Middle Earth: Shadow of War and the Problem with Hype

  • Completion Date: November 2020
  • Platform: PC
  • Completed: Main Story
  • Score: 5 out of 10

The day was Friday, January 31, 1997. It was a day I will remember for the rest of my life.

I was the drummer in an up-and-coming band (not really) and we had a show at my Youth Pastor’s house. I can’t recall the occasion (I was a pretty scatter-brained kid, a fact I didn’t realize until much later in life, and a fact that I was only able to mitigate even later). The reason I remember that day was because it’s the day I got kicked out of my band.

After the show my bandmates and I had a “meeting” and I was informed without much ceremony that I would no longer be the drummer in our up-and-coming band. I really, honestly had no idea this was coming, although now that I think back on it, it does make a lot of sense. On several occasions, during our weekly practices, I would ask to take breaks to play video games. Let me repeat. I just asked if I could take a ten or twenty minute break in the middle of practice to go upstairs and play video games, by myself. I didn’t really think about what the rest of the band was going to do during that time (have you read my about me where I said gaming was in my blood whether I liked or not?). Apparently, my bandmates took this to mean that I wasn’t fully committed to the band. Maybe, just maybe, I can understand their point, roughly twenty years later. That’s the story of my band (by the way, the band later reformed under a different name and I was invited back in – maybe they thought I gave up gaming? I didn’t).

. . .

There was another reason that I remember that day, and it arguably changed my life far more than getting kicked out of my nearly-made-it band. It’s the day that Final Fantasy 7 came out.

Here’s the curious part. I wasn’t very interested in FF7 when it released way back in 1997. The only reason I remember that those two events were on the same day is because I remember one of the members of the band telling me how he asked people to come to the show, and one person said he couldn’t come because that’s the day FF7 launched (that man had his priorities in-tact).

It seems very odd to me nowadays to not be excited about the release about a Final Fantasy game. You can see by my games list that I’ve played most of them. However, at that time, I didn’t have a PlayStation, and my adoration for the FF series hadn’t quite kicked in. I still had an SNES, and my brother Mike had recently bought a Sega Saturn (if you remember that system, cheers to you).

By the way, in case you’re curious, I remember very specifically that the game I betrayed my bandmates for, at least on one occasion, was Clockwork Knight (I’ll forgive you if you’ve never heard of it)

I wouldn’t play Final Fantasy 7 until years later, and that is when gaming was ruined for me, because it’s when I realized what a game really could (and should) be. Up until that time, I was perfectly happy to play any game that I could find in our house, no matter what it was. I was still very much infatuated with anything bright and shiny, with fancy colors, and was completely satisfied to play a mediocre game for hours on end. But now, I was aware of what a proper game could do. A game that not only had a well-defined combat system, had cutting edge graphics (for the time, it admittedly looks like garbage now). It introduced me to the notion that a game can have well-balanced game mechanics, create emotional depth, explore deep themes, and have a cinematic experience that is on-par with the best movies of the day.

This is the issue with anything in life, I guess. The more you experience, the more difficult it is to enjoy the next thing. It needs to be better than the thing you’ve enjoyed previously (or at least different enough that it’s not comparable), and so the bar continues to be raised again and again (that doesn’t sound negative, right? I’m trying to work on that).

. . .

Why do I mention all of this when discussing Middle Earth: Shadow Of War? Well, here’s at least one reason. To quote Will Farrell from The Office:

Here’s the thing. There exists many different types of games out there. There are MOBAs, single-player, co-op, MOORPGs, etc. For the single-player game, I fully expect that the story is well-made, intriguing, gripping, with unpredictable twists that keep the player guessing what might happen next. I can forgive other games for not having a wonderful story because that’s really not the intention of the game. A MOBA is all about battling your friends and others in an attempt to get better and better at the game (and possibly win millions upon millions of dollars in some esports event). An MMORPG, in my opinion, should mostly be a social experience, best enjoyed when one or more of your friends get together and attempt to complete the latest raid or at least grind out some experience in the hopes of gaining one more level.

SOW, at least for me, just didn’t deliver on the story. The games (SOW and it’s predecessor, Shadow of Mordor) are not canon, so can’t be relied on to expand or fill-out the LOTR universe. More so, the games would not be able to become canon, because they diverge so heavily from the story of the LOTR series. One of the major themes of the game is dominating (brainwashing) Orcs to fight on your behalf. Any LOTR fan would have to suspend some serious disbelief to accept that, since Orcs are seen as the right/left hand of Sauron, and should be defeated at all costs. Certainly none of the members of the Fellowship would have trusted one, let along worked with one, even if it was some sort of mind control.

