It was a day like any other– I had been prowling around the rooftops of Minas Ithil, stealthily putting orcs out of their misery, searching for stolen Gondorian artifacts. After locating a ceremonial red arrow, presented in times past to the men of Rohan during times of dire need to invoke ancient pacts of aid, I set my sights on a new artifact, laying just outside the city walls. Traipsing across the bridge leading to the nearby orc encampment, I jumped down to the earth below, slicing into an orc warrior, shooting another two in the head with my bow, and knocking a fourth to the ground while taking several swings at the final orc. While beating back his pitiful attempts at defending himself, I prepared to take his head off– when out from behind a nearby tree, comes these words:
“FLESHLING! You cleaved me in two. Any other orc would have died, but I survived. More than that: I thrived. My brothers put me back together, stronger than ever, but they didn’t make me into what I am. You did. You created…The Machine.”
Stepping around the tree came an orc straight out of my nightmares: Tall, encased in metal armor, a curved bone piercing his nose, and an overwhelming sense of the familiar…yet different. Hadn’t I…hadn’t I killed this orc before? Did he not have the decency to stay dead? Was I truly so overconfident in my skills that I left him with a modicum of life, to be pieced back together bit by bit, now more machine than man? Had I truly made him what he was…created him?
Yes. Yes I did. For you see, Mogg the Machine wasn’t always like this. No, when I first met him, he was only known as Mogg the Messenger, a lowly level eleven Mystic Beastmaster. Now, Mogg was first encountered not too far into my playthrough of Middle Earth: Shadow of War, when I was only level four in fact. He decided to ambush me while I was attempting to take on Takra the Infernal, a firey archer whose equal I had yet to meet. Unfortunately, while my attention was focused on Takra, Mogg took advantage of my distraction to step in and slay me, uttering as he did: “I hope it’s true there’s a reward for your head!”
Shadow of War, similar to its predecessor Shadow of Mordor, does not allow death to be the end however! In this duo of games based off of the world set forth by J. R. R. Tolkien, set in the time between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, you play the Gondorian Ranger Talion. Stationed along the border of Gondor and Mordor, Talion falls prey to an orc attack on his outpost, which kills his friends, his family– and himself. Wait, you might ask, but if Talion is dead…how do you keep playing the game? You see, through the dark magic made possible by a fantasy world, Talion is now bound in death to the ancient Elven spirit of Celebrimbor, cursed to never pass through death to the other side to see his family again. Upon realizing his family’s death, Talion spends the majority of the first game attempting to seek revenge upon those responsible– which I feel was a half-accomplished goal at best.
That being put aside, in Shadow of War, we return to playing the Ranger and the Wraith, the two bound as one in undeath, Talion and Celebrimbor. This time, they are all over Mordor, moving from the two locations of the previous game to a full five areas to explore and exploit. The story follows the two as they witness the fall of Minis Ithil, deal with iconic Middle Earth characters such as Shelob and the Balrog, and engage in fortress warfare as they begin their own army by dominating the minds of Mordor’s orcs, via a newly forged Ring of Power. However, I really don’t want to touch much upon the story when it comes to this review– the story that the game’s creators scripted out isn’t nearly as interesting as the stories which they left unscripted for the players to create.
You see, when you die, you do not reload your last save, come back to a checkpoint, or otherwise rewrite the history of the in-game story– no, you die, and you are drug back kicking and screaming to life, unable to fully enter the void like you might wish to in order to rejoin your wife and child. Talion and Celebrimbor awaken at the top of one of three local towers, and time moves on– the various orc Captains in the current location’s army will continue about their days, complete struggles for power, and so on. Having just been killed by a captain, I determined that the best course of action would be to track him down and eliminate him, by any means necessary! This Mogg, he would be as hot butter to my knife, for I was out for blood!
And then things went wrong. I was nearly within sight of the last known location of Mogg the Messenger, when, upon my high perch in a small tower, a lumbering Caragor clambered up to my level, preparing to pounce!
Well, here’s the thing about Shadow of War: You will find Caragors roaming about the wilderness willy-nilly, but if you happen upon one in the middle of a city? It’s been tamed for Orcish use. Fearing for my life and the success of my revenge, I leaped onto an outcropping and turned, hearing a dreadful sniffing noise…sure enough, below me and looking upwards, was none other than Takra the Infernal! Hurriedly, I activated my Eagle Visio–oh, uh, I mean, Wraith Sight– and reviewed what I knew about Takra. As it turns out, Takra the Infernal was indeed a Fiery Terror Tracker– an orc wielding flame weapons, from the orcish Terror tribe, and of the Tracker class. Orc captains who specialize in tracking will latch onto the scent of Talion when he’s nearby, and pursue him to no end– often times gathering other nearby orcs to join in the hunt!
