As a long time Lord of the Rings fan, I’ve always been on the lookout for any reason to jump back into Middle Earth. I tried War in the North, but was too frustrated by the button-mashing, lack of story, and cheap game mechanics (when the game was controlling one of the companion characters, the character had access to all their ability tree abilities, but when the player was in control, all those abilities disappeared) to get too into it. With a bad taste left in my mouth from that, I warily stayed away from Lord of the Rings: Conquest. I like the LEGO games, but really didn’t want to experience the same game with a different skin on it, no matter how indulgently satisfying it might have been.
And then this handsome fellow strolled in:
If you saw my last post on Mordor that went up ages ago, you know that I was pretty stoked for the game and was already beginning to sing its praises. Since so much of the actual gameplay has been reviewed and discussed since the game’s release in 2014, I’m going to just run through some highlights before talking a little about Tolkein lore and where/whether Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor fits in.
A Hero’s Actions
The game’s controls were startlingly responsive, with Talion, the main character, immediately responding to buttons, and seamlessly flowing through a series of rapidly-changing moves easily. Additionally, Talion would always and immediately drop what he was doing to block an incoming attack, even if he was in the middle of an attack. More than once, I remember thinking that I wished that kind of responsiveness was in other games, too.
Talion starts and ends the game with the same three weapons, but his growth as increasing power as a character come not only from building up his melee and ranged abilities, but also from gaining control over his new and unexpectedly helpful and powerful wraith abilities.
From the beginning of the game, the player is given the tools needed to feel like a ranger from Gondor. At no point is there a removal of his powers; from the moment you take control over Talion, you are able to use your sword, block attacks, and use a bow accurately, as well as partake in impressive parkour feats. That the game respected the player enough to not strip them of abilities that a ranger from Gondor should have definitely set a precedent for the living world in the game.
In most iterations of Orcs (or Uruks (oo-rook), or Uruk-hai, if you prefer to use the Black Speech word for the creatures), the twisted, goblin-like creatures are blind followers of their leader, most famously Sauron and Saruman in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. This is not the case in Shadow of Mordor. The Uruks in this game have a dynamic and war-like societal structure that is always changing, based on your actions and actions that they take against each other. For the most part the Uruks speak, and some of them do so quite eloquently, and they all have their own personalities.
While the first part of the game consists of Talion’s quest to kill five of Sauron’s warchiefs, the Nemesis system used enables the Orcs to learn and react to Talion and the world around them. I had one Uruk, Thragrak (or something) the Thunderer, who wound up becoming a demon of a level-20 Uruk (due to some really spectacular deaths on my part), and who began actively hunting me across the landscape with his posse. I set him on fire once before having to retreat, and he not only remembered, but commented on it during the fight. I once shot another captain in the head (eye?) with an arrow, and when I met him again, he had an eye-patch over the eye, and was understandably angry about it. So the world Talion was operating in was alive and breathing in a way that I haven’t seen other games manage.
Later in the game, Talion has a chance to influence this society by branding some of the Uruks, resulting in the branded Uruk becoming enslaved to Talion’s will – although the game tiptoes around using that word for Talion’s particular type of persuasion techniques. At any rate, now Talion can brand and protect “his” Uruks, raising them through the ranks of Uruk society before they become warchiefs, ready to fight and die for Talion’s cause.
There were two ways to go about branding the warchiefs. Talion could either raise an Uruk through the ranks and have them “betray” one of the chiefs, or he could brand a warchief if he was skilled enough.
Messing with Minds
Branding created an interesting dynamic, as the Uruks maintained their personalities. After failing to defeat the Black Hand the first time around because my Uruk captains were higher leveled than my warchiefs (who were ripped through like tissue paper), I set about “replacing” some of my warchiefs. Two quotes stuck with me from both messing with my warchief roster and raising my Uruks through the ranks.
Once, a warchief was betrayed by his (branded) captain, and the warchief (Bolg the Brain-Damaged) said to the captain in bafflement, “Okay. We here now. Why we here?” before seeing Talion and commenting, “Friend betray me, make me sad! We should all fight man-swine only! Together!”
Ugh. The poor, stupid thing felt bad his friend betrayed him. And his friend betrayed him because I had told him to. Ugh.
Or, in an attempt to replace a level-13 (branded) warchief with a level-20 (branded) warchief, I had to be the one to kill the lower-level warchief. It was an easy fight since he didn’t fight back, but as he fell to his knees before the death-blow he said, forlornly, “Why me? …why me?”
Ugh. Because I enslaved you, you can’t fight back, and I decided to dispose of you like a worthless commodity. Ugh.
Remember when I talked about a game trying to make you question your actions? This is how you make people question what they’re doing in games: through dialogue, true options, consequences, and realistic interactions. Oh, and humanizing your enemies to make them almost-relatable in the most unexpected moments, if you’re really feeling devious. But I digress…
The War and the Lore
Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is a great game and I highly recommend it. It has some fantastic mechanics, an intriguing plot, and a few nods to the lore. Here’s where we step into more complicated territory.
