Five of my orcs died in Shadow of War yesterday. I callously dropped them, one by one, into the game’s new online fight pits. They didn’t make it out.
Rash Skull Bow, a feral marksman with little skulls for shoulder pads, got killed in 20 seconds after Ghash The Bloated struck him in the stomach with an axe.
Dugz The Dam, a shit-talker with a mohawk and metal body armor, retired from a three-fight win-streak—and from breathing—after he ate an arrow from Borgu the Foul.
Rug The Soothsayer and Buth Dwarf-Killer both bought it quickly, too. Az-Adar The Untouchable proved all too touchable, in the end.
I’d sent all of them into the game’s new, free online battles, which play out largely without player input. In these asynchronous online fight pits, a player first must select an orc to send into battle. The game checks the server, finds an orc of supposedly similar stature from another player’s game, puts those two orcs in the fight pit, and then lets the instigating player watch the two orcs battle for up to three minutes.
You have no control over your orc during these fights, unless crossing your fingers counts as control. You must simply hope that his skill level and his strengths and weaknesses will be sufficient to overcome those of the rival orc. If your orc wins, he (you!) gets loot. If your orc loses, he is gone from your game. There are no such consequences for the other side, and the orcs you challenge carry on in their own games whether they won or lost.
If you followed all that—or even if you didn’t—it boils down to this: you spend most of this new mode watching and hoping as the game plays things out. And if that sounds at all familiar, you might just be thinking of some very popular mobile games, which appear to be Shadow of War’s unadvertised inspiration.
While the people who played this game’s predecessor, Shadow of Mordor, have been waiting three years for some other game to copy its influential Nemesis System, the makers of Mordor seem to have spent a lot of their time cribbing from Clash of Clans. Or Boom Beach. Or name whichever other mobile game you’re aware of that is about building up an army of forces and then attacking versions of other players’ bases and forces that are pulled from a server that tracks everyone who plays the game. That’s the design idea that underpins Shadow of War’s late-game, asynchronous online fortress sieges—large-scale conflicts that render the first 15 or so hours of the game as, in some respects, the world’s fanciest tutorial.
There is nothing inherently bad about merging the enjoyable action and network of nemeses featured in 2014’s wonderful Shadow of Mordor with some Clash of Clans to make something new. Shadow of War doesn’t abandon its roots. It retains and amplifies the good qualities of Mordor, letting you control the hero Talion as he uses an expanded arsenal of attacks and jumps while killing some orcs and recruiting others to assemble them into forces that can attack and defend fortresses. I played Shadow of War when it first came out in October and found it fun but messily over-designed, offering more moves and missions than I could sort through as well as a story and game world far too dreary to make me stick with it. When I returned recently, forgetful of the plot, I found a crunchy action game that was just fun to hack through, one 20-orc brawl at a time. I liked it more and felt the constant rush of reward. Playing the game is a constant process of improvement as Talion levels up, gains an obscenity of swords, daggers and cloaks and adds more regular, epic and legendary orcs to his crew.
Shadow of War’s creators didn’t exactly hold things back from players in terms of moves, missions, modes and collectibles, to say nothing of notifications and readouts that appear on screen. War is about as cluttered as Shibuya Crossing, and that’s before the game’s first paid expansion added 20 more missions of yet more angry orcs to slaughter.
Some of the excess is great, as you work through the comically detailed skill tree and eventually learn that, say, the basic beast-riding skill you bought is eventually going to be upgradable to let you summon what’s more or less a dragon. But why is the game so invested in detailing every little thing about an orc from their tribe to how they react if they’re shot in the foot with an arrow? Why do I need to know what enrages the orc I’ve challenged or recruited, or what kind of minions he runs with, or whether he’s strong or weak against fire, poison or curse?
This all seems excessive when each orc can be killed or captured by a properly-leveled and upgraded Talion with some well-timed swings of the sword. Half an orc’s weaknesses won’t even come into play if the player has gone up some other branches of the skill tree or not bothered to figure out how to punch the ground in a way that sprouts fire.
