While Talion is a being of inhuman ability and power from the get go, I begin in a relatively fragile position. Caution is a must when roaming the rooftops of Minas Ithil, as any regular Orc could take me down with ease if I get cornered. Kosh the Lookout chases after me with his crossbow, pinning me down and killing me with a few shots. I come back to life, then return the favour. The field is even, the war is waged, the battlegrounds are fair.
The opening hours are packed with tips, tutorials, systems unlocking, more tips and explanations, a handful of missions designed to teach me ways of interacting with the game. Progression is overwhelming, but I slowly get a grasp on all the tools laid out in front of me.
After a certain story point, I leave Minis Ithil with the goal of building my own army. Nurnen is where I begin, as I re-learn the ability to Dominate and control my foes from the first game. I go toe to toe with the dual-axe wielding savage Ronk the Clever, the dark mystic Hork the Raven and my favourite of the bunch Muzu the Rhymer, turning them on their fellow Orcs to instead fight for me. I use Ronk to turn on his old boss, and together we take down the Overlord of the land, claiming his fortress for our own. I place Hork as my new faithful Overlord, and Ronk and Muzu serving as his Warchiefs - despite the fact that Hork and Muzu are rivals. They oblige, so I move on to the next region.
From here, there are 3 more forts to conquer and armies to build. I begin the process I followed in Nurnen 3 more times, each time refining the loop of learning about the Orc captains, hunting them down one by one to turn them to my side, and take down the Overlord. I start to pay more attention to each of their strengths, figuring out which ones will be helpful in the coming battles. I move the Orcs around like they are pieces on a chess board, pitting my Orcs' strengths against the enemy weaknesses, sitting back to watch as my pawns take down my enemies without me barely having to lift a finger.
I start to lose track of my Orc underlings. I read their names as I fight, kill and recruit them, but they become lost in a sea of Captains and Warchiefs. I start to pay more attention to their attributes than their personalities - I focus more on what they can bring to the table over how they interact with me.
Though this is Mordor, the home of Orcs, the game’s main story beats focus around a few power players struggling against one another for domination. Player character Talion, his internal wraith spirit Celebrimbor, the elven “Blade of Galadriel” Eltariel and big bad Sauron are all independent beings with their own agendas and battles to fight. Each of these characters use everything at their disposal - power, magic, Orcs - to try and come out on top. Each of them justify it differently - Talion uses Orcs because he “must”, Eltariel slays any in her path, Celebrimbor and Sauron simply see them as tools. This is a war waged between the elite few, at the expense of an entire race.
In the original canon of Lord of the Rings, Orcs are simple killing machines. They are born to kill without remorse, and follow under a purely evil being in Sauron. It makes sense, given the lines that can easily be drawn from JRR Tolkien’s famed trilogy to Nazi Germany - similar to Nazis, traditional Tolkien orcs stand as little more than monsters, and shouldn’t be wept over as they fall.
Shadow of War, along with its predecessor Shadow of Mordor, blur that idea somewhat.
Early on in the game, I was sneaking passed an Orc patrol when I heard one of them complaining to its brethren. “It’s not like I mind it, but why do we always have to wear black? Black is fine, but a little bit of colour wouldn’t hurt."
As I snuck around a camp through the bushes hours later, I stopped to listen to an Orc telling his buddies a war story. He was reminiscing about chasing down a caragor through a swamp; just as he made the killing blow, his foot sank into some sticky mud. It ruined his boots, which was a shame, because he had stolen them from an elf many years ago - and they were his favourite pair.
As I made my way around Gorgoroth, the fortress at the base of Mt. Doom, I stumbled upon Garl Bootlick; an ambitious Orc who’s only concern was rising up the ranks. Killing me was just going to help his cause, otherwise I got the feeling he wouldn’t really bother. He was definitely a candidate for recruiting. “When all is said and done here, I’m going to get a promotion… Or I’ll be dead. But the truth is, I’m hoping to avoid that option.” I had already jumped down from a high ledge to take him by surprise with my dagger, but I needed to get his health down further before he was weak enough to dominate - one exploding barrel of grog later and he was mine.
He was several levels higher than me, so I was unable to bring him on board - instead, the game allowed me to “shame” him, which would drop his level enough so that when we met again, I could. Mechanically it made sense, and I liked this Orc’s attitude, so I went ahead and did so. Garl could not handle the shaming. His mind broke, leaving him a shrivelling mess and me with my mouth agape in horror. He reappeared again later, now with several new “mortal weakness” traits - Terrified of Burning, Terrified of Stealth, and Quivering Wreck. He saw me, and the game focused in on his intro spiel - only this time, he was no longer the ambitious orc I’d originally met.
His movement was erratic, his speech unstable; he kept repeating the same phrase, over and over. “See, the thing is… the thing is… SEE, THE THING IS… The thing, the thiiiing isssss…” I ended the battle not by putting him out of his misery, as I probably should have, but instead recruited him into my army. When I check in on him on the Army menu screen, he’s constantly looking over his shoulder, filled with paranoia.
