Middle-earth: Shadow of War’s endgame is more annoying than compelling

I really enjoyed Monolith Productions’ Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor when it launched way back in 2014, and like our review, I have been enjoying the recently launched sequel, Middle-earth: Shadow of War too. Both games offer a fascinating look into a lesser known time period of Lord of the Rings history, and the revolutionary Nemesis System is a marvel of modern gaming AI that I still wish more game developers co-opted for their own titles. However, after having invested dozens of hours into Shadow of War, there is one major area where I wish Monolith had maybe stepped back and taken a different approach: the endgame.

Quick note: even though this article focuses on Middle-earth: Shadow of War’s final story act and endgame content, it does not contain any spoilers for the story itself, so worry not.

Go Back To The Shadows

One of the big new mechanics introduced in Shadow of War is fort invasions. Utilizing the Orc captains they have forcibly conscripted into their makeshift army, the player is able to either lay siege to and eventually conquer an enemy-controlled fort or defend a fort they previously conquered from an invading force of AI foes. These fort invasions are weaved into Shadow of War’s main story campaign, and during the bulk of the campaign they strike the right balance between being sparse enough that they don’t overstay their welcome but frequent enough that players who enjoy them can savor the experience at a pretty steady rate.

Unfortunately, that all changes when Shadow of War enters its fourth act, an epilogue of sorts titled ‘Shadow and Flame.’ By this point, the player has been treated to a number of major story revelations, revelations which have a heavy air of finality about them. However, despite that feeling of finality, there is still one last story beat to reach, but in order to reach it, the player must endure what I consider to be one of the most brutal and painful slogs in recent gaming history: The Shadow Wars.

In Shadow of War, the Shadow Wars is a 10-stage gauntlet in which invading orc forces constantly attempt to invade the four different forts the player previously conquered during the story campaign. For the first four or so stages, it’s just one fort that’s being invaded per stage, but in the later stages a single stage involves having to stave off two and even three different invasions before the stage is finished. In the final tenth stage, all four forts are being invaded at once, ensuring that the player will have their work cut out for them.

Now, you might be thinking that fort invasions become a trivial matter to deal with by the time you reach the endgame and have souped up Shadow of War’s playable protagonist Talion with new skills and gear, but the exact opposite is true.

They only get harder and harder. That’s because for each Shadow War invasion you complete, the invading orc captains get stronger and stronger, an especially dangerous prospect once they start invading the early-game forts since those forts are likely still populated with the low-level orcs you recruited back during your early adventures.

In theory, your own gameplay skills can make up for any deficiencies in your orc roster to a degree (and you can always purchase some new high-level orc followers using in-game currency), but in practice even that strategy starts to become less and less reliable as you climb into the upper Shadow War stages.

At that point, enemy orc captains come equipped with so many strengths and counters that defeating even one can become an exhausting chore, and a typical orc invasion has you defending your fort from a minimum of five orc captains, more if they manage to take your control points since each point taken adds an additional captain to their roster.

If you’re prepared and/or lucky enough to repel an invasion, so much the better, because failing to defend your fort leads to even more aggravation and needless busywork. If all your fort’s points are taken or you’re killed at any point during the invasion, the enemy orcs take over your fort, leaving you to have to once again find and take down the fort’s warchiefs (since immediately trying to retake the fort isn’t a good strategy if all the warchiefs are still alive), rebuild your own roster of captains, and rescue any friendly captains who were captured. Yes, it’s true that Shadow Wars helps to add a few hours onto Shadow of War’s already lengthy story campaign, but I can guarantee you won’t enjoy much of what you do during those hours.

Fly, You Fools

If I had the chance to recommend to Monolith some changes I’d want to see made to Shadow Wars, I’d drastically reduce its length, maybe bring it down to five stages or even three. Another possible solution would be making it so that you only had to clear the first few stages in order to see the hidden final ending, leaving the last few stages as a sort of optional challenge for those who felt brave enough to undertake it.

As it stands now, forcing players to endure all 10 stages quickly sucks away all the enjoyment that was built up during the standard story campaign. I’m not entirely sure how Monolith came to the conclusion that Shadow Wars would be a great way to end its otherwise well-crafted sequel, but it is my opinion that Middle-earth: Shadow of War is worse off because of its inclusion.