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The Art of Middle Earth: Shadow of War PC Game Review

We have been playing Middle Earth: Shadow of War since it released last Tuesday to complete every major side quest in preparation for the final battle.  Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor was our 2014 Game of the Year, but this time we are looking forward to giving you a very different kind of review that focuses on the Art of Middle Earth: Shadow of War PC game review using both Fraps and Ansel.  The massive scope of this game, plus its incredible visuals and variety, make it a prime candidate for this kind of evaluation.

Ansel 360 degree capture

We have been following Middle Earth: Shadow of War since it was announced, and we were also able to check it out at E3.  We played Middle Earth: Shadow of War at 3440×1440 using a Core i7-6700K at 4.0GHz where all 4 cores turbo to 4.6GHz, an ASRock Z170 motherboard, and 16GB of Kingston HyperX DDR4 at 3333MHz on Windows 10 64-bit Home Edition.  We used the very latest drivers from NVIDIA (387.92), and the latest drivers from AMD (17.10.1) for playing Middle Earth: Shadow of War.  We primarily used a GTX 1080 Ti to play fluidly through most of the game, but we also played with a RX Vega 64 Liquid Cooled edition at the same maxed-out ultra settings with good results.

One has to experience Middle Earth: Shadow of War by playing it to appreciate it, and absolutely not from viewing clips nor from watching Youtube gameplay videos. You cannot get the same feeling from watching that you will from playing the game as Talion the Ranger. We received a reviewer’s code courtesy of NVIDIA for preload just before the game released last Tuesday. The game is a huge 98GB download if you also use the optional high resolution texture packs and 4K cutscenes as we did.

This editor is an unabashed fan of everything “Lord of the Rings”, and we have spent over 50 hours playing the game according to Steam.  We completed all of the primary side quests except for the Nemesis missions, but we have not yet completed the final battle for Mordor. We are a completionist and we intend to defeat Sauron with our hero clad fully in all-Legendary gear, but it will take us many more hours to finish everything before we proceed. 

Even after banishing Sauron, there is another huge grind available to see what happens “afterward” in the story, years later.  The game is absolutely huge, and if you are going to complete every single quest, you will probably put well over 100 hours into it.  However, after more than 50 hours, we believe that we can bring you a good overview of the game. 

Never turn your back on a dragon!

Middle Earth: Shadow of War’s Main Story line can probably be completed in under 30 hours, but this is a game that should be savored by LotR fans. This game grabs you and takes you into Tolkien’s world like no other since the original game.  It has been quite awhile since a game has moved this editor to stay up late for several nights in a row, only to wake up early the next morning tired, but eager to play again.  And when we were not playing, we were thinking about the game and planning to get back to it as soon as possible.

Middle Earth: Shadow of War was very stable for us over 50 hours, although we had to restart the game once or twice with a crash to desktop.  However, we did deliberately Alt+F4 as a strategy when we were clearly losing a battle so as to not be penalized by the Nemesis system; and we were not penalized in any way other than to have to restart a mission. 

Generally we experienced very few bugs and almost no issues except when the combat gets so thick that it’s hard to respond to the prompts accurately and the camera view will sometime get stuck.  The save system is Checkpoint which means that if you fail and die, you go back to the beginning of the checkpoint, but you are usually not sent so far back as to be discouraged except perhaps with the final mission to take Mordor.

Ansel

Ansel is a GeForce Experience exclusive which puts the game camera into the control of the player and it is far more flexible than any other universal capture program such as Fraps.  NVIDIA worked with Monolith to add Ansel as well as HDR into the game at launch.  So Ansel has given us a very unique opportunity to look at Middle Earth from many different perspectives that are impossible with any other capture tool.  For example, here is a Fraps capture where you can see the objectives and the HUD that the player sees in-game.

Fraps capture riding a dragon.

In many of the screenshots that follow, first we will post the Fraps capture, and then we will follow up with Ansel captures from different angles to show what is possible.  Each Fraps screenshot and similar Ansel capture will be identified in the caption.  Now here is the same location but with the Ansel camera moved to a different angle.

This is an Ansel capture from the same location. We forgot to shut Fraps down and you can see the FPS in the left corner, but you no longer see the HUD.

If you have a GeForce video card with the GeForce Experience installed, just press Alt+F2 to stop the action and to bring up the Ansel overlay to create your own custom captures including using post process filters and even making extreme color changes – and you may then immediately share them to social media – including 360 degree captures!

Now we shift the Ansel capture to look from an entirely different perspective although we are in the same scene and can take unlimited captures as we move the camera.

Also, check out the first image in this review and compare it with the last image which is a 360 degree view that you can rotate in your browser.  They were all taken from the same paused camera location and they are both 360 degree views.  In fact, Ansel allows you to take stereo 3D captures that can be uploaded and then viewed in a VR viewer as below.  Make sure to open all of the images in separate windows or tabs for best viewing.

Best of all, Ansel allows you to upload your 360 degree photos to Facebook or to Google Photos for viewing in a browser.

