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Middle-earth: Shadow of War

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Orcs scatter as my drake makes another pass over the fortress, breathing fire into their ranks as they scramble to cover. I leap off and dive hundreds of feet, landing in a shockwave that scatters allies and foes alike. In a flash of savage strikes, my essence magically splits into multiple forms, each a machine of destruction, holding the courtyard. My army of spiders crawls over the defenders, and giant cat riders gallop through the breach in the wall made by the siege beasts. The horde charges the inner keep, and I step through the shadows and instantly reappear on my flying mount to survey the chaos.

Shadow of War is a playground of intense and emergent action scenes shaped by your choices and triumphs. Across a vast territory of five open-world regions, hundreds of missions unfold, many appearing in direct response to your previous actions, and pitting you against individual named enemies that remember you between encounters. Whether in the opening minutes of stealth or the frenzied melees that inevitably follow, combat is rich and rewarding, offering dozens of ways to bring down the denizens of Mordor. The overriding sensation is that of a sandbox of super-powered predation and exploration in a world where you are the prime mover, and on a scale that dramatically outstrips its predecessor.

Developer Monolith exhibits a thorough understanding and deep love of Tolkien's grand fantasy world and its themes, and I appreciate the constant ways the game nods to its source material. But Shadow of War's storyline launches in its own over-the-top direction; Middle-earth fans who can leave their reverence at the door will find a rewarding tale drenched in the darker elements of the fiction. Dramatic reinventions of characters like Shelob and the nature of the Nazgûl feel strange at first, but viewed independently of Tolkien canon, the logical leaps are no more outlandish than other fantasy stories.

Continuing their quest for vengeance, Talion and Celebrimbor forge a new Ring of Power and set out to conquer Mordor. Rather than follow a single central plot, the story quickly splits along multiple threads, from confronting the threat of the ringwraiths to helping a beleaguered spirit hold back a cabal of necromancers. The pace is always brisk, but I enjoyed each of the largely self-contained plotlines, and the way they shed light on a land drenched in sorrow and warfare. Everything comes together in a satisfying final turn, setting up the canonical events of The Lord of the Rings and maintaining the open-world gameplay for some dramatic new twists post-campaign. The game suggests a story conceit for continued warfare after the central conflict has come to a head, and in a way that provides new toys to enjoy.