Yahtzee reviews Middle-earth: Shadow of War.
Impractical fantasy helmets off to Monolith; the first Shadow of Mordor was a damn good game in the face of impossible odds: not only a movie tie-in, not only adapting a seminal work of fantasy fiction that certain kinds of obsessive nerds take more seriously than personal hygiene, but also being a AAA sandbox game in an age when such things are thicker on the ground than horny spinsters at a suburban wedding, and with a generically broody and vengeful protagonist with all the dynamic characterization of a potato with angry eyes drawn on it. Come to think of it, why did I like Shadow of Mordor? A question that haunted me as I started up the sequel, Middle-earth: Shadow of War, and throughout most of the first act.
Talion, above-mentioned grizzled hero type whose name sounds like it could be a Middle-earth euphemism for "penis", is still trapped in a loveless marriage with the ghost of an elven warlord bastard who, back in the day, thought it would be a wizzo idea to help out someone called "The Dark Lord Sauron" with a custom jewelry project. Talion and Celebrimbor start the game where the last one left off: deciding to fight evil mind-controlling wedding bands with evil mind-controlling wedding bands. But it's okay! The new ring they create is a nice ring; you can tell, 'cos it's got blue rather than orange LED's on it, and it's full of nice occult power that only does the nice kind of conquest and subjugation. That's why it's immediately stolen by Shelob: because she wants to do lots of nice things with it, like throw tea parties and send letters of encouragement to depressed elderly people in veterans' hospitals.
Oh yeah, by the way, Shelob is a pretty lady now. You might think you know differently if you've read the books or seen the films, where she had more of a "rampaging giant spider" thing going on, but don't be such a prig! She's still a giant spider, but now she can be a pretty lady, as well, okay, who can see the future and forges uneasy alliances with passing half-ghost grizzly swordsmen in order to clandestinely pull strings in pursuit of some unknowable long-term goal. Yeah, that grand, strategic cunning was really coming across in The Return of the King, when she was screechingly chasing after some hobbits in a cave, when she was having trouble chowing down on the fat one because he hit upon the equally-cunning strategy of "getting out of the way".
Just as well we're not here for the story, I suppose. Although, someone should probably have told Monolith that, 'cos the game gleefully wastes our time with it for fucking hours before we get the ring back and finally return to the high spot the last game left us on, and which should have been this game's starting point: hanging around armies of unique, individualized orcs with the ability to selectively take over their minds and overpower their free will, in a nice way, remember?
And only then did I recall why I made Shadow of Mordor my Game of the Year back in the day: I just love what they've done with these orcs! They took this race of evil red-shirts bred only to fight - ever a stupid concept, because you can't only be fighters; someone's got to build all the huts and fences and sew everyone's trousers together - and gave them actual depth. I even overheard a conversation in this game - incidentally, the orcs are right up there with Arkham City's thugs in terms of overheard chatter, and I'm pretty sure have a lot of the same voice actors - in which two worker orcs were trying to convince each other that carpentry is basically the same as fighting, when you think about it. See, the orcs are self-aware, they're funny, they're all unique, and yet we stab them up by the hundreds while motherfucking Tally-Whacker gets to be the hero. Talk about injustice!
But there's got to be something new for the Organic Orc Politics Simulator, or we might as well just be playing the first game, except with a few additional years of cynicism and reduced faith in humanity. And while fighting them hasn't changed much at all - some of them are weak to arrows, some to fire, some of them are scared of flies, some of them are scared of public speaking, so you have to do a grab attack and throw them onstage at the Academy Awards - but now you have to work more closely with the orcs as a personal army rather than a network of sleeper agents, occupying fortresses and employing specific ones as bodyguards, and that leads to all kinds of new surprises. Maybe you'll try to summon your bodyguard and some enemy Captain shows up instead, waving your bodyguard's willy on a lanyard, or your bodyguard does show up, but he betrays you because he's sick of having to worry about people putting his willy on things.
It's easy to feel overpowered when you can stealth-kill three guys at once and insta-kill-counter all their remaining mates, but then the game throws a surprise Captain ambush at you and you desperately try to remember the Unwashed Shower Room Floor attack, 'cos you're pretty sure this Captain is only weak to verrucas. Although, one thing I could do without is the way every Captain has to give a fucking acceptance speech when they arrive, and you and all the orcs you were in the middle of fighting to the death have to stand still and listen to a paragraph of threatening banter they've probably been rehearsing for days. And now I'm wondering who the fuck's educating these orcs, because one of them, in their opening remarks, knew what a fucking metaphor was. Are there orc liberal arts professors somewhere, assuring each other that stamping out ignorance of advanced language techniques is also basically the same as fighting?
Anyway, with the organic fun of working away at orc command structures in preparation of the fortress takeovers, the actual story quests almost feel like an imposition, as they handhold you through some consequence-free, generic scripted encounters, and the boss fight with the Balrog for basically no reason except they needed something to put in the trailers. Having said that, the main story has a couple of neat twists that I won't spoil, not that you care, do you? What you really want to hear about are the fucking micro-payments and if they mean we should string some or all of the Warner Brothers up over a pen full of hungry dogs with a Beggin' Strip lodged between each toe. Of course, the publishers have been quick to tell us that you don't need them to beat the game, and you can certainly get through the main story without them. Whoop-de-fucking-do, publishers! An owl in a body cast could get through story missions.
The wall I ran into was after I'd taken all the fortresses, but was suddenly obliged to defend them all from besieging attackers. Now, some of these forts, I'd taken quite a ways back in the game, so all the orcs I'd left defending the place were around level 20, but the besieging orcs were all around level 40-up! Christ knows where they came from; last I checked, I ran all the orc fortresses in the fucking country. Maybe they were trained by those secret guerilla liberal arts professors.
But even though I'd done all the side missions by this point - barring finding collectibles, but maybe you misunderstood me when I said I play video games to have fun, Monolith - I did not have enough in-game currency to buy all the fort upgrades I needed to defend myself. I'm sure just one little micro-payment could have made the difference, but this is how it starts, isn't it? "Oh, it's all optional, Yahtz." But what the fuck does "optional" mean?! It's video games! Playing them at all is optional! Sticking a broom handle up your arse is optional; doesn't mean I wouldn't really like to do it!
- Lord of the things: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- And don't go filling my ears with any guff about how The Silmarillion says Shelob is actually the daughter of the elven god of low-cut dresses or whatever bullshit
- Phwoar I bet she'd like to Shelob my knob