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Middle-earth: Shadow of War Full Experience Review

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Gameplay:

Shadow of War continues with many of the mechanics of the previous game, and builds on them in several ways as well. Some of this is good, such as having gear and gear sets that give special bonuses, but the changes made to the character skills you unlock are something I less enjoy. Mechanically, the game is still pretty good, but some of the execution could be better (Act IV, the Shadow Wars is an example of this, which is undoubtedly why it will be changed come July 17).

The combat of Shadow of War maintains the flow we had in the previous game, which was likened to the combat in the Batman Arkham series, allowing Talion to smoothly transition from fighting one enemy to countering another, when surrounded. This flow gives a nice feel to combat, but can be somewhat easily interrupted by enemies. The only defense against ranged attacks is to dodge, which means changing your position and that interrupts the flow, but also you might instead of dodge try to vault over an enemy, but some enemies resist this. Ranged attacks are not the only that require you dodge instead of counter, with Defenders and their spears and Ologs with their massive swings being another. The berserking enemies can also use attacks that require dodging, which presents a greater problem I encountered one time.

Movement speed is, honestly, probably one of the major sources of annoyances across games. Whether it is walking faster than the NPC you are trying to escort (which also happens here, but fortunately they are not very long walks) or feeling too slow to cross the map effectively, inappropriate speed relative to size or other characters can negatively impact the experience. In Shadow of War it greatly frustrated me that enemies are not only able to catch up to you almost easily, but that they can catch up and attack you freely. It is possible to spend Focus to increase your run speed, but if you are out of focus or getting hit too quickly to activate the effect, it hardly matters. I was being attacked and needed to escape, so I started running, but an enemy just ran up behind me, because he was that fast, and just started attacking me, able to land multiple hits because after being hit once, you are out of running, making you an easier target. Perhaps vaulting over this enemy would have been successful, but that would also have brought me back to the group of enemies I was trying to escape from, and who would then be able to land their own attacks on me, making it a less-than-viable means of escape.

 

 

Something similar happened to me later on with a berserker just hitting me repeatedly against a wall, and with the other orcs around me, and the wall itself, there again was no means of escape. When this happens, the only chance for survival seems to be the chaos of the battle itself to hopefully knock the enemy, interrupting the chain of attacks. By the way, these are not captains I am talking about, but one of the basic mob types. It might not have happened often, but it is particularly frustrating to die to a mob basically because they outrun you and can stun-lock you with their attacks.

The balance of needing to dodge enemy attacks instead of countering them is also a bit annoying, but is not something I feel necessary to complain about, because if you can escape, it is not too difficult to find ways to pick them off. The only issue is with the ologs, because I observed the prompt to tell you to dodge them will actually be off the screen because of how tall the trolls are, and the prompts are supposed to be shown above the enemy's head. You also need to be careful to just dodge and not try vaulting an olog, because they will grab you and throw you to the ground. Fortunately you get up somewhat quickly, so it is more embarrassing than threatening.

As you play you will become more powerful through gear and unlocking skills. The gear is not dissimilar from that in other games, with it giving you improved stats and special abilities, such as a chance to poison enemies. There are also special gear sets that, when enough pieces are worn together unlock other, more substantial abilities. These pieces are not easy to find, but really can be valuable and powerful. They can also be upgraded multiple times, allowing them to continue to be useful, but upgrading any item requires special tasks. For more basic gear, this can be poisoning so many enemies, terrorizing enemies, scoring headshots, etc. while the gear sets can require recruiting enemy captains of certain levels. You are not able to recruit enemies above your own level, so it can be a long time before you can satisfy the requirement, and even then other items can have better stats, if not the abilities you desire. You will need to balance between the stats and these abilities, which is not a bad thing in general, but does somewhat undercut the value of these gear sets.

 

 

Along with gear, you will also find and be able to upgrade gems that are slotted into items, providing some kind of benefit. Regain health with attacks, increasing damage, increasing experience gain, and increasing the levels of captains when you recruit them are all benefits you can have, and can be very useful.

