalize on is player grind, offering a fast track solution to gain good to high quality gear and orcs for your army by simply spending real world money to unlock them. The game has a new ‘Marketplace’ which is an online only feature that allows players to spend the in game currency of Mirian to purchase Silver War or Loot chests with War adding new orcs to your army garrison or loot giving you new gear for Talion. Real world money will get you Gold to spend on either Gold or Mithril chests that do the same thing. But yes, chests purchased with real world money do contain better quality items then those of the silver chests; there is just no way of saying it. A Player can quickly get legendary orcs or gear simply by buying a Mithril chest for example. The game will also entice players to the market place by advertising special timed deals on loot chests on the main menu, pause menu and any time you want to bring in an orc from your garrison to your army you have to do it via the market. However, by completing Vendetta missions, Online Conquests and putting your captains in the fighting pits once a fortress has been captured, you can earn gold loot chests up to your current level of Talion so everything is fully obtainable via gameplay but it may take much longer to do so that way, which for me is just fine. I do wish the marketplace was not thrown in my face on each menu but I can ignore it and I have done and my Talion and army is pretty epic without having spent any real money and I am more than happy to continue to use in game play to gain new gear and to build my army.

Shadow of War is truly everything that made the first game amazing for me but bigger and better. From the combat to the story told and the refined Nemesis system, there is a crazy amount of things to do during and after the main campaign to keep anyone fond of the style of gameplay happy for many hours. I like the new online missions and the freedom to explore the world and see what the Nemesis system can throw into the mix for me. I already have many tales worthy of song of adventures with the Nemesis system where in instance I am about to fall to a captain in battle only to have one of my own Captains suddenly appear to save me at the last moment or by not paying attention and killing an orc captain only to discover he was the blood brother of one of my dominated Captains which triggered their instant betrayal to me costing me their place in my army, which on occasion just happened to be the highest and strongest Captain I had at the time. I would literally have bought this game if it had just been the Nemesis system itself but the whole package is just so amazing that as a follow up to Shadow of Mordor, Shadow of War is everything I hoped it would be and more.

I have already spent more time just enjoying the freedom of the world and joys of the Nemesis system then any other game so far this year. There is always another battle, another orc to fight or dominate and mystery person online to avenge or take their fortress. With the promise of more content coming in DLC, there is just so much value in this base game as it is for fans of the original and just Lord of the Rings in general. Yes the marketplace and micro-transactions are annoying because they do take the shine off it all a little but it can be ignored and putting in the effort and time into the game itself is far more rewarding then any shortcut system. Oh and an important thing to add, if you are playing this on PlayStation 4, make sure you have the Dual Shock 4 speaker volume turned up, trust me!

This has jumped right into my top five games of the year, and happily it has a hold on me just like a certain Ring of Power might have in real life….my precious!