If you play Shadow of War long enough, it becomes clear why some of its excesses are in there. They’re the tools for the Clash of Clans stuff. They’re the stats for strategizing which orcs to put on guard duty in a fortress in order to survive some online assault that’ll happen while you’re sleeping. They’re now also the stats for determining which orcs will fare best in the online fight pits. You pick an orc with good strengths and whichever weaknesses you think he can bear. You send him into the pit and hope for a win.
The match-ups you get are strange. Sometimes my orc and his matchmade rival had a similar numerical character level, sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes my ordinary orc was pitted against a legendary orc, the latter boasting much more potent strengths than anything a vanilla orc possesses. Sometimes my orcs seemed to over-achieve. Sometimes they did not. The online orc battles can feel random, just another wheel of slot machine design making you hope you’ll be luckier next time.
As my first five orcs died in the online pits, I gradually thought more seriously about all these orc attributes I’d been ignoring in the rest of the game. Perhaps I was foolish to send an orc to the online fight pits who may always enter a fight with a few small minions but also has a temper problem that causes him to not care if he accidentally knocks them out. Perhaps I was naive to think a lowly orc who is susceptible to poison could rise up through the fight pits, though the game implies that that is exactly what the online fight pits are for.
Why else would they be structured to challenge you to have an orc win five straight battles, with a guarantee of an upgrade to epic status after win three and a boost to legendary at win five? Why else would each of the five wins deliver the player a chest with one, then two, then three, four and eventually five upgrades, each which can be used to upgrade any of your orcs, including the one in the fight pit?
All of this seems designed to use the online fight pits to raise an orc from meager to MacGregor, and yet the online fight pits sometimes match one of my ordinary orcs with a legendary in a first-round fight. That match-up ends with my orc’s skull on a spear. Something seems off, and I’d submit that legendary orcs shouldn’t be eligible to fight anything other than other legendary orcs in these pits. Patch, please.
As I sent my orcs to the online fight pits to die one by one, I eventually figured out that I should try using Ar-Henok The Crusher. He was the only semi-decent orc I even had left. You’re restricted to using the orcs you control in a region where you’ve taken over a fortress, and he was my last good option in that section of the map. In The Crusher went.
Ar-Henok’s main weakness was stealth attacks, which Talion may use in the main game, but which orcs don’t seem to use in the fight pits. That’d help his chances. He was weak against fire but soon picked up an upgrade that diminished fire attacks used against him. He was getting better! The Crusher crushed—one fight, two fights, and eventually five in a row. I couldn’t level him up past Talion’s level, but I was able to use him to pick up upgrades I could distribute to other orcs. By that fifth win, he’d been bumped to legendary status, too. I felt good. I minded those other orc deaths less.
Each orc win in the fight pit earns you a loot chest full of orc upgrades, and each loot chest can only be opened in the game’s market. That means that, if you want to keep checking your orc upgrade rewards and apply them to the orc you’re using in the pit, you must keep going to the market, where the game also happens to be offering many sweet, sweet real-money loot-box deals. Such deals are easily ignored, since the game is constantly raining orcs and loot.
Nevertheless, the market visits and all the little waits and flourishes involved with opening each earned crate and applying each orc upgrade scream one thing: If this game isn’t going to take more of your money, it sure as hell is at least going to take more of your time. It, like so many modern mega-games, is designed to be the only game you’ll play this season. Don’t stop now. There are more missions to play. Don’t remove the disc. There are more orcs to kill. Don’t fret that your first three orcs each got slaughtered in these new online fight pits. Maybe you’ll succeed with the next one, and, if you’re running low, there’s a downpour more of orcs in the game world to fight and recruit.
Shadow of War is designed to be infinite. It’s here to be endless entertainment, certainly in the hope that you’ll feel satisfied with your purchase and maybe even eventually eager to pay for more, be it a lootbox or, less grossly, an expansion. Its new online fight pits currently feel a little imbalanced and a little too random, and either they need to improve or I need to understand the orc attribute system better to get better at them. But they’re a fun idea that are also designed for you to keep playing forever. It’s tempting to keep throwing orcs into them. After all, I’d like to know that the orcs I spend my time recruiting in this game can now be trusted to crush the orcs of everyone else out there. That’s an alluring system to dive into and play with. It’s something I expect from mobile games, not a Shadow of War sequel, but I’ll take it. It’s an interesting experiment, and it goes down better now that I have a better understanding of what Shadow of War really is.