Middle-earth: Shadow of War Xbox One impressions: Giant spiders, orc slaying, and loot crates

It shouldn't have been controversial, though. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor was a sleeper hit from a few years back, successfully and faithfully blending Assassin's Creed-like open world gameplay with rhythmic, Batman: Arkham-style combat. It was a little rough, but full of heart, and its procedurally-generated orc system gave it the unique hook it needed to ascend above being a simple AC rip-off with a big-name license attachment.

As a Lord of the Rings game, Shadow of Mordor had to navigate existing franchise lore, a staunch, established fanbase, while wrapping it together in a compelling action game – Monolith more than delivered.

The announcement of the game's sequel, Shadow of War, sent waves through the community earlier this year, particularly for Xbox fans, as it was announced to be an Xbox Play Anywhere title as a single-purchase across Xbox One and Windows 10 PCs. For some (myself included), the hype train was a little derailed following the revelation Shadow of War would revolve around pesky loot crate gambling mechanics, rewarding players with gameplay-circumventing loot in exchange for real money.

Many rightly feared the game would be needlessly grindy to compensate, driving up the incentive to hand over real money simply to get ahead, skewing gameplay around the luck of the loot box draw rather than honest-to-goodness balanced reward systems. After 10 hours in, honestly, that doesn't seem to be the case.

While Middle-earth: Shadow of War hasn't blown me away so far, it's a solid open world action game, and the loot boxes are just, well, stupid.

Visuals, Story, and Setting

Shadow of War isn't the prettiest game I've ever seen on Xbox One, but it does the job – clear trade-offs have been made to balance the large open world, dozens of creatures on-screen, against visual fidelity. Some of the textures in the open world just look plain bad, the sort of thing you'd expect of the Xbox 360 era rather than on Xbox One. Thankfully Shadow of War is going to be Xbox One X-enhanced, and if the 4K version on PC is any indication, it should look stunning there.

One aspect where Shadow of War does shine visually is through its cinematics. Some of the character designs, their expressive digital acting and great voice work really brings the game's story to life, which so far, has been really intriguing.

For those who don't know, Shadow of War follows the tale of Talion, a human ranger embroiled in a quest for vengeance against the franchise's big evil – Sauron himself. Teaming up with an elf wraith known as Celebrimbor, the pair wage a bloody war across Middle-earth, leaving quite literally hundreds of dead orcs in their wake.

Shadow of War revolves around a new Ring of Power, known in the movies to enslave and corrupt those who wield its power. Celebrimbor and Talion decide it's a necessary evil to battle Sauron and his orc hordes, but as the game progresses, its clear that the ring is sewing mistrust between the pair.

Shadow of War is a massive game, taking place across several large open world areas. At 10 hours in, I've only discovered three of six main areas, and haven't plunged many of its side quests and collectables. Throughout I've been introduced to a large and eclectic cast of elves, humans, and other creatures, like the dishevelled Gollum.

The quality of the game's voice acting and character writing is really top-notch, firmly in-line with the quality fans of Peter Jackson's movies might hope for. The huge, huge amount of dialogue for the game's randomly-generated orcs is truly incredible. After 10 hours, I haven't heard a single repeated line, despite going up against dozens of captains, each with their own unique cutscenes. Even the supporting cast are memorable and interesting, and right from the first act, Shadow of War is already full of mystery, betrayal, hilarity and emotion.

Monolith Productions has done an amazing job at building a world that so faithfully recreates what we love about Lord of the Rings and Tolkien's wider mythos, but what about that gameplay?

Gameplay, loot packs, orc slaying

It seems that the micropayments and loot crates are practically pointless.

The micropayment news really derailed any hype I had for this game prior, and for good reason. The idea of free-to-play, pay-to-win elements in a $60 premium game is simply distasteful, particularly when you consider the (somewhat likely) possibility that the gameplay might be geared towards incentivising purchases. Thankfully, this time around, it seems that the micropayments and loot crates are practically pointless.

Shadow of War ramps up the roleplaying-game (RPG) elements vs. its predecessor, full of loot to acquire, each with their own levels and features. I had wondered whether the rewards would be limited to push you to pay up, but no, the game practically showers you with loot and upgrades, and even then, the upgrades don't seem to impact Normal Mode gameplay in any huge way. Sure, you won't be able to kill level 40 orcs with level 10 equipment, but the monsters you face are usually level appropriate anyway. Never once between now and level 20 have I felt that I needed better gear to progress.

The swordplay is very familiar if you've played the first game, to the point where the animations and executions appear to have been lifted straight from Shadow of Mordor. "Y" button prompts will counter incoming attacks, "A" attacks help you build your Wrath meter, which allows you to do satisfying kill commands or utility attacks, such as draining an orc's health for your own. The combat system flows well and rewards patience and skill, just like the first game, complete with the same abilities and attacks. It's a shame there's not more new here, but what is there is decent enough.

Many attacks and abilities can be upgraded through a large skill tree, which, theoretically, you can eventually completely fill out. Slow-motion bow and arrow fighting, creature-mounted combat, upgraded sword play, and supernatural Wraith powers all make an appearance, along with upgrades to your stealth abilities.

On Normal Mode, it all gets a little too easy, too quickly. You'll be able to sprint around the map ignoring most enemies, then just slice your way through dozens of mobs with minimal effort, draining health back when things get a little problematic. Playing the game on Nemesis difficulty might be more rewarding for those wanting to get more out of the game's systems. Speaking of which, there are a lot of systems.

I'm 10 hours in, and the game is still giving me new tutorials to read and understand. For most of that, I felt like the game was all-too familiar to its predecessor, following the lines of go here, kill this captain, repeat ad nauseum, but in Act II, you begin to build and customize your very own army, with the opportunities to siege and destroy enemy strongholds.

Utilizing converted combatants from the game's randomly-generated orc system, you can turn your newfound orc pals against their comrades, having them sneak into a warchief's inner circle to perform assassinations, to ambush messengers and captains. It's similar to the Nemesis system to the first game, except it culminates in a big battle to capture a region's stronghold. The game becomes far more interesting in Act II, as a result, and as always, the gorgeously crafted story is doing more than its fair share to keep me engaged. I'm having a lot of fun.

Questions remain

I'm not ready to assign a final score to Shadow of War as of yet. I still need to determine whether the loot crate system will impact the Nemesis and stronghold siege mechanics as I progress towards the game's end. I need to find out if the story continues to be this engaging and exciting. And ultimately, I need to figure out whether the game's huge amount of content will begin to get tedious, as I run out of things to upgrade.

So far, it's tentative optimism from me on Shadow of War's overall quality. It almost feels as though Monolith Productions made the loot crates as ridiculously unnecessary on purpose to lower the incentive to buy as much as possible, leaving it as an option only for those with huge amounts of throwaway income. Even the free crates the game has given me simply haven't been needed, thankfully. As I progress through the next 20 hours, I hope this remains true.

You can grab Middle-earth: Shadow of War for $60 as an Xbox Play Anywhere title across Xbox One and Windows 10 PCs, or separately on Steam and PS4.

Jez Corden
Co-Managing Editor

Jez Corden is a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by tea. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his XB2 Podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!