Definitive Editions can be tricksy creatures at the best times – does this actually offer me anything new, or is this just a thinly veiled attempt to extract more of my salary from me? Middle-Earth: Shadow of War – Definitive Edition is one that you need to keep your wits around, because depending on your situation, it may be an excellent purchase and a fine introduction to a game that’s a lot of fun, or it may be entirely superfluous.
So let’s clear out the basics first of all, and I will try and explain this for each interested party.
- Did you not play Shadow of War at all since it came out in October 2017? Then you should definitely pick Middle-Earth: Shadow of War – Definitive Edition.
- Did you buy it at launch, but only played the base game, and never got the Season Pass? Then go and see if the Season Pass or the Definitive Edition is cheaper in your area, and get whichever one is best for you.
- Did you play through both the base game and purchase and play all the main DLC? Then you should buy nothing, and instead just download the free update that all owners of the game already have access to.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of War – Definitive Edition is essentially the game, plus all the existing DLC, plus the Free Update, and you can download 4K Cut-Scenes if you want.
The rest of this review will be written from the perspective of someone who, like me, played the game at launch, but never got so far as the DLC.
In a short summary, Shadow of War is an adaptation of the Middle Earth books, where you control Talion, the least interesting protagonist in human history. He is bound to the spirit of Celebrimbor, an elf-smith, who is the third-least interesting protagonist in human history. You will meet the second-least interesting in due course. Being bound to this spirit gives him certain powers, such as resurrection and the ability to dominate Orc warriors to serve your cause. Talion travels to the lands of Mordor, to enslave an Orc army, create a new Ring of Power, and challenge Sauron for dominance.
Clearly, this was never a game to honour Tolkien purists. Nor is the story amazingly revolutionary. What this game does have, however, is extremely interesting mechanics involving how you capture and build up your Orc army and the interactions you see and participate in during your time in this world makes it all somehow worthwhile. It is very much a game where the experience and spectacle cover up for the shortcomings.
The existing DLC has been out for a while, but I will quickly describe each part and what it contributes here if you have not played it yet.
There are two Orc Tribe packs – the Slaughter and the Outlaw Tribes. Both of them don’t really contribute much that is unique – they are yet more Orc Tribes, with their own aesthetics, unlockable gear, and style of fighting. They show up at different points in the world, and that’s it. They simply add yet more depth to the world. If you bought these on their own, the cost would be a waste, but included in Middle-Earth: Shadow of War – Definitive Edition, it’s all negligible.
The two more engaging packages are the Story DLC packs. The first of these is the Blade of Galadriel, where you control Eltariel, the fabled second-least interesting protagonist in human history, spoken of in the ancient legends of four paragraphs ago. She is essentially an Elf-secret agent, working for Galadriel, who interacts with Talion during the main game. The DLC lasts about 6 hours and is okay-ish, but not as good as the second pack. Basically, the Nemesis system is not present here, as that is Talion’s ability, so no Orc can be recruited. The most interesting feature of the game is not present, and there is little enough to replace it. Eltariel does not have very interesting quests, but she does have some fine unique moves, like the Light of Galadriel, which acts like a laser I suppose during combat. She can also unlock some interesting elemental themed armour. At the end of the day though, none of this can be taken back to the main game, and it is not interesting enough in its own right to care about during the DLC alone. The best part of the DLC here is the boss fights, and some of the Orc NPCs are quite charming.
The second Story DLC pack is a bit more unique and interesting in its own right. Titled The Desolation of Mordor, you control the Gondorian captain Baranor from the main game, as he returns to his homeland of Harad. Right off the bat, you have a different setting to explore, which immediately is more interesting. The land of Lithlad is bright and sunny, an actual desert, and makes a nice change from the base game, including enemy variety, with Easterlings, Sand Words, and Mumakil to contend with. Baranor has no magical powers whatsoever, and if he dies, all your progress, except for item upgrades resets. In that respect, the DLC is very much like a roguelike. To counter his lack of magic, he has a huge variety of gadgets and tools to use, such as a glider, grappling hook, and so on. These are a nice change of pace, and the overall flow of the experience feels different enough to stay engaging.
It follows the wise route of Breath of the Wild, where all the toys are given to you early on, so you are free to explore and use them as you please from right near the start. The plot centres on you teaming up with your brother to try and remove the presence of Mordor in the area, to which end you will need to recruit mercenaries and seize fortresses. It’s close enough to the main game while still being done in its own way, and the character interactions are (slightly) better here. Out of the two DLC Story packs, I enjoyed Baranor’s journey far more.
Now, onto the free update: the major criticism of the game at launch was based on two things – first, the extreme promotion of micro-transactions to buy advanced Orc soldiers, and secondly, how the game ground to a halt after Act 3. The following Act 4 was a transparent effort to get you to buy said micro-transaction Loot Boxes, as it was a pointless exercise in frustration, on par with some of the worst mobile games out there. The developers should rightly have been ashamed of themselves at the time, and it left it sour taste in everyone’s mouths at the end of what was otherwise a really fun game.
However, they have taken the criticism to heart, and the free update released in July has fixed most of these problems and made the conclusion to the game much smoother. Firstly, in Middle-Earth: Shadow of War – Definitive Edition all the loot-boxes are out – any real-life currency you had previously owned is converted at a favourable rate towards free boxes to use. Orcs can be more easily trained and upgraded using in-game currency instead.
Next, the notorious Act 4 grindathon has been replaced with an Epilogue, which follows the same structure but in a much better way. The way it used to work was that you had control of fortresses that you gained during the main quest, and at this stage of the game, an enemy army would siege you. If you won, you could progress, but if you lost, you would have to rebuild your army, recapture the fortress, and try all over again, with no guarantee of success. It also used to be 10 levels of defence, split across 20 individual fortresses being defended.
All of that has been reduced. Firstly, it is now only 3 levels of defence, with 5 total fortresses needing to be defended. Also, after each level, you receive new, Epic Nazgul gear, that not only looks great, it gives you all kinds of OP powers, so that the next wave of fighting is not so overwhelmingly difficult. There is also the addition of new lines of dialogue and short cutscenes, so while I would not say the ending has been dramatically improved in and of itself, the way you get to it and experience it is much better.
There are also a lot of small changes in Middle-Earth: Shadow of War – Definitive Edition, like several skins you can wear in the main game, such as Eltariel, Baranor, and the original form of Celebrimbor. The level cap for you has been raised to 80, and for enemies to 85, and past a certain point you can prestige your abilities to more specifically focus on your own character build.
Add to that are the myriad of performance, balance and quality of life improvements made in smaller patches since October 2017, and what you have here is a really good game with a lot of content, if you have not yet played it before then you should try Middle-Earth: Shadow of War – Definitive Edition. If you have been down this road before, I urge you to try out the free improvements, which are, naturally, more than worth the price of admission.