It was only upon seeing the first Lord of the Rings movie that I even realised I was steeped in more of the mythos than I realised; all those Dungeons & Dragons campaigns that I played as a kid were essentially LOTR games in all but name. Though, at least the way we played it, with more abundant availability of magical rings.
From there I realised that Tolkein - and I deliberately misspell his name here to irritate Lord of the Rings fans - had pretty much invented the fantasy genre (even if he borrowed liberally from myth and folklore). While this led me to have a greater degree of respect for the books he wrote, it irritated me how derivative the genre was.
I mean, this is why I can't bring myself to watch Game of Thrones, which I gather is essentially Lord of the Rings with boobs and gore and that, so people can kid themselves they're watching something grown-up and sophisticated.
And yet, weirdly perhaps, I really, really loved Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, the predecessor to Shadow of War. Although if you want to tell me how the story progresses in this sequel... forget it. I skipped most of the cutscenes, with their tedious portentous dialogue. Indeed, at least the previous game had something akin to an emotional grounding for your character, who was freshly dead and brought back to life by becoming a half-ghost thing.
Here you're straight into the achingly self-important cut-scenes about stuff that I found it impossible to care about. It was as much fun as scrunching up some cardboard and rubbing it into my eyes and ears. Fortunately, the game all that bollocks is shackled to is every bit as enjoyable as Shadow of Mordor.
Different strokes for different folks; Shadow of Mordor was the anti-Dark Souls.
Though set in worlds that, visually at least, have a lot in common - let's face it, like all fantasy fiction Dark Souls, for all its nightmarish visions, owes a debt that can be traced back to Lord of the Rings. One was punishingly difficult, a game which seemed to revel in making the player feel powerless in any given situation, while the other - Mordor - was pure power fantasy wish fulfilment.
Indeed, so powerful was your character so early on in Mordor that the only challenge was your tolerance level for mashing your way through wave after wave of cannon-fodder orc. Suffice to say, I far preferred this over the Dark Souls and Bloodbornes of this world, which felt more like learning to ride a unicycle than anything akin to an enjoyable experience for me.
Give me a pair of training wheels any day. I have no desire to be known as the cool unicycle guy. I just want to climb buildings, and swing a sword around, and run around at superhuman speed, without having to learn how to balance first.
Nicely, Shadow of War offers more of the same - only making a few concessions to increased difficulty, mainly by throwing tougher monsters into the mix, and populating the world of Middle-Earth with even more cannon fodder than before. Frankly, it's easy to find yourself overwhelmed - though retreat is a more common outcome of a battle than death - especially given the speed with which your character levels up, and acquires new weapons and skills.
Everything in Shadow of War seems designed to make you feel invincible - it has more in common with, say, the Crackdown or Saints Row series' than other, more grounded, open world games.
As with the previous game, Shadow of War offers the Nemesis system - a way to give every player their own unique path through the game, by turning various opponents into sworn enemies, who you can hunt down, send death threats to, and generally dick around with.
It creates bespoke side-missions, as you cut a swathe through them. It has been beefed up significantly - as has the role that allies play, whether they're orcs that you brainwash into joining your side, or human chums and other random types who pop up, and save you at the point of death.
You can create your own army, use it to attack fortresses, and then take them over. It's a nice touch, and adds some much-needed depth.
Also given a leg-up this time is the world itself; the locations are more diverse, and far, far bigger. It's just as well that traversing Middle-Earth is enjoyable in itself, as you'll be doing a lot of it.
Also, there's a greater variety of mission types - although they do, mostly, fall into the usual map-mopper template. There are a handful of flashback and puzzle-type mini games scattered throughout, however, and the way in which you scout the surrounding landscape atop the ubiquitous waypoint towers is a nice touch.
Ultimately, Shadow of War's worst feature is the thing which keeps me sticking with it; the invincibility of your character, and the sheer repetition of cutting down wave after wave of enemy - even if there's greater variety this time around (the Dementors from Harry Potter even appear as bosses at points). Your tolerance of this might be different from mine - you might be able to overlook it because of what it adds to the Middle-Earth mythos, or you might find it a chore. At least it's a playable chore.
It's a confusing game for me in many respects, because so much about it is things I shouldn't like; wandering through all-too-familiar fantasy landscapes, tiresome cut-scenes, Tolkein (again, misspelled on purpose) lore, a main character who looks like every other fantasy game character, and an overused map-mopping style of play. And yet... the power fantasy, the slick controls, save it.
One final thing: there has been a bit of a brouhaha about in-game transactions using real money. Ignore them. If you don't, you're an idiot, because they don't need to be there. Storm in a teacup.
SCORE: I dunno. Work it out for yourself.