Shadow of War is 3/4 of a good game, but it may be getting better?
Shadow of War Tolkien action-adventure fantasy orc-slayer slavery Dark Lord-Bright Lord
I've played 83% of Talion's story in Shadow of War, and it's better than you've read and also pretty much exactly the same. The first 3/4 of the game resembles Shadow of Mordor, and that's largely a good thing. The last Act is called the Shadow Wars; I won't get too spoiler-y here, other than to say it involves a series of twenty fortress defenses of increasing difficulty. If you're wondering where you'll be spending all of that mirian (in-game currency) that you've been saving up to this point in the game, it will be here. Frankly, after going through four of these, I rather agreed with this article: it's too great an effort for too little reward. But I'll circle back to this point later.
In the first act, you return as the dynamic duo of Celebrimbor and Talion, having spent the prologue forging a new Ring of Power, as the ending of Shadow of Mordor suggested you might. Well, having done that, you promptly lose it and engage in a series of battles and general orc slaughters to get it back. It was weird for me to jump into this sequel without having the ability to dominate any orcs I met, but it dawned on me later that the reason I lost this ability is that I did not have the ring, into which, as Sauron did with the One Ring, Celebrimbor had poured a great deal of his power. In that context, it made sense that I would lose access to a lot of the wraith-based abilities.
Speaking of wraith-based abilities, a lot of hay has been made about how these games are really about enslaving orcs and Celebrimbor's arrogant justification of this act by pointing out that, well, they're only orcs. While it's easy to get hung up on such things, I don't see Monolith trying to make an allegory to slavery in our own world here, and I suspect that the average player doesn't really read anything of the sort into it. They just want to play a good action game, and the Middle-Earth series does deliver on that front.
In the second act you regain Celebrimbor's ring and go about building an army of orcs to take down the fortresses of Mordor. Once your forces are strong enough, you conduct a siege on an area's fortress, and if you succeed, you install one of your lackeys to run the place as Overlord and the game typically picks random orcs from the ranks of your allies to become his Warchiefs. Now probably isn't the time to point out that there are no female orcs. Why? Presumably these are all vat-grown uruk-hai, as seen in The Two Towers, but it is a little strange. In any case, once you complete all of these sieges, you're ready to take on Sauron himself, and that's when we move to Act III.
[Things happen.] I'm not going to spoil Act III, as this is the part where most of the outstanding plot threads converge and are (mostly) resolved, other than to say that it's much shorter than you will probably expect it to be.
Shadow of War has you fighting alongside Eltariel, an elven assassin evidently sent by Galadriel to destroy or at least banish the Nazgul, Carnan, a very powerful and ancient spirit-being who manifests in a variety of beastly forms, Gondorian soldiers, Shelob, who appears in both spider form and as an elven (?) woman, and Bruz, an olog-hai (troll) who helps you with the finer points of some of the new abilities in this game. These NPCs all have stories of their own, which you uncover as you complete their side-quest missions, and they're well-written and interesting. The one side story that left me somewhat puzzled as to its meaning is the "web of fate"--essentially you're tasked with "collecting" memories of Shelob scattered throughout Mordor. You are treated to a cutscene after you get the last one, and this cutscene did not really explain what happened between Shelob and Sauron in any particularly unambiguous way.
Graphically, it's an upgrade to the older game, but it doesn't seem like a major upgrade. Voice-acting, sound-effects, and music are all excellent. Nothing about the game's presentation disappoints. If I had a specific complaint, it would probably be the one that seems to be universally acknowledged at this point, which is that the UI to support the various upgrade systems (see below) causes doing any particular thing (even just quitting the game) to be needlessly complicated.
The gear and gear upgrade systems return, and Talion can now equip specialized rings and cloaks in addition to bows, daggers, and swords. In a move that seems ubiquitous but also just unnecessary here, each piece of gear also has a gem slot, and you can pick up gems from orcs or as rewards for achieving specific tasks within missions. These gems can be upgraded by combining three of any one gem, up to four times. I've put about 50 hours into the base game and I have yet to collect enough gems of any type to create a top-tier gem. If that feels unnecessarily complex, just wait until we get to the market.
The market is the heart of the game's microtransaction system. It isn't necessary to use the market for any reason unless you want to, but, boy, does the game shove the market in your face. The game has two currencies: mirian and gold. You earn mirian by completing objectives and killing special mirian-carrying orcs. Mirian can be used to buy silver-level chests. Gold, which you can buy with real money or acquire by performing special challenges is used to buy gold-level or mithril-level chests. Loot chests contain gear pieces and war chests contain orcs or training orders, which do various things like give an orc a gang of followers or raise an orc's level.
Act IV's Shadow Wars system, which is the main game's endgame, appears to be what the market was designed for, as you discover that, even if you completed most side quests and were extremely thrifty with your mirian-spending, you won't have enough mirian at this point in the game to purchase the fortress upgrades needed to win the defense battles that comprise this section of the game. In theory, if you spent enough money in the market, you could compensate for that and have an easier time getting through this slog. As I said earlier, I quit after the fourth one, when I discovered I'd have to deal with two simultaneous attacks, as I wasn't really having fun with it.
And then came yesterday's announcement by Monolith. Apparently, within two months' time, the market will be closed and the entire Shadow Wars component of the game will be rejiggered in some fashion. If you've started but not finished Shadow Wars, you'll be sent back to the beginning. Will this dramatically improve the endgame? Maybe. One hopes so, but it also leaves the lingering question of why Monolith left these microtransactions in the game so long in the first place; the consensus view was that, as with Battlefront II's old system, this was a clear pay-to-win setup, where the dev seemed to be saying, "Hey, we sure do appreciate you paying for our game, and we really think it's terrific that you paid for extra DLC content, but how about you pony up some extra dough so you can finish it?" I suppose time will tell whether the changes will represent a dramatic improvement over the significant grind that this part of the game currently represents.
On the whole, I enjoyed the first 3/4 of the game and the Eltariel expansion is pretty good so far as well. If you liked the first game, you'll probably enjoy this one too.
One final note on the story: if you're a super Tolkien nerd, well, hell, you're probably not reading this anyway, but if you're the kind of nerd who watched and enjoyed the Jackson movies, despite their flaws (I'm looking at you, missing Scouring of the Shire), and has read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings only a few times, the radical differences between events and characters here and Tolkien's work won't bother you too much. Otherwise, well, they will probably send you straight to whatever reddit subforum plays host to massive Tolkien nerds--if that's you, yeah, don't bother with this game.