With the in-game view in Middle-earth: Shadow of War, the camera is fixed in a single position in front of the character. After you bring up Ansel with Alt+F2, the action stops and you get the Ansel overlay.  With the Ansel free camera, the camera can be moved anywhere around the character that is allowed by the dev.  Here is a scene fighting a balrog – first captured by Ansel without any adjustments, then followed by another wider shot with color, contrast, and vibrance adjustments made.

Original untouched Ansel capture
We changed the camera angle, FoV, and used Ansel’s included filters to change the balance a bit.

With Ansel’s free camera enabled, you will get much more complete control of the game camera than allowed by the game.   You will then need to hold the left mouse button and use the WASD keyboard keys to reposition to any angle, distance, or elevation. In addition, you can press Z or X to move up or down, or hold SHIFT to move the free camera faster.  

You may notice that the second balrog image not only is viewed from a different perspective, but we used Ansel to adjust the field of view to be wider, and then used the included filters to adjust the contrast, brightness, and vibrance.  We did not use the FX tools that are provided nor the option that the GeForce Experience gives to post these shots instantly to our linked social media accounts using the Ansel share button.

The Story

Middle Earth: Shadow of War is much darker than the Peter Jackson movies, and it captures the spirit of the “Lord of the Rings” very well. Tolkien purists won’t like it any more than they like the movies, but the story doesn’t really contradict the books substantially, and the game continues the new story line Shadow of Mordor created inserted into the time between “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings”.  

First, the Fraps screenshot …
Next a wider Ansel capture

You play as a Ranger named Talion who has been cursed to return over-and-over from death, and he has also been possessed by the Elven Lord Celebrimdor who now is a wraith and is joined to him.  In this game dying makes sense, and each time you die, it affects your game, and the opponent NPC that killed you not only levels up, but he remembers you in the next encounter and may even become your Nemesis.  Important encounters with these same orcs even create Nemesis Missions if he kills you again.  And in this game, some of the named NPCs also return again and again from the dead, and you may get ambushed by them at the most inopportune time.

Since NPC enemies also develop and level up as your Ranger interacts with them, you can use this to your advantage as you can effectively “promote” certain Orcs with weaknesses that you can easily exploit later, and you can even force them to become allies through “branding”, or mind-control.  But in this sequel you have to be aware as some of them revert to serving the Dark Lord or their own interests, and you will have to deal harshly with traitors.

Fraps screenshot of Minas Ithil
Ansel capture from the same location with a wider view.
Looking in another direction with a larger FoV

Middle Earth: Shadow of War begins shortly after the first game ends.  Celebrimdor’s new Ring of Power has been forged, but when he was in a weakened state, he was captured by the giant spider Shelob, now in female human form, and he was put into torment.  The new game begins with Talion attempting to rescue Celebrimdor, but he has to give Shelob the Ring in exchange for getting Celebrimdor returned to him.  The rest of the story concerns getting the Ring back, forcibly converting orcs and orc captains to the cause, raising an army, the attempts to capture fortresses, defeat the Nazgul and their dark plans to raise an undead army, and ultimately overthrow Sauron.

The story is superb for anyone but Tolkien purists, and the voice acting is top notch to carry the story as well or better than the LotR movies do.  There is also a lot of comic relief afforded by some of the characters that the player may find memorable.  There is also a sense of grandeur, and the varied settings support the story so well that the player is immediately immersed into it. 

Everything feels much more urgent than in the original game – to carry out missions quickly with a great Purpose in mind – realizing that the Ring is also a burden and a great temptation.  Do the means justify the end?  As in the original, there is some depth to the story, and there are moral dilemmas presented which contrast with Talion’s gory slaughter and domination of the orcs.   

The views of Middle Earth are spectacular close up as in this Fraps screenshot …
… and the long distance Ansel captures from the same location are imposing with Mt. Doom in the background . . .
… in any direction you look from the same location high atop a tower’s spire.

The player has the option to level up Talion through skill trees. Some abilities are heavy on stealth, while others improve combat through upgrading either the Ranger Talion’s abilities, or the Elf abilities of Celebrimdor.  There are also options to upgrade each weapon and complete sets of armor give bonuses in combat.   If a player is a completionist, he can take advantage of online challenges to get better loot and gear, and ultimately, he may end up completely outfitted with Legendary Gear with all stats completely maxed out.

The Nemesis system has been expanded and there are quests that are created after certain interactions with important Captains.  As before, you can turn Captains into spys and even order them to assassinate their superiors.  The result is a fast-paced, huge open-world game with a great story, superb voice acting, awesome music, and relatively large battles to delight even the most jaded gamer.

The Shadow of War plot is developed very well and the gameplay supports it.  You get to travel around much more of Middle Earth than in the first game, and there is a lot more variety  At first, you have to run away from huge beasts you will later hunt, dominate, ride, and you will even hunt enemy Orcs from atop them.

As Talion, you get to meet Gollum again, and he assists you because of the “Bright Master” wraith that he sees inside you.  But one of the very best written parts is when you get to meet and interact with an very comical orc and your interaction with him forms a good part of the story.   You also get a few surprises with some returning characters from the original story that you thought you had lost.

