It’s rare that a video game truly surprises people. More than any other form of entertainment, most games are known, highly-marketed quantities by the time they’re released to the public. The big titles have been previewed endlessly, building buzz at events like E3 and through cover stories in publications like Game Informer. So a true sleeper gaming hit really only comes nowadays from the indie sector and usually in the form of “smaller” downloadable games like “Limbo” and “Shovel Knight.” And when a game is based on a known property that has produced inferior releases in the past—as was the case with a wave of games set in Middle Earth after the massive success of Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” films—it’s even easier to greet a new title with a shrug. 2014’s “Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor” crashed into that shrug with the full force of a fantastically calibrated action-adventure experience that honestly felt more attuned to the depth and complexity of films like “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” than any of that nonsense in “The Hobbit” trilogy.
Now, three years later, Warner Bros. is attempting the impossible—surprising gamers again. While “Middle-earth: Shadow of War” doesn’t have the wow factor of the first game, it is still an accomplished, challenging, addictive sandbox, a game that hurls you into the world of the J.R.R. Tolkien books and the Peter Jackson films and lets you craft your own narrative. It’s a game that melds gamer authorship with a finely-calibrated action mechanic, and it introduces just enough new elements to the experience of the first title to feel like a step forward instead of just treading water. A bit too much of this game feels repetitive in ways the last one didn’t (both to the former game and to itself), but it’s a game that keeps calling you back to it for one more mission, one more challenge, one more villain to vanquish, and it feels like a title that could keep that grip on gamers even as the season gets crowded with AAA releases.
Set between the narratives of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings,” “Middle-earth: Shadow of War” is interesting as a creative property that pulls elements from fiction, film, and video games. Of course, it doesn’t exist without the Tolkien books, but the battle sequences and character designs are also undeniably inspired by the work done by WETA and Peter Jackson on the Oscar-winning trilogy of ‘00s films. And then there’s the gameplay, undeniably inspired by the “Assassin’s Creed” and “Batman Arkham” series. Like the former, the setting here is something of a sandbox, littered with story and side missions that allow you to craft the narrative (with a whole lot of climbing too). And, like the latter, the majority of combat is a blend of attacks and counter moves done in melee (with a little bit of archery and magic for good measure).
In both games, you play Talion, a ranger who, well, died. Brought back to life to save his people, you are accompanied by the spirit of an elf lord named Celebrimbor, a character from Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. In that book, Celebrimbor is manipulated by Sauron into forging the Rings of Power that would define the journey of Frodo Baggins in “The Lord of the Rings.” So, in “Shadow of War,” Talion and Celebrimbor work to create a Ring of Power to fight Sauron, as the land is overtaken by violent, rampaging waves of Orcs and other creatures. The “two” characters allow Talion a blend of the physical prowess of a ranger and the magic of the supernatural world. As the game progresses through story missions, Talion builds in power in the traditional action/adventure manner of skill and inventory upgrades. To start, you’re basically just swinging a sword and countering attacks from Orcs. Before too long, you’re using a complex system of attacks in each increasingly difficult battle. And the wonderful "Nemesis System" from the last game returns, which is so simple that it's amazing no one thought of it sooner: enemies that kill you get stronger, making them your nemeses.
And, oh, there’s so much battle. It makes sense that this game would have “War” in its title because it’s one of the most carnage-heavy titles of the last few years. The regions of Middle-earth featured in the game are literally overrun by Orcs, and you have to work to defeat their Captains and Warchiefs to increase your power and diminish that of your enemy. Don’t expect cameos by too many characters from the books and films, but you will interact with Gollum a few times and the design of characters like the Nazgul are straight from the Jackson vision.
“Middle-earth: Shadow of War” demands patience in terms of repetition. You will fight similar battles and defeat familiar captains over and over again. It’s not as grind-heavy as some role-playing games, but I felt the repetition here more than I did in the last game. Several hours in, the experience opens up into something different when you can actually start recruiting your enemies to form your own army to try and take down Sauron’s castle. Here, entirely new avenues of strategy open up as you have to choose which enemies to kill and which to recruit, and how to use them in combat (as Bodyguards or Spies, for example). This is a very clever new dynamic that really keeps “Shadow of War” moving right when it’s becoming frustratingly repetitive.
Bad video game tie-ins in the past have failed by either having almost nothing to do with the source material or hewing too closely to it. “Middle-earth: Shadow of War” rides that fine line in between, undeniably containing its own voice while also reminding us of the mythology we love from the Tolkien books and Jackson films (as well as the other video games that so clearly inspired it). It’s consistently fun and engaging, and while that may not be enough to make waves that reach as high as the last “Middle-earth” game, these ones are just as powerful.