The other means of becoming more powerful is by unlocking skills as you gain skill points through leveling up and mission rewards. The way these skills work is, in some examples, annoying. There are numerous base skills and then upgrades attached to them. For example, you can unlock the Mighty Shot ability that will allow you to fire a powerful ranged attack and it has upgrades to make it apply fire, poison, or ice with an explosion. What is annoying is that you can only activate one upgrade at a time, and while that is not an issue for Mighty Shot, it, for me, diminishes the impact of some other abilities. The upgrades for draining an enemy are to increase the health you gain, restore Elf-Shot, your ranged ammo, or to dominate the enemy (this is only relevant for mobs as dominating captains is always an option dependent on other conditions). I can understand making it a choice between restoring Elf-Shot or more health, but why is dominating enemies, versus exploding their heads, a mutually exclusive option as well? Part of why I ask this is because you can at any time go into the menu and change these options. If you need more of the ammunition, just go in and set it to that, then change it back when you have enough. Another example would be the ability to spend Focus to fire ranged attacks while falling in the air, with the upgrades being much reduced Focus use (as in Focus last longer than when you are on the ground) or a ground-pound attack. One is a passive upgrade and the other a special attack, so mechanically they could be active together, but you must choose between them, and personally I find the increased length of use far more valuable, so I will not use the special attack. If they were enabled in parallel, then I might utilize it, but with this design, I will not.

 

(These images were taken 25 minutes apart, and the first was not the first time I encountered this orc captain either.)

 

While the idea of helping keep Talion balanced and not overpowered with allowing compatible upgrades to work together might make sense, the enemy captains can have very powerful combinations of abilities and can appear in large numbers against you. There are already checks on Talion's power that these abilities will not overcome (if an enemy is immune to arrows, more powerful ranged attacks will not make a difference) so I am unsure how true that concern is here. However, I will grant designing a good UI to adequately indicate which upgrades are always active and which need to be chosen between is not going to be an easy task. This might be the best that could be achieved, but without knowing internal development choices, that is only speculation. To be clear and fair, I find this design annoying and so I am criticizing it, but I do not mean to actually complain about it; these comments are not meant to be at that level.

There is one skill upgrade I also want to mention because I greatly enjoyed it. The other upgrades for that skill might be useful as well, but not necessarily as much fun. You can unlock a skill that allows you to poison grog barrels at a distance, which will damage or kill enemies after they drink from it. One of the upgrades for this ability is that the poisoned enemies, upon death, will explode in a poisonous cloud, poisoning enemies around them. There are multiple times I took advantage of this as I would just hide, poison the barrels, and wait. Eventually the mobs would be almost annihilated, making fighting a captain much easier, and the captains will also be poisoned, weakening them as well. Patience plus poison is potent.

Moving on, I want to talk about the interaction with the captains. As personalities, some of them can be interesting and entertaining, but after a while you do come to notice how few voices they have and that a lot of them look alike. The Nemesis system does a good job making their combat characteristics different, but eventually that is all that separates them.

 

 

Fighting a captain will eventually offer you a choice to either kill them or recruit them (once you have the ability to dominate captains). Personally I always prefer to dominate because I enjoy the satisfaction of owning every captain in a region, but you need to kill captains for gear drops. Enemies marked as Epic give better items, and Legendary captains drop the legendary items in gear sets. You can also shame captains, which is important as it can be the only means to ultimately recruit them. You cannot recruit enemies above your level, but shaming lowers their level, and some captains have the Iron Will characteristic that prevents you from recruiting them, but shaming can remove it. It might take multiple attempts to remove Iron Will, but the reward can be a powerful new captain in your army.

Something I am not completely sure of is what triggers new enemy captains being added to a region. This is kind of important, especially if you manage to recruit practically every captain in the region, with the only exception being the dead ones. It can be much faster to recruit a new, high level captain than trying to get a low level captain to the same level. Luckily for me the Slaughter and Outlaw Tribe Nemesis packs help out here because they place missions in the regions I could visit. These missions add new captains to the region, so I had those new captains to recruit. I am not sure if there is a finite number of these missions or if they repopulate under certain conditions, in part because I tended to only use them when I wanted more high level captains.

Leveling up your captains involves either completing missions with them, which are usually some kind of trial or a mission against an enemy captain, or putting them in the fight pits. Here they will face a new orc captain, and if they win, they level up. If they lose, then hopefully you can recruit whoever killed them. By the way, you definitely want to look at the matchup of Nemesis traits. I lost a level 50 to a level 15 because I failed to do this. Probably the easiest and fastest means to level up your recruits is to create a mission for them to kill an enemy captain, and then you go there and basically do it for them. I have seen them gain over a dozen levels this way.

 

 

Going back to the Nemesis traits, these can be fairly powerful and really impact how the orc behaves and how you can attack them. You will need to be comfortable with a variety of means to damage enemies, because there will be some that are immune to your favorites. Unfortunately it does not appear there is any way to manipulate these traits on your recruits, except potentially Training Orders, but these are part of the Market, which is going away come July 17. At the time you are reading this, the premium currency to purchase the chests with Training Orders in them has already been removed, so if Training Orders are going to remain, they will need to be available by a new means, and I am not sure what that is currently. (Making a super-orc with selected traits would be nice, but I am happy doing what I can with what I have got.)

