Ever since reviews of Shadow of War hit, talk of loot boxes and microtransactions have been heavy with panic and rife with misinformation. Are the best orcs behind a paywall? Is the design of the game predatory enough that it's going to make people feel pressured to drop extra cash on a $US60 ($77) game? And what's this about the "real ending" being a microtransactions bonanza?
Part of the confusion is that Shadow of War is a complicated game — 60 hours later, I'm still learning new things in it — and its loot boxes are similarly convoluted. There are four types of main loot chests, some of which have subcategories, and three types of currencies.
I've tried or earned most of these currencies and chests while playing the game for 60 hours and counting. I have a good sense of how loot boxes fit into the picture. It's not necessarily as bad as some may fear, but even 60 hours with the game isn't enough for me to bottom line that for sure.
Before we dive in, it's important to know some big-picture stuff about how Shadow of War works. The game revolves around randomised orcs that you enslave to build multiple armies. You use these orcs as your bodyguard or to defend regions of the map.
You need decent orcs to make progress in the game and, if you're not careful, your orcs can permanently die. Through the course of the game, you will kill, recruit, and replace dozens upon dozens of orcs. All of these orcs can come in a few flavours. "Epic" orcs are great to get, and "Legendary" orcs are even better.
Those rarity classifications affect the number and types of advanced skills an orc can have, such as greatly increased health counts, or high poison proficiency. All types of orcs can be found in the wild, and in my particular game, I've had no shortage of Legendary orcs to recruit and command.
Additionally, Talion, the main character, can also equip a bevy of gear, such as swords and bows. This equipment is also constantly cycled as you find better stuff and it too can be Epic or even Legendary. While both orcs and gear can be earned by playing the game, you can also save some time and buy them from loot chests instead.
There are four types of main loot chests, some of which have subcategories, and three types of currencies. Let's start with the currencies.
Mirian is a abundant currency that you mainly earn by playing the game. You can equip gem runes that increase Mirian drops, equip gear that increases the likelihood of Mirian drops, destroy gear for Mirian, and hunt down Treasure Orcs for Mirian. Mirian can also be used for in-game perks, such as castle upgrades.
Gold coins can be obtained a number of ways, including with real-world money. We don't know how much they will cost just yet, as Shadow of War's online store only lists the season pass right now.
During the pre-release period while I've been playing the game, the main method of earning coins has been from in-game daily challenges. Every day, Shadow of War tasks you with doing four different things, each with its own reward. Daily challenges run the gamut from "kill a certain number of enemies" to "go to this map and do this very specific thing." Usually, doing all of the daily quests takes around 15-30 minutes.
In my time with the game, the rewards for the daily quests have varied. Early on, I only got one daily 50 gold coin quest and multiple Mirian quests. Lately, that's moved up to two 50 gold coin quests, and more recently, three daily 50 gold coin quests.
It's unclear if the number of gold coin quests you get on a daily basis are randomised, or if Monolith, the developers, have upped the number of gold coin quests you get behind the scenes. We reached out to the Shadow of War's creators about this but haven't heard back yet.
Then there are "Spoils of War," which are points you earn by completing online activities. While the game doesn't consider this a currency, playing the multiplayer earns you points which in turn unlock chests, so functionally speaking, they fulfils the same purpose.
So, what do you buy with all this digital money? In my experience, War Chests are probably what you'll deal with most of all, because they contain orcs. There are three main types of War Chests which can be bought with different currencies.
Silver chests, which cost 1.5k Mirian, drop two orcs (at least one epic) and one consumable (things like timed boosts). Silver War Chests are the easiest type of chest to buy, because you are constantly swimming in Mirian.
Nearly every battle grants you Mirian, and you're going to sell the vast majority of your gear for Mirian. I have more Mirian than I know what to do with right now. I could buy dozens of orcs if I wanted to, but I've had a good experience using the orcs I've naturally encountered throughout the game.
Gold chests cost 200 gold coins, and for that price, you'll get three orcs (one legendary and two epic), along with two consumables. Mithril chests, which cost 600 gold coins, give you four legendary orcs and one legendary training order (these allow you to do things like move units across maps).
I've bought a few gold chests out of curiosity, not necessity. To the game's credit, I could theoretically earn a gold chest almost daily, free of charge, but formidable orcs are abundant enough that I often forgot about challenges in the first place.
Then there are literal Loot Chests, which dole out gear. Silver loot chests give you two gear pieces, one of which will be rare, for 750 Mirian. I have bought exactly one of these, just for the purposes of this article, but otherwise, the game constantly gifts you new gear just by killing orcs.
And boy, will you slaughter a ton of orcs in this game. You can also threaten orcs for higher-quality gear. Heck, you can let orcs kill you so that they gain levels and thus drop better gear. There's not much incentive to buy Loot Chests.
Gold Loot chests, meanwhile, give you three gear pieces (one legendary and two epic) for 150 gold coins. Mythril loot chests grant you four legendary gear pieces, and a single two-hour XP boost for 400 coins.
I am never left wanting better gear in my game, though: if anything, I am constantly destroying legendary and epic gear, either because it has lower stats, or because the skill bonuses they grant don't fit my playstyle. I never saw a reason to spend money on gear that might not even be what I'm looking for.
