As the successor to the fantastic Shadow of Mordor, does this game draw Legendary status from its loot box, or is it to be recycled for cash via trade-in?

Let’s start with the premise; following right from the end of the last game, lead characters (in the same body) Talion and Celebrimbor set out to forge a new ring of power that can rival Sauron’s own ring. But alas, not everything is so simple, as quickly events around the pair begin to throw their plans into chaos. It’s an easy to grasp story, although those who haven’t made the time to play the last game first may miss out on a few things here and there. Still, it’s not too tough to understand what’s going on; even those uninitiated into the Lord of the Rings world should be able to understand things easy enough.

What will make the story far more enthralling to each player is the returning Nemesis System, which creates a variety of Orcs (and now also Olog-hai trolls) for you to face. Each one has a variety of abilities, strengths and weaknesses, and the variety compared to the previous game is astounding; not just in the ways they fight, but also in their characterization. One even played an instrument like a bard. Another just communicated in whistles and moans. Both soon became part of my army, and we merrily laid siege to the enemy. Sadly, the sieges themselves, while certainly unique and intense compared to the usual faire of open combat in the various regions open to you, lack almost all of the cinematic joy that was shown in the earlier trailers. They sadly have a bad case of ‘vertical slice’ syndrome (think Watch Dogs) that luckily only dampens the experience, rather than ruins it.

As you re-enter the life (or undeath, if you prefer) of Talion and Celebrimbor, returning players will find it easy to get back into the way of cleaving orcs with ease. Things have only seen improvement, and a further distancing from the series it’s combat borrows heavily from (the Batman Arkham series) by changing how certain fundamentals work, such as building your hit streak and unleashing special moves on the opponent. Another way in which things can be tailored to each player is the abilities system; each ability carries with it up to three ‘augment’ abilities that can improve said power, or add something to your repertoire that works in tandem with it. You can only have one active per ability, and each set is unique to that ability, so pick wisely. All of this serves to put a mirror sheen on what was already an enjoyable game.

And you won’t be getting bored looking at the same region for too long, either; this game has multiple areas across Mordor for you to visit. Whether it’s the frozen mountains of Seregost, the burning foothills of Mount Doom in Gorgoroth, or the deep caves of Cirith Ungol, they’ve really pulled out their best in designing these areas. While some structures and areas may feel somewhat similar to each other, the overall variety in each one gives them a uniqueness that would probably not be achieved, had one large open area been done. The fortresses themselves can be one area where things begin to feel the same each time you conquer one, but on a surface level an attempt has been made to have each one look different by having its look change depending on who the overlord is, and what upgrades he has.

But now we must draw our attention to the big elephant in the room that this game has had hanging over its head for months; the loot crates. The million-dollar question; is it that bad?

Well… it’s complicated. And I sadly can’t do it justice in one paragraph, so here goes.

For a start, the loot box system is set up in such a way that if you want anything of even remote value, you have to get your wallet out. All but the worst loot boxes require the real-world currency (Gold) and use the usual tactic of pricing the boxes in such a way that you’ll nearly always have a little gold left, or be a little short. It’s a typical pricing tactic of these systems that leaves a bad taste in your mouth before you’ve even decided whether or not you’ll ever touch the damn things. Also, the amount you pay determines what rarity of items you get. Gold will buy you crates that contain legendary or epic items, but the in-game currency (Miriam) will only guarantee you rare items, making them next to worthless. But does the game try to force you into a position where it becomes hard to not buy the crates? It all depends on how good you are, and how much you like to grind.

The way things work with Talion’s level seems to particularly stick out as a sore point for me. Main Quests can offer quite the stockpile of XP, but outside of that? Forget about it. Anything that isn’t a main quest usually offers less than a fifth of the XP they pony up. “But Jane,” I hear you say. “Surely you can just recruit more Orcs to balance things out?” Not if that Orc is above your level. The only Orcs you can have in your army are ones weaker than you, and this makes attacking forts a little tougher. The first fort is pretty much yours as it’s a story requirement. I captured it at about level 19. However, upon unlocking the next regions I discovered that they were all ruled by Orcs fifteen-to-twenty levels above me. And, of course… the XP booster is only purchasable using gold. Go figure.

And then there’s the endgame, where you’ll have to survive wave after wave of incoming Orc armies as they try to take your hard-earned fortresses. The so-called ‘real ending’ is hidden behind this section, which feels like one very long grind. It shouldn’t have story content gated behind it; this kind of stuff is better left for the completionists. But you could always just reach for your wallet and end that long grind a lot faster…

Because it’s not like you already paid £45 for the game, or anything…

So, to summarize, Shadow of War is a great game in its core. Its Nemesis system is still great to indulge in. The combat is still fluid and exciting. The variety of areas to explore gives you a lot to play around with. Unfortunately, you can never truly escape how things feel a mile away sometimes. Like you have to walk there on your own two feet, but the loot boxes are your chance at a fast rail ticket to your destination. This kind of thing doesn’t belong in a single-player game EVER, no excuses. I am sorely let down by this game. Had the game been balanced properly and been done without the loot boxes, this would have been a fantastic sequel to a great game.

Victory doesn't belong behind a price tag.

+++ Great improvements to gameplay
+++ Nemesis system continues to shine
++ Great variety of areas
- Sieges are a let-down
--- Slave to the Grind

A PS4 copy of Middle-Earth: Shadow of War was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review