Hoping to avoid the inevitable and keep my chance at revenge, I turned and ran, scaling a nearby wall to advance onto the rooftop across the way, giving me a vantage point on Mogg in the courtyard below, while putting some distance between me and Takra. Steeling my nerves, I crouched…and down I jumped! Right onto the back of Mogg the Messenger, whose shoulder I happily graced with a dagger! But this did not put him down, and he threw me off, stumbling a moment and allowing the time to strike the firepit next to him with my wraith hammer– sending an explosion of fire outwards! With this strong opening, I turned and clashed blades with Mogg’s club, locking weapons, while he greeted me with these words: “It was a mistake to challenge me the first time. Now I must assume you enjoy dying!”
For the next minute and a half, we danced together, slashing weapons and leaping figures. Mogg endeavored to keep a screen of lowly orcish bodies between me and him, while I attempted to put each of them out of their misery quick enough to allow me a slash at Mogg. After much struggle, I had him– I dealt a crushing blow with my sword, running it through my foe’s gut, dropping him to his knees! “The Witch-King will have his city. But you. You were just for me.” Defiant to the end, huh? That’s alright– I was ready to deliver the killing blow! Preparing to slay him, I was thus surprised when he suddenly attacked, swinging his club at my head! While I was quick enough to block the blow, I unfortunately was thrown off-balance, allowing Mogg the chance to use his free hand to knock away my sword, and stun me briefly with a headbutt! Mogg escaped that day, much to my chagrin, leaving me to be battered by his minions while he got to safety.
My immediate response of tracking Mogg down again was delayed when Takra the Infernal finally caught up with me, giving me new problems to deal with– but this story isn’t about Takra, despite how often he’s been showing up. This story is about Mogg. Speaking of Mogg– I didn’t really know too much about him. It was high time that was not so. Moving through Minas Ithil, I came across a Worm– an orc with both information, and a desire not to die to my interrogation (spoiler alert: he died). From this worm I learned more about Mogg– an orc from the Mystic tribe, specializing as a Beastmaster, controller of Caragors and killer of Graugs. Though he had managed to kill me once and escape from me a second time, Mogg was known to be clumsy, had a fear of spiders, and from all the arrows I had sank into his skull, was soft-headed. An excellent plan of attack was formed– swoop down upon him from above as last time, then fill his head with arrows, stunning him into being unable to defend against my sword!
After a bit of tracking, there he was again– I could see him from the roof of the ruined building I had climbed. While he had two tamed Caragors moving about beside him, it seemed no other orcs were in sight. I sprung into action– again! A stealthy knife in the back, then several arrows to his face brought him low, and a lightning-quick flurry of blows almost took him out immediately! Finally he rallied enough to raise his club to defend himself, shouting at me “You should have stayed dead! Now I will humiliate you a second time!” It was then I noticed– this was not actually Mogg the Messenger. This was, in fact…Mogg the Gutless! After having to run away from me in our last fight, his title was changed to reflect what others thought of him– no longer a useful messenger, but rather a sniveling coward! This brought me a bit of satisfaction, as clearly my revenge was already working on a psychological level.
Since I wasn’t going to say no to another hands-up, I quickly loosed another arrow into Mogg’s head, dazing him, and giving me enough time to once again slide my blade into his gut– this time, though he defiantly uttered the words “This is far from over, tark,” I did not let him get away– I chopped off an arm and a leg, and slew him. VICTORY!
Or so I had thought…until, two levels and an hour and a half later, I encountered Mogg the Machine outside of Minas Ithil, having cheated death. But you’ve already heard about that…
Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor was one of 2014’s best games, in my opinion. Though I did not play this game until two years after its release, the Nemesis System it introduced proved to me time and again how cool fighting an army of orcs can actually be. The Nemesis System is Monolith’s game mechanic which allows for the Orc Captains that you face to remember your encounters, evolve their techniques, become better faster stronger and all that. Each Orc Captain, special Orcs roaming around the region, had a series of special traits which made their strengths and weaknesses– one may be arrow-proof and vulnerable to stealth attacks; another could be soft-headed yet strikes savagely for massive amounts of damage! The numerous special traits could combine in several ways to make unique villains with a personality and connection to you as a player, a pretty unique thing compared to what I’ve seen in other video games.
