In the music industry, people often refer to Second Album Syndrome – a phenomenon whereby a popular artist sets about making their sophomore record, only this time the stakes are considerably higher due to increased exposure and fan expectation. This sometimes leads to artists trying to reinvent themselves, or go bigger in order to keep up with demand. Middle-earth: Shadow of War is kind of like a difficult second album, only the band has hired a 90 piece orchestra and asked Matt Bellamy from Muse to do the lyrics. And he’s turned up with 20 new effect pedals.
That’s not to say Shadow of War is bad, mind you – it isn’t. It’s more that everything about this game is a statement – where Shadow of Mordor was something of a sleeper hit, Monolith Studios went into production on the followup knowing for sure they had something big on their hands. Considerable expectations were there to be met and so everything about Shadow of War is bigger, which is good in some respects but decidedly bad in others.
The good news is that the nemesis system returns for the sequel in fine shape. The core experience of tracking down a named orc and learning every last detail about their strengths and weaknesses before destroying them – or getting destroyed – is very much intact, but it now boasts both considerable depth and greater purpose. Enemy types and traits have been greatly diversified, leading to a cast of enemies who are varied, if not exactly nuanced. The particular weaknesses or invulnerabilities of each of these captains, warchiefs or overlords have a palpable impact on how each fight is approached, building on Shadow of Mordor to deliver a combat system that’s as much about preparation and poise as it is doing someone in with a sword.
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