The orcs were the stars again in Shadow of War, especially one particular bastard

2017 GOTY Awards

Alongside our team-selected 2017 Game of the Year awards, each member of the PC Gamer team gets to champion one favorite from the year. We'll continue to post new personal picks until the end of 2017.   

It's a testament to the strength of Monolith's orcs that they can even survive being stuffed into loot boxes, a fate more ignominious than anything Talion metes out with his swords. In a follow-up piece to his review, Andy Kelly noted that the presence of loot boxes hadn't really bothered him during his Shadow of War playthrough, largely because having them be loot drops made little sense in the first place, and the boxes never felt remotely essential. 

I felt the same way, and it's just as well because he was also correct about the orcs being by far the best thing in the game. The game's actual star, Talion, remains a largely unloveable, uninteresting character—essentially a thrift store Aragon. There's some fun to be had from his unhealthy codependency with Celebrimbor, and I didn't even mind the sexy spider lady thing, but you don't play Shadow of War for grand narrative sweep. You play it to hear orcs run their mouths before you run them through.

The sequel's crop of greenskin were even funnier than their predecessors, from the bard who will hunt you down and sing to you to the pitiful mewling wreck that's left behind after too much shaming. But as before, the best orcs are the ones who weave their own stories into your game. In my case that of course meant Mozû the Blight, the source of pretty much all my pain and enjoyment in Shadow of War.

I'll spare you a repeat of the Tolkien-length backstory and just say that being crushed over and again by Mozû made me more angry than any other game this year. Which, given that my two other main games are Destiny 2 and Hearthstone, each of which is a different sort of salt factory, is really saying something. For a short while my obsession with avenging myself on Mozû burned brighter than both of them.  

Actually, I am the boss of you 

Such was Mozû's domineering presence, that when the fucker finally succumbed to my (as it turns out, fairly obvious) plan to gank him with a bunch of poison-bladed buddies, I legit felt his loss immediately. Without the prospect of Mozû rocking up suddenly with a "RAAAAAAAAAANGER! REMEMBER ME?", grinning from ear to ruined ear, the game lost a lot of its piquancy, and I didn't feel compelled to stick it out for the final round of fortress sieges and light Nazgûl bothering.

Shadow of War, as an experience, definitely suffered from trying to do too much. Seeing each region map open up with so many collectibles and side missions felt somehow draining in a way that wandering around Mordor in the first game didn't. I did like a lot of the additions individually, though. There was enough depth in the skill tree to make builds that felt distinct and fun, levelling up legendary gear sets always scratches an itch for me, and the actual siege sequences were exciting the first couple of times through. That said, it didn't seem to make much difference how you composed your army, and made zero sense that all of your troops wouldn't follow you into the throne room for the final fight.

My favourite moment actually came as part as one of these occasionally tricky battles. I'd lost a couple of times to another orc with an unfortunate set of perks and his aggressive entourage. Down to a sliver of health and staring at a third death, one of my trusted lieutenants suddenly flew into view in classic get down Mr President style, but rather than taking the hit for me, he chopped off the chieftain's head, immediately securing the fortress for me. 

Of course I handed him the keys and a promotion. Maybe some players would've been annoyed by the AI interceding at such a crucial moment, but for me it was a rush. In a game about building up a vast force of brutal killers, you better believe I want them to do something of genuine worth when I actually need it. 

When the third Mordor game inevitably starts taking shape, I hope Monolith is able to somehow triple down on making which orcs you choose for your superteam an even more meaningful decision. It's equally telling that, for all we've written and talked about it, I still don't think any other developer—bar perhaps Firaxis with XCOM 2's War of the Chosen expansion—has been able to create computer-controlled antagonists that seem so gloriously alive. At least until your buddies turn up with the poison shivs.