Beyond that, there are special bundles that package a handful of the aforementioned chests, and themed chests that cost around 240-260 gold coins. You can also purchase things like XP boosts for 100 gold coins, though there's little reason to do so. In my game, Talion has gotten to such a high level that I have like 10 skill points lying around. There's nothing to spend my levels on. Why would I want more XP?
According to the Market where all of this is stored, there is a sale of some sort every Friday, though I don't know if stuff that costs Gold is ever discounted.
OK. Those are just the single-player chests and currencies, but Shadow of War also includes multiplayer chests. You can earn Vendetta Loot chests by killing orcs that have bested other players. Conquest Loot chests, meanwhile, are attained by conquering other player's fortresses.
Doing either activity nets you "Spoils of War," and if you accrue enough of these points, you'll get a Spoils of War chest. So far, I've only gotten one Spoils of War chest, but it seemed the equivalent to if not better than what's inside of a golden War Chest, except I didn't have to spend any money. The Loot Chests were just OK, but again, I was never hurting for gear.
Yes, this is all confusing, but you may also notice that most of this is entirely skippable. In all the time I've put into Shadow of War, not once have I felt the need to buy any orcs or gear. In the main game, whatever you find in the wild is sufficient to beat it.
During the post-game, which is titled the Shadow Wars, Shadow of War starts to show its teeth. The gist of it is that, by now, all the castles you've commandeered will be under constant attack. You have to stop Sauron's forces from gaining a foothold once more by finding strong orc leaders and upgrading your castle. For your troubles, you'll get a bonus ending.
Reports have floated around that it would take dozens of hours to get the real ending of Shadow of War, and worse, that the game is designed to be so grindy, players have a reason to drop cash on powerful orcs.
The narrative is that Shadow of War's post-game has been designed differently than the rest of the experience. It's actually simpler than that. Shadow of War's endgame is constructed exactly like the main game, which is already a bit repetitive. And as I mentioned in my review, the bulk of the Shadow of War experience is extremely similar Shadow of Mordor, the first game.
Shadow Wars doesn't illuminate much about the evils of microtransactions and how they can change and ruin a game, as much as it reveals something about the already existing experience.
To defend a castle, you need to appoint high-level orcs as warchiefs. The problem is that the base game is easy enough that you never have to worry about which warchiefs you use. Anything will do. You don't even have to care much about your warchiefs dying in the process.
By the time you get to the final bonus act of the game, you find out your forces are severely under-leveled and lacking in combat prowess. It's the equivalent of doing the bare minimum in a JRPG and then being surprised that the final boss kicks your arse.
Shadow of War lets you coast, only to put up its arms as if to ask you, oh, you want a real challenge? Let's go.
My first hours in the final act of Shadow of War were rough. My shitty orcs didn't cut it. I had to seek out better orcs, and I had to level them up. I had to think about who I was appointing at the top, what proficiencies they had, and how the orcs meshed with one another.
I had to think about the best upgrades to complement all of it. And more crucially, I had to think about which orcs were attacking me, and how I would best take them on. This can be time-consuming at first, but learning how to play the damn game has sped the process up considerably.
Crucially, I've never once felt like any part of this would be easier by buying orcs or better gear. Randomised orcs won't necessarily be at your level or have the specific skills you need for a given castle siege. As an example: if a gold chest gives me a legendary orc who is terrified of fire, that orc is going to be useless in a fight where the enemy is packing a flamethrower.
Since you can't control what a gold chest will drop, it hardly seems worth it. The few gold chests I earned also only gave me orcs at or below my level, whereas in-game orcs could be higher level, and thus more useful in the long run.
There is no substitute for scouting orcs first-hand and raising them to be exactly how you want them. I have acquired a couple of golden chests, but only because the game is generous with its daily challenge gold. These paid orcs were not better than my other orcs. Actually, many of them have gone unused. The bulk of my orc forces are home-grown.
I've yet to run out of orcs, even as Shadow of War asks me to defend the same castles over and over again against increasingly stronger enemies. I have such a surplus of orcs that, if I am ever unlucky enough to lose a Warchief during a siege, I have a small but capable army ready to take its place. Until that happens, I'm happy to appoint all of my war chiefs a few bodyguards each.
If you make the mistake of not levelling up your orcs along the way, going through the Shadow Wars will take about a weekend. If you make sure to keep your warchiefs strong as go through the game, I'd reckon it would take somewhere around 8-10 hours.
So far, I've put in about 15 hours into the post-game and am like 72% of the way through it this portion of the game. At least seven of those hours were me messing around with sidequests, or butting my head against a wall when confronted with a formidable orc attack. I'm certain that the last remaining percentages will go by much quicker.
I'd compare all this to getting raid-ready in Destiny 2, getting good enough to beat the secret bosses in Bloodborne, or getting the real ending in Persona 4: tough, a little annoying, somewhat time-intensive, yet do-able.
I have no idea if the ending will be worth it, but at the very least, playing through this much of the endgame has given me a better appreciation of the castle siege mechanics.
I plan to get earn the bonus ending in the coming days, and will report back in more detail about the undertaking. But for those of you wondering if this game is going to make you feel like you have to spend more than $US60 ($77) to see all of it has to offer, don't worry.
You can spend money if you want to, but I'm not sure why you would.