Middle Earth: Shadow of War doubled-down on this design, offering improvements in graphics and the Nemesis System itself. The new game took many aspects of its predecessor and built upon it– the Orc captains now have a class and tribe that determine some of its special abilities, and more advantages and weaknesses were added to the roster. Additionally, a very very different equipment system was included in Shadow of War. Shadow of Mordor allowed you to collect runes from the captains you killed, and these runes would allow you to upgrade either your Bow, your Sword, or your Dagger for various different benefits. Shadow of War takes this a step further; you are able to collect actual pieces of equipment from the captains you kill, and this can gain you new weapons, armor, or magical rings. Some of these pieces of equipment have challenges to complete in order to upgrade them– kill five enemies on fire and your sword may have a 15% chance to light enemies on fire on a critical hit!
The unlockable skill system in Shadow of War also received an upgrade– every level you gain unlocks a new skill point, which can unlock new skills for Talion. Many skills make a comeback– the ability to freeze an enemy as you leap over their back, the ability to detonate fire pits into an explosion, and the ability to ride various creatures from around Mordor to name but a few. In addition, several new abilities came around, such as the ability to quickly climb buildings by making vertical leaps, a mid-air double-jump, and the ability to chain several stealth kills into one action. Each of these skills also come with two or three upgrades, requiring a skill point to unlock the upgrade. Though a skill can only have one upgrade active at a time, you are able to freely swap between any unlocked upgrades at any time.
Similar to Shadow of Mordor, Shadow of War brings back the Domination of orcs, allowing you to add orcs and captains to your side, building up an army of followers bound to your will. In this way, you can recruit your own Orc Captains to fight alongside you in Fortress Sieges to take control of regions away from Sauron’s own orcs. After you obtain the appropriate skill, you can even gain an Orc bodyguard who you can call in at any time to help you in a fight, and who sometimes will even protect you from what would have been certain death!
Those are, in my opinion, some pretty positive things that the game changed from its elder– but this has not touched upon what some consider to have been the most controversial feature. Included in Shadow of War is a Marketplace– a way to spend in-game and real currency to purchase warchests full of equipable items, or even Elite or Legendary orcs to place into your army. Training orders are also possible to purchase, which will modify existing Orcs in your army by making them elite, adding a gang of followers, or giving them poisoned or cursed weapons to name but a few. Finally, you can purchase XP boosts to allow you to gain experience faster, leveling you up quicker.
While it is true that these things are present and can be purchased with real-world currency, this doesn’t make it an inherently bad game. Indeed, many of these gains do not even need to be purchased with real-world currency. The in-game currency can be used to purchase some of these chests, and the Gold which is obtainable through microtransactions can be earned, slowly, by completing daily challenges in-game. Additionally, while an XP boost might seem like a direct pay-to-win, the game is strictly singleplayer with only a type of asynchronous multiplayer which pits your orcs against the orcs of other players. Additionally, after you hit the maximum level of sixty, which is easily achievable in the course of normal gameplay, you no longer have a need for XP gain.
So– where does that put us, in all? I have had an enormous amount of fun with the stories these orcs have helped me tell. The story of the game itself, well honestly, I could take it or leave it for the most part. The first act follows Talion as he attempts to keep Minas Ithil from falling to Sauron, and attempting to recover his Ring of Power from Shelob. Eh meh, nothing too special coming in here. The second act introduces the rest of the regions of the game, and sees you beginning to build your army up, eventually putting under siege the region fortresses to take control of Mordor. During act two, you also get access to your alternate quest arcs. A story involving the remaining defenders of Minas Ithil proved to be reasonably dull to me, while the most challenging part of the game came when I had to battle various members of the Nazgul during Eltariel’s quest line. Overall, my favorite bit of story were the quests that involved the orcs Ratbag and Bruz– Ratbag making a return from Shadow of Mordor, and Bruz serving the dual role of trusted adviser and hated foe.
This certainly speaks volumes then as to what the game did the best– for it was the orcs with which I most identified with and wished to learn more about! Their dialogue and personalities drew me in far more than the mysterious background of Shelob, or even the character development that Talion and Celebrimbor went through by the end of the plot. The Orcs and the Nemesis System come in at the top highlights of this game for me, bar none. It almost makes getting killed fun, as if a grunt orc slays me we learn more about him as he is promoted to captain, and we form a relationship with him– we might encounter him again and die to him again, or perhaps fight him to a draw and watch him run away. And he remembers every encounter! This was such a delight to see time and time again.