The battles to capture enemy fortresses are a big feature as they are quite large, and it’s challenging to match up your assault force with the orc defense force.  The strategy you need to employ in capturing a fortress make for some of the most exciting parts of the game as you have to capture and hold points inside of it while keeping your captains alive until you finally face off with the orc warchief or leader.

Fraps screenshot of  a fortress that you will soon have to capture.
With Ansel you can really open up the scene.
You can start with the camera in front of the player ….
.. and now you can open up the scene completely and change the camera view radically – up or down, side-to-side, or rotate the camera, or even roll the image.

A complaint about the original game was that all of areas generally looked the same with very little variety.  Well, things have changed in this game as there are sweeping vistas of green mountains and bodies of clear water to view instead of just slogging through the dirty ash of Mordor.

A Fraps screenshot with the fixed camera …
The same location with Ansel opens up the scene to give an overall view. You can do closeups just as easily.

You get to meet characters that are mentioned, but not particularly well-developed, in the “Lord of the Rings” and in the “Silmarillion”, and Shelob is a prime example of a character that is developed well beyond anything J.R.R. Tolkien envisioned or intended.  You also can put your followers into battle in the arenas where you are basically just watching and betting that they will win by matching your choice of champion’s strengths against the enemy NPC’s weaknesses.

Fraps gives the default camera view …
But Ansel gives you a lot more choices.

Performance

Middle Earth: Shadow of War played smoothly with a GTX 1080 Ti at 3440×1440 with maxed-out Ultra settings with an average over 110 FPS, and it would perhaps be suited also for 3840×2160 with framerates mostly above 60 FPS. The Vega 64 will also handle Ultra settings at 3440×1440, but it isn’t suited for 4K at these settings any more than a GTX 1080 is.  Lower end cards can play at 1920×1080 and if necessary drop detail settings while the game still looks great.  NVIDIA has released GeForce 387.92 driver recently that is specifically optimized for Middle Earth: Shadow of Warand for the best AMD experience, use their latest drivers – Crimson Software ReLive 17.10.1.  

Let’s head to our conclusion.

Conclusion

Middle Earth: Shadow of War comes highly recommendedIt is a solid improvement over the original game although it feels like a continuation of the same story, and this time the player’s choices affect the game more.  The settings are far more varied over the original, the graphics are extraordinary, the gameplay is enhanced with more combos and armor choices, and the story and voice acting are absolutely top-notch.  Not to mention, the improved Nemesis system works brilliantly in this game.  We are looking forward to playing future DLC installments of the Middle Earth: Shadow of War series.  It comes highly recommended!

Shadow of War is definitely not for those who are easily offended by over-the-top violence.  And although there are also some real nitpicks with the liberties taken with the Lord of the Rings story, this is a very solid game that is a lot of fun to play.  It may even have too much content for some players.  The very existence of micro-transactions may irritate some players, but they are completely optional and unnecessary to play through the game.

Middle Earth: Shadow of War is extremely well optimized and will play well on a range of cards from the GTX 1080 Ti on maxed-out ultra settings at 4K to the GTX 1080 and RX Vega on Ultra settings at 3440×1440 or 2560×1440.  Lower-end cards will do fine with lesser settings at 1920×1080.  The tiniest details and the game design are incredible, and the mega-texture packs are appreciated for 4K.  Middle Earth: Shadow of War is a really fun game with some replayability as no two games or will be identical, but it is unlikely that a player will want to start a new game with at least a hundred of hours available in the first playthrough unless he wants to play again on a harder setting.  

If we have to give it a score, Middle Earth: Shadow of War deserves an “8.5” in our opinion as an excellent game with incredible immersion that stands up with the best open world games available today. The story, the voice acting, some good character development, the fighting combos, the big battles, and the incredibly varied environments, and above all – the improved Nemesis system – all come together to make for a superb game. 

Middle Earth: Shadow of War comes highly recommended especially for LotR fans and for fans of the first game. We feel it is worth the current asking price of $59.99 for a really long, high-quality customizable game experience.  We are really looking forward to completing every quest and we are hoping that the DLC makes more changes to the game world than to the original game.  We also enjoyed using Ansel to compose our screen captures which goes far beyond traditional Fraps screenshots.

Middle Earth: Shadow of War has become BTR’s 29th PC benchmark. Stay tuned as we have many more reviews and evaluations coming up. Our next scheduled review is of the VertDesk v3 this week.  In the meantime, join BTR’s community for some excellent discussions.

Happy Gaming!

Middle Earth: Shadow of War

Middle Earth: Shadow of War
8.5

Overall

9/10

Pros

  • Good story and action
  • Awesome voice acting
  • Huge open world with variety in settings
  • The expanded Nemesis system is outstanding
  • Great visuals and decent performance

Cons

  • The camera gets lost in the heat of battle
  • The difficulty is uneven and sometimes very hard even on 'easy'
  • Tolkien purists will hate the story