In it’s greatest boon, Shadow of War alters that “monster" aspect of this race of living beings, creating an entire society around a war focused culture. Orcs are still all about the killing, to be sure, but they also go hunting, celebrate victories by drinking grog, discuss stories around a campfire, worship totems, build elaborate structures and have their own plans, ambitions and personalities. The greatest characters in the game are not the humans, elves and she-spiders, but the Orcs themselves - not just the handcrafted ones, like Bruz the Aussie Orc from the promo material, the returning jokester Ratbag and his cell-mate-turned-friend Ranger (which are great in their own right) - but the procgen Orcs like Muzu and Hork. Where the game could simply be great through its systems alone, the character and charm come from these beings that, as far as the game’s systems are concerned, exist to be slaughtered or subjugated.
This is also the games deepest “weakness”. In giving the Orcs a humanity the original text doesn’t afford, new questions rise up where before they did not seem to matter. Though they might be a race of war, Orcs are still intelligent beings with a society of their own, even if we might not agree or understand them.
The story of the game grapples with this, ultimately coming to the conclusion that the power each main character uses - regardless of how noble their motive might seem - ends badly. The characters that do not strive to use questionable power to achieve their ends - Idril, Baranor and even Ratbag - are the “good” ones. Even Bruz ends up suffering deep consequences for his overt ambitiousness.
That’s all well and good, but at the end of the day, the gameplay stand as a dichotomy of that message. Through the many systems the game presents to you, it not only offers bountiful ways for you to be the worst version of yourself, but actively encourages you to do so.
After conquering all fortresses and finishing Act 3, the game offers me to play it’s epilogue chapter - The Shadow Wars. This is where the blurring of names and faces kicks into overdrive.
The Shadow Wars present me with 3 rounds of defending my fortresses - 5 defences in total - in which Saurons army is trying to take them back. The attacking Orcs are much stronger than my own, particularly in the earlier areas of the game, but Shadow of War gives me a way to train my Orcs to become stronger - The Fight Pits. I can press my own Orcs into fighting outsiders, forcing them to kill in front of a crowd to gain strength. If they die, the newcomer becomes available to kill or recruit as I see fit.
I figure out that pitting my weak orcs against champions is the best way to bolster my army. My low-level recruits have many weaknesses and very few strengths; these champions are the opposite, and 20 levels higher to boot. The smart business decision is to let go of current followers, instead enslave these new and better ones - I may not have had the experience with them from the beginning of the game, but the numbers tell me I’m better off abandonning the old in favour of the new.
Even after finishing the Shadow Wars, the game offered me the option to endlessly defend my forts against randomly generated attacks. I’m interested, but the levels of these Orcs are again higher than my own, so I engage with a part of the game I haven’t until this point - the online component. The game pits my invasion forces against other players’ fortresses, which allows me to build up my levels, find new recruits, collect gear and build monetary wealth. Every successful invasion rewards me with a box of goodies, which are accessed under the Garrison menu. Orcs I recruit from my enemies are available here also, where I can choose to either send them to join one of my in game armies... or break them down for parts, acquiring gear in the process.
At this point, I have dozens of Orcs to spare. Each time, I listen to the death bell toll. I wait for the internet to load as a close up of my terrified Orc waits for the inevitable, their idle animations boosting their personality one more time. Finally, I watch on as they fall to the ground in fear, blood bursting from their chest as they dissipate - hopefully managing to obtaining some cool weapons and armor in the process. I head to the Gear screen. Much of the equipment I acquire from the Garrison is too low level for me to make use of, so I break it down further into straight money that I can use to upgrade the gear I already own.
Here’s the kicker - this game is incredibly fun to play. Improving further on the first game, the combat is even more fluid, the abilities make you feel even more like a bad ass, and the traversal is even more exhilarating. The 5 areas are all well crafted, in their detail and in their encouragement in having you use all the tools at your disposal. The detail on the Orcs is stunning, from their facial expressions to their armor and weapons to the way their bodies end up mutilated from poison/maggots/fire. Most importantly, while it’s a lot to get around, the many, many systems at play fold into each other well, forming a cohesive experience that is fascinating and fun to toy with. Doubly so through the final patch, removing paid loot boxes and re-balancing the portions of the game that were affected by them. These games are truly unique in what they offer.
The problem is there are so many feedback loops through different systems at play here that the actual stars of the game - the Orcs - are lost in the shuffle. Early on they matter a great deal - they are fierce opponents, handy allies and ultimately give the world life. Through your progression of gaining more and more power, all of that falls to the wayside. They become just another cog in the machine; another resource for you to gather, use and discard as you see fit.
The final port of call before I put the game down is the trophies Shadow of War has to encourage players to explore all of its systems. I platinum’d the first game, so I’m open to challenging myself once again. There are several trophies I have yet to obtain.
"If You Can’t Beat Them: recruit an Orc after he’s killed you three or more times." "I Like To Watch: watch a follower murder another captain without helping him." "Overkill: send a follower to kill another follower in a pit fight." "Blood on Blood: Make a captain kill his blood brother."
"Bad Boss: strike a follower until he’s had enough."
I’m in Minas Morgul, where I summon my bodyguard. I hit him with my ethereal hammer over and over, until he eventually has had enough and turns on me. He inherits the trait Unbreakable, meaning I won’t be able to recruit him again. My only option now is to kill him. He doesn’t go down easily - another trait of his is Last Chance, which gives him an opportunity to parry the final blow, even when he’s on his knees as I stand over him with my sword at his throat. This trait also allows him to leave me with one final message before he dies by my hand.
“You are, without a doubt, the worst boss I’ve ever had”.
I can’t even remember his name.