Much like its predecessor, Shadow of War continues to recreate J.R.R Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, but this newest adaptation offers much more of a  story-driven experience and places the player in the center of it all than Shadow of Mordor ever did. With new and classic characters returning (some from the novels themselves), new lively siege battles, and large open areas to explore only continues to show off how this epic tale is one that gamers and fans of the books need to invest in. Middle-Earth: Shadow of War adds new and exciting ways to explore the lands of Middle-Earth while enriching the ideas of the franchise’s first installment.

Middle-Earth’s story continues after Talion and Celebrimbor craft a new Ring of Power to try and dominate Sauron and his forces. Throughout the adventure, you’ll end up losing this new Ring of Power and must head out to recover it so you can make use of its abilities and power. Like Shadow of Mordor, the base of its plot isn’t all too riveting, but how it is put together, with its player interactions and strikingly impressive cutscenes all help to bring this story to life.

Its loose interpretation of the story’s lore makes much of the interactions feel far more personal and unique. Main novel figures such as Gollum and Shelob are woven into the story adding familiarity and links between the already established lore of Middle-Earth spin-off franchise while making them invaluable characters that help you on your quest. The newly added faces in Shadow of War aren’t as memorable as these already established characters, but help bring the creative liberties that the game has to offer which are highlighted perfectly through the in-game cutscenes.

Briefly talking about combat, Shadow of War offers up a basic carbon copy from its predecessor which is fine since the mechanics didn’t need much refinement. There are different abilities and traits to be unlocked, but most of the core elements remain intact for this sequel as attacking, dodging, and preparing a special move are all based on Shadow of Mordor. The only issue was with mounted combat as it is far less fluid and concise in comparison to being grounded, and can be bothersome when it is forced upon you in a few missions.

A few technical and visual quirks also come up from time to time, but nothing to really impede the overall experience that Middle-Earth: Shadow of War has to offer. There were a few instances that Talion would get stuck on a ledge while being bombarded by foes mid-getaway which proved to be a bit of an annoyance, especially during a tactical retreat, but once again, proves little issue in comparison to the games already well-known and fluid combat.

Middle-Earth: Shadow of War’s main feature is found with the Uruk Captains and how they can vastly change the experience and story with each and every interaction. Killing, shaming or letting go of these minions of Sauron will have major implications on the battlefield which will help you shape your own story in the lands of Middle-Earth. This colorful cast of uruks offer a wide range of variety and coming across the famed leaders is much more of a rare occasion but a rewarding one. They do tend to fall to the same type of characteristics, but for the most part, these Uruks are all unique from one another.

These Uruk Captains aren’t only for show as they are an important part of Shadow of War’s main gameplay mechanic since recruiting them into the Bright Lord’s army will be an integral part of the game’s second act and moving forward. However, before this, you’ll be forced to tackle down these threats and improve your skills in combat while obtaining much-needed upgrades and helping out with the defense of the human city of Minas Ithil. While tracking down these Captains, you’ll most likely die, which much like the first game in the Middle-Earth series, proves to be a rewarding experience rather than simply just restarting.

The implications of falling in combat will change the position of these Uruks and the one in question will be promoted to higher ranks in Sauron’s army, which makes for an enjoyable vendetta mission that can be focused on more than the many other mission types that are offered throughout the game. Continuing further with the idea of a changing world when you die, the game also features a system that no side-mission is truly “failable” as the entire outcome depends on your and the Uruks interactions and will change accordingly.

The many mission types can vary from tracking a certain Uruk, to disrupting conflict between two rival Captains which offer enough diversity between them to make each of these tasks feel exciting through each playthrough. The only major issue that arises with this is that you can also complete other tasks while on these missions, which seems should be praised, but can end up being an overwhelming burden to try and tackle on the main objective at hand.

The fact that you can be mobbed down by a horde of enemies can prove to be much more of a burden than anything else and will usually have to ask you to flee until an opening becomes available to complete the task at hand and only becomes more of a cumbersome issue later on in the game when summoning your own party into the fray and trying to see friend from foe is quite difficult, to say the least.

One part that offers a much cleaner experience is with the game’s new siege battles, where you try to take over an enemy fortress. Without the interruption of the open world and the numerous mobs, these quick battles are far more appealing and easier to manage while being just as impactful to the game’s plot and your progression throughout each of the regions. Having your own Uruks side by side into battle is an exhilarating experience and a welcomed addition to the title.

All of these missions and side-quests will grant you and your army much valuable upgrades and skills as you move forward. Rarer items for Talion can be obtained by taking down more powerful and rarer Uruks which can be upgraded by completing a variety of tasks while your army can be upgraded in preparation for a siege. Collectable items and gear can be found throughout the lands of Middle-Earth which offer both an aesthetic appeal as well as improve your abilities and stats in combat.

Many secrets are also placed within each zone which adds much more depth to those looking to find each of these hidden artifacts while exploring the land. From uncovering Shelob’s past, special artifacts to Elven poems, each will offer something interesting for all who are looking to add to their already prolonged playthrough with even more exploring and adventuring in each of the zones that Middle-Earth: Shadow of War has to offer.

Visually, Shadow of War is a terrific looking game that offers even greater voice acting and amazingly recorded cutscenes. Once again, the interactions with the Uruks feels much more personal than anything we saw in Shadow of Mordor and are only highlighted by their personalities. Some are bitter and angry while others provide comic relief such as the Uruk bards which helps break the always serious tone that the has game has. The cutscenes have much more of a theatrical flair and would seem right at home at a movie theater as well as in a video game.

The story campaign in Shadow of War will last roughly 20 to 25 hours of playtime, but its real value is through all the other features and side-missions that the game has to offer. Easily doubling the playthrough, each collectible and side-quests offer as much of an experience as the story and makes it easy to get side-tracked from the main campaign, but it becomes a worthwhile adventure for anyone looking for a perfect run.

The online play in Shadow of War is similar to Shadow of Mordor as players can pick up vendetta missions to avenge you from Uruks that killed you in your playthrough and doing these will offer much higher level items and prove to be a fun challenge as well. The seemingly amount of single player content tends to overshadow this feature, but the addition of an extra five hours of content that makes some sort of connection with other players is a welcome returning feature.

Talking quickly about the unpopular Shadow of War loot boxes, they aren’t worth the cost of what they offer but are easily avoided and a non-factor to the overall experience. It is far more rewarding in trying to collect rare items and recruiting strong uruks by simply playing and waiting for those rewards to come and there shouldn’t be a need to resort in spending money in trying to obtain takes away one of the most exciting portions out of Middle-Earth: Shadow of War.

Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is a fantastic follow-up to its highly acclaimed 2014 predecessor and rightfully cements its legacy as one of this year’s best entries. From the series’ terrific combat, endless amount of content and new features will have anyone playing this spin-off title of the J.R.R Tolkien universe for hours on end. Middle-Earth: Shadow of War offers so much more than the previous installment to the franchise and should be a must play for anyone who is a fan of the series.

A copy of Middle-Earth: Shadow of War was provided to Link-Cable by the publisher for the purpose of this review.