There are also a lot of quirks about this game that really kept me from enjoying it. For one, the combat felt very clumsy to me. Combat is an assassin’s creed-style (or batman style, if you prefer), where you can slash at an enemy in some pseudo-combo, and respond to button prompts for your character to either dodge or counter. This kind of combat has become common in today’s games, and I can’t really say I love it. Sometimes I feel like all I’m doing is dodging and countering enemy attacks, accomplishing almost nothing besides avoiding damage. There are ways to mitigate this – as you gain experience, you unlock new abilities, and these abilities aid you in making combat more fluid, but even at the end of the game, I found myself leaping around for way longer than I should have, just waiting for an opening so I could attack a few times. I fully admit, I might just need to git gud, and it’s possible that there were some finer points to the combat system that just alluded me.

. . .

So we’ve established that combat, in my opinion, could’ve been better, and if the rest of the game would’ve been great, it could easily be forgiven. However, there was something I disliked even more than combat. Orc monologues. Oh, the orcs. The pesky orcs. Please, please I beg you, stop talking and let me play! I don’t have time for your introductions!

Let me explain. Every time you run into an orc captain, the screen will cut over to him (I guess there’s no such thing as an orc female) and you must (I’m italicizing must so you won’t miss it, but let me say it again anyway: must) listen to a monologue about how he’s going to: a) rip your arms off, b) rip your legs off, c) rip your head off, d) rip your arms and your legs off, e) do all of the above. I really do appreciate that Monolith Productions (the development team behind SOW) went to all of the trouble to hire several voice actors and come up with all of this original dialogue just to develop the character of the orcs a little bit, but honestly, I don’t think they really thought about how annoying this would be. There are times when you’re asked to participate in a battle between two separate orc tribes, and you’ll be placed smack dab in the middle of six or more captains (Smack Dab was one of the songs from my ex-band, by the way. I don’t remember how it goes). You will then have to sit through six different monologues by six different orcs about how they’re going to: a) rip your arms off, b) rip your legs off, c) rip your head off, d) rip your arms and your legs off, e) do all of the above. Each monologue is about ten to fifteen seconds long, so that means that you’ll be sitting there as one orc after another delivers their speech for over one minute. In fact, If you google “Shadow Of War Orc Intros”, google will autocomplete “Shadow Of War Skip Orc Intros”. So yeah, it’s not just me. It’s a thing.

I really do, honestly feel a little bad about hating on these monologues so bad, because they do serve to add a lot of character to the orcs and to the game, but for crying out loud, it really was practically a showstopper for me.

. . .

So, what are the highlights of the game? The game is pretty much split into two parts. The first half of the game is fairly linear, and has you going to help a city which is being attacked, and has you leaping from quest to quest to help defend the city. The second half is where you assemble your army of orcs in order to attack the Dark Tower, where Sauron lives. I did genuinely enjoy the game once it opened up a little bit (besides the pesky orc monologues), when it was up to me decide which regions to take over, and I was moving from objective to objective at will, reaching a point in combat where I was fairly sufficient. However, when the game opened up, I honestly just got a little lost as far as what I was supposed to do. There are multiple quests, none of which really tell you whether they’re part of the main story or not. There is just a general suggestion to “start doing quests”, which I found pretty aggravating. It took me several hours of just doing random quests before I got a sense of what I was supposed to do to progress the story.

. . .

These are my impressions in a nutshell. So, who would I recommend this game to? Well, I would recommend it to massive LOTR fans, but it really doesn’t serve to expand the LOTR world. As mentioned, if you’re really into the LOTR lore, it’ll probably turn you off more than anything else, since it basically wrecks the canon of the story. If you’re into the assassin’s creed-style combat, you’re a LOTR fan, and you don’t mind the game bending the lore, then you would probably enjoy it. Other than that, I really can’t say I would recommend it to many.

Now we come to the confusing part, at least for me. This game got hyped by many, many critics. Even critics that I follow closely and generally agree with. Everyone and their brother was screaming at everyone else and their brother that this is a must-play game. I really can’t figure out what the hype is about. I watched several reviews from well-known game review sites, and they actually agree with most of the issues I listed, and add a few more about microtransactions that I didn’t even cover. But, at the end of it, they still gave it a 9 out of 10. I guess they just found the annoying parts far less annoying and the good parts far better than I did. This proves it, gaming is a subjective experience (I think you could even substitute a phrase like “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” here).

. . .

One final note. There is a “true” ending to the game that you can only get after you defend against multiple sieges on your strongholds, which apparently takes roughly fifty or more hours to complete. As you might’ve guess, I’m not willing to spend any more time with the game. However, with the advent of the internet and YouTube, there really isn’t any need. My advice: beat the main story, and watch the three-minute cutscene of the true ending. If you find yourself sucked in by the combat and the many, many Orc monologues, and you decide to play for the full fifty hours, please let me know. I welcome a difference of opinion.

Game On.

By Steve Bongiorno

I write about gaming, books, faith, and family.

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