Something captains will sometimes do is ambush you, so even if you are expecting them to be on the other side of the map, they can appear behind you, and after a taunt, the battle begins. On its own, I like this, especially if it happens while you are on a mission against another captain, as it is a surprise increase in challenge. However, I think having three captains decide to ambush me at the same time, while I am on a mission against another captain (so expecting to fight one captain but had to face four), is a bit much. These three simultaneous ambushes were not coordinated, or at least the taunts the captains threw at me did not indicate this. I think I just got unlucky with the Nemesis system, or whichever system controls ambushes. (Well, unlucky in that it was an unexpected and sharp increase in difficulty, but I did end up with several new captains by the end.) Curiously there was one time I was ambushed, with a taunt thrown at me, but it was already recruited… I am very unsure what happened there, but it only happened once.

There is one aspect of these mass-ambushes that is specifically annoying, but it is most true in fortress assaults. Every time you encounter a captain, they taunt you, which involves the camera flying in to feature them and stopping whatever it is you are doing (running, attacking, whatever, it is stopped). Three captains just appearing at the same time means you are taunted like this three times, which takes a lot of time to happen, but at least it happens and then is done. In a fortress assault, however, there can be a handful of captains in play at the same time, so if you enter an area with them, you are hit with multiple taunts, and then again when you arrive in another area, and again with another area, and again with another area. Your focus is kind of on the enemies surrounding and attacking you, but the camera is pulled away for this and then put back at a different orientation and whatever Talion was doing, such as attacking or running, is interrupted. On the one hand I get why the captains should be introduced, but I want to disable this during fortress assaults.

 

 

It was some 2000 words ago when I mentioned Act IV, the Shadow Wars will be changed, and now I am finally going to explain the likely reason why. It really becomes an un-fun grind. It is an interesting system, having the ability to assault, claim, and then defend fortresses, but Act IV has you just continually trying to defend the fortresses from ever higher level captains. Invest the time to upgrade your captains (which can be a lot of time) and the actual fortress assault is not too bad, but knowing you will be doing it again, and again, and again, and again, and again really kills the fun. Add how the taunts play as I described above and it is easy to understand why players have been complaining about it since release and why it will be changed come July.

It is really the raw repetition of it that makes Act IV so boring, even though the enemy assaults do seem to become more dangerous somewhat quickly. Just cutting down on the number of times this happens might be enough, but it might be deeper changes we will see made in the future.

By the way, it can be easier to lose a fortress and then assault yourself than defending them. I discovered this after I died in one fortress assault and then ran the missions to remove the warchiefs, and therefore the defensive upgrades they enabled. This made assaulting the fortress almost easy with my own army, but defeating the overlord can be a hard fight. Mainly these fights are hard because they are one-sided. The overlord's room is barren of environmental traps, like explosives that you can use to your advantage, and unless you summon in followers, you are alone while enemy mobs will continue to spawn in. That means all of the potential attack damage of the forces in the overlord's chambers are directed solely at you, so have fun with that. (Much more time will be spent setting up a fortress assault than defending a fortress, so there is that tradeoff.)

 

 

Without a doubt, Act IV is, in its current state, a grind which hurts the fun. I spent roughly 27 hours doing every mission before the end of Act III, and while some of these might have been repetitive, I am rather tolerant of repetition. Grind is not something I am so tolerant of, especially when it is for such a long period of time and with little reward since you know the fortresses will just be attacked again. Maybe if there were missions to infiltrate the army before it can attack the fortress I would be happier, but that is not an option so as it is, Act IV is not fun.

Just ignoring Act IV (which does also come with an interesting story and gameplay twist, but it is definitely a spoiler to discuss), the gameplay experience of Shadow of War is fun and enjoyable, and with more to it than I have written about already, but it is imperfect. For the most part those imperfections are either mild or not common enough to mar the many hours of gameplay you can get, though some are sticking in my mind for the frustration they caused me. Still, it is an overall good experience. Act IV, in its current form, does harm that, but naturally has no impact on the roughly 27 hours I invested getting to it (unfortunately I did not look to see the exact playtime at the transition) and can still be fun, even if it is a grind. I put another approximately 10 hours in to Act IV when I decided to stop to work on the review and expansions.

I should mention there is an option to replay missions from the Quests menu, though I have not tried it yet. Also there are online Vendetta missions and online fortress assaults too, which allow you to visit the game world of another player to avenge them (Vendetta) or to test the defenses of their fortresses. I have not assaulted another's fortress, but have played some Vendetta missions, which can award a special gear set, and they can be fun. You go in with the goal of hunting a specific captain at a fortress, but there are other captains also present that can interfere. They are nice, compact experiences that let you just enjoy hunting orcs and/or ologs.




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