I’ve focused on a lot of the high points of this game– so let us touch, briefly, upon the low points: What I didn’t like. The game’s third act was a reasonably impressive set of increasingly difficult encounters, culminating in a ‘soft ending’ of the game. However there was more, because Shadow of War has in fact four acts, the last of which is known as The Shadow Wars. During the Shadow Wars, which you must complete in order to unlock the game’s ‘final’ ending, you must complete a total of twenty fortress defenses, where you and your orcs must hold off invading enemy forces until you manage to defeat all six of their Warchieves (the Orcs who hold dominion over Captains!). While in theory this can be fun and entertaining, as you are able to set various fortress defenses such as thickened walls, fiery siege beasts, or even poison mines scattered through the courtyards, completing what is essentially the same mission twenty times in a row can be a long drain on time and interest. I found myself only able to handle one, or possibly even two if I was feeling energetic, sieges per play. Any more became quite dull and repetitive.
In addition to this, the way I was encouraged to play the Shadow Wars– recruiting all of the best, highest-level Orcs in the region for my fortress Warchieves and their Captain bodyguards– meant that I ended up losing out on one of the most interesting aspects of the game, that being the living world. Because I constantly needed dominated Orc bodies for my fortresses, any given region would only have two or three uncontrolled orcs roaming around at any given time– and a few of my regions sported no undominated Orcs every now and then. If there are so few enemy orcs in a region, the chances of running in to one or having one ambush or run into you seem to plummet, and thus my orcish interaction, that which I valued the most in this game, was eliminated.
Furthermore, by the time I had hit the endgame in the Shadow Wars, many of my Captain encounters became relatively simple– the range of abilities and skills available to me, instantly customizable when needed, made any single-orc encounter a reasonably trivial time. The number of times in this game that I died was already pretty low, but by the end of my third or so fortress siege in the Shadow Wars, I had gained so many skills that I did not die again for the rest of the game. No dying, means no personal stories of revenge against orcs, means less attachment from me to the game. While I admire the idea that you are not limited to just one upgrade per skill you acquire, I feel like the game would have done better in end-game balancing if there were some kind of penalty to changing around your skills, be it an in-game currency cost or a timer until being able to change them again.
My final complaint lies in a simple, yet what seems to me easy to fix, issue: There is only a single save slot for the game. I have now achieved 100% completion of this game, and now have free reign over the open world as it were, to encounter and fight orcs, to engage in the Endless Shadow Wars fortress sieges, and to generally have fun. Yet I find myself wanting to begin again at times, start the story over from the beginning and build Talion up once more. Problem is if I do this…I must delete my 100% completion save, where my Talion has all of his skills and all of his levels. I feel very much against this, on the more-likely-than-not chance that I’d wish to play some more at max level in a completed game. I admit I don’t know much about video game programming, yet I feel almost certain that implementing an additional save slot would not be an extravagant amount of work, and could easily have been provided at launch.
Final thoughts: Is it worth it? Though I cannot make your decisions for you, I would suggest giving this game a try. At sixty-eight hours of play time on Steam, I feel that I have easily gotten my money’s worth for this purchase, and the entertainment that multiple orc nemeses have brought me rounds that experience out nicely. Yes there are flaws, yet the experience as a whole has been a good one, and I feel that even after I have left this game cold and unplayed for a multitude of months, when next I decide to jump back in I will have just as much fun if not more. When it is all said and done, I am happy with my purchase, and would choose to buy it again.
Oh, but before you go, would you perhaps like to know how the story of Mogg the Machine ends?
Several hours after my last encounter with Mogg, which ended in me chopping off his arm and leg, I returned to Minas Ithil after an extended stay in Cirith Ungul. On my way to a new story mission, I came across an orc Captain just longing to be beaten up, and I was only too happy to oblige! It was then, much the same as when I had first met him, that Mogg the Machine made his reappearance– for he had cheated death again! Made up of even more metal than the last time I’d faced him, he greeted me with the traditional shout of “FLESHLING!” The battle with Mogg this time was longer, as he was now level fifteen with a fire weapon and less vulnerabilities. The end result was another death for Mogg– I hoped for the last time.
But it was not to be so! Mogg’s final chapter comes many, many hours later, almost at the end of the game! During a quest line which had me dealing with a vile necromancer, I learned of cultists in Minas Morgul (formerly Minas Ithil) who were attempting to raise dead Orc Captains back to life. Arriving at the Minas Morgul arena, I found that the dastardly cultists had raised from the dead some of my most feared opponents– foremost among them being Mogg the Machine! Though the fight was horrendously difficult, after several attempts I was able to slay Mogg– this time, for the last time. I’d be lying however, if I didn’t tell you that I would always be extra careful to check over my shoulder for Mogg while traveling through Minas Morgul after that though….