Shadow of Mordor is set between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and, if evaluated on that alone, exists in the universe well. Unlike a game such as The Force Unleashed (a fun game in its own right), Shadow of Mordor never tries to piece together two stories within its universe. The game presents a story that is plausible within the world of Middle Earth, but exists outside of the familiar events of both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
This is a great strength of the game, because to try and recreate the movies, or to try and shoehorn in a story that tries to relate the two games, presents many opportunities for failure as the game hits against the more well-known bits of Tolkein lore.
So it exists in the universe well, but let’s get to the nitty-gritty details.
The first obvious reference to the lore (outside of Talion being a ranger from Gondor) is Celebrimbor (pronounced kel-eh-BRIM-bor), an elven spirit/wraith who saves Talion from death by bonding himself to the human.
One Ring to Find Them
If you’re not up on your Silmarillion – and I wouldn’t blame you if you weren’t – Celebrimbor was the elf who forged the rings of power, excluding the One Ring that Sauron crafted in secret. Celebrimbor and the other elves were deceived by Sauron, believing him to be a clever and peaceful being who wished to unite the land. Sauron taught Celebrimbor how to craft the rings of power, which were then distributed to Men, Dwarves, and Elves.
But upon Sauron’s creation of the One Ring, the elves sensed a change in their own rings, and so hid their three Rings of Power away so as not to be corrupted by Sauron. Long story short, Sauron attacked the elves as he tried to discover what they did with the rings, and Celebrimbor was murdered in the attack.
In Shadow of Mordor, Celebrimbor turned into some sort of wraith following his death, and then told Talion he had been cursed to remain in Middle Earth. In reality, he was summoned by the Black Hand (main protagonist in the game) to be reunited with Sauron, but fought back (I think?) and now wants to avenge his wife and child, who were murdered in front of him. While according to Tolkein lore elves rarely returned from the Hall of Mandos in Valinar (basically the elf afterlife), they certainly couldn’t be summoned, as Celebrimbor was. But at least the idea has an in-game explanation that utilizes real aspects of the Tolkein universe (like wraiths being cursed and forbidden from death).
Additionally, Celebrimbor is shown to be the forger of the rings, which is correct. However, the game also presents Celebrimbor as the craftsman of the One Ring of Power, after his wife and child have been kidnapped. Celebrimbor then steals the One Ring from Sauron and uses it against him, until the Ring falls from his hand as it seeks its true master and lands on Sauron’s finger. Celebrimbor and his family are then slaughtered.
While dramatic, this isn’t quite in the lore, but again, it works in the context of the game. But Shadow of Mordor calls into question some of the core messages of the original stories.
Where the Shadows Lie
In the Tolkein universe, there are three kinds of people: those who are tempted but deny the power of the Ring of Power (e.g., Galadriel and Gandalf), those who are tempted and corrupted by the Ring (e.g., Boromir), and those who have no interest in its power whatsoever (e.g., Faramir and the hobbits). But the series revolves around the idea of the desire for power and the consequences of that desire. For instance, Boromir is killed after coveting the ring in The Fellowship of the Ring, Thorin Oakenshield is killed after greedily coveting the Arkenstone in The Hobbit, and Galadriel comments that she has “passed the test” by denying the ring’s temptation in Fellowship, insinuating she would have lost herself by accepting its power.
What surprised me was the Celebrimbor seemed like a noble and upstanding elf, except he stole the One Ring for revenge purposes, and then possessed a man to further his revenge on Mordor. While I was almost willing to dismiss this, as I’m getting used to current games like Dragon Age: Inquisition attempting to knock the elves down a few rungs, what bothered me more was the very ending of the game after Talion defeats the Black Hand of Sauron, avenging his family, and he comments that it is perhaps time for a new ring.
While this might have just been a throwaway line in order to keep the game open for a sequel, this is a complete deviation from the actions of the heroes in Tolkein’s universe. Talion seems to be insinuating he wants to create another Ring of Power to counter Sauron.
In the context of the lore, this suggests that Talion is doomed, like the nine men who became ringwraiths and servants to Sauron in the original trilogy. Even though I appreciate that a story following a ranger’s fall from grace would be interesting, I wonder how plausible it would be, because all the ringwraiths from Lord of the Rings are accounted for, and so Talion would have to rise and fall fairly quickly in the timeline in order to not really mess up the events of Lord of the Rings.
The game has claimed to stay fairly true to the lore, and overall it did well, adding new but plausible characters and storylines. I would imagine that any further games would continue to follow this missive. However, and most importantly, if a hypothetical second game were to come into existence, it would have to end with Talion’s downfall if he is indeed tempted and ensnared by the power a ring can yield, like Boromir after him. If it didn’t, it would represent a fundamental misinterpretation of Tolkein’s views of good, evil, and power.
What do you think? Tolkein himself said that he knew “sub-creators” (as he also referred to himself) would continue to expand on the lore of his universe. Are there fundamental ideas that shouldn’t be altered, in order to stay “true” to the original ideas? Or is any expansion of the universe a good one as long as it is carefully done?
Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you soon!
~~ Athena Tseta
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