Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor takes a very big gamble bending the rules of J.R.R. Tolkien's world in the same brutal and direct way protagonist Talion conquers his enemies' minds. And that gamble is a successful one.
Adapting The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit for video games has been a tricky business from the start. Video games need to be either fun or present meaningful challenges. Otherwise, why would you want to play them?
I hear many comparisons between Shadow of Mordor's combat and the Batman Arkham games when speaking to others about the final release, but developer Monolith Productions has done something special and unexpected by inserting a complex rabbit hole of an enemy system that not only fits the franchise but is a genuinely fun thing.
Shadow of Mordor is a special case of a video game IP standing up to, and even besting, that same property's film adaptations. The game rivals director Peter Jackson's recent Hobbit films in terms of pacing and experimenting with Tolkien's themes in an entertaining way.
A question of pacing
Many Lord of the Rings-based properties fumble when it comes to pacing. I adore Tolkien's descriptions but, like anyone, can get tired after 20 pages of walking in the woods. It has been necessary for modern adaptations to move at a faster clip and, in the case of the recent Jackson films, ramp up the action sequences.
For the sake of brevity I'm going to sacrifice completeness, which is a hard thing for a Tolkien fan. We'll stick with comparisons to Jackson's The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films, although the Ralph Bakshi and Rankin/Bass animated movies were definitely something special, and are worthy of their analysis.
Peter Jackson is good at making movies with two dramatic climaxes, each with its own lengthy action sequence. The Lord of the Rings, because the book itself is stuffed with conflicts both verbal and physical, fit snugly into his model.
The Hobbit, however, is less about the clash of swords and more about exploration, self-discovery and outsmarting your opponent. The conversations between Bilbo and Gollum and Bilbo and Smaug are the books' high dramatic points, while escaping from Mirkwood in barrels and Smaug's ultimate fate are things that happen, but aren't where Tolkien places the most tension. The Battle of Five Armies is the only battle warranting lengthy explanation. The main change is the one that occurs inside Bilbo, which is why the book is so special and the films fall so flat.
Jackson's films turn the barrel scene into a river ride of certain death, pits the Dwarves in a frantic race through Erebor against Smaug, and do things like add battle sequences and new characters (looking at you, Legolas and Tauriel) for that extra action umph.
Modern audiences need these. We have the collective attention spans of a goldfish, and with so many shows, movies, games and comics to consume we have to be judicious in how we spend our free time. These additions are necessary to keep you glued to the screen. This focus on action, while appealing to us, is not what Tolkien's stories focused on.
Jackson's Hobbit films, while I love watching them and appreciate his direction, fail the balancing act of taking Tolkien's source material and presenting it in a way that makes sense and is respectful of the original themes. It's an amazing book filtered through an unflattering idea of what modern audiences want, and doesn't reward the act of lighting a pipe and enjoying a deliberately paced book of personal growth.
Shadow of Mordor is an action game, but the game isn't trying to be anything else, and this is something very apparent from the get-go. Monolith has created a sort of "what if" experience by turning the themes of these books on their figurative heads.
Yes, violence is in the answer here, but only because Tolkien was not keen on it. Shadow of Mordor takes Tolkien's views of war, which he both romanticizes and condemns in turn, and embraces them rather than shying away. It's an exploration of the same ideas as seen from the other side of the coin.
Monolith's greatest risk is its greatest strength in Shadow of Mordor, upending Tolkien's virtues by showing how badly The Lord of the Rings could have gone.
What if Boromir took the One Ring and tried to use it against Sauron? What if Aragorn did the same? What if Frodo returned the Ring to Sauron? The game honors Tolkien's themes by taking the exact opposite stance. It is both a nod and a critique of Middle-earth's world rules and avoids the "silliness" Tolkien himself ridiculed in the then-hypothetical adaptations during his time.
Talion is not a swashbuckling hero. He's overcome with loss, he's angry, scared and anxious. His quest for revenge doesn't begin with a fiery bang, but with a whimper. And like every hero in Tolkien's book, Talion's greatest enemy is his own fear and doubt. In his purest form, Talion is what Boromir would have been like had he survived Amon Hen and either returned to Gondor with the Ring or traveled onward with the Fellowship. It's the continuation of a character arc that was cut short in the book, but continued in this character. Think of it as historical fiction in a world that doesn't really exist.
Talion's relationship with Celebrimbor borrows the humor imbued into certain scenes of Peter Jackson's films without becoming cloying. How can any of us forget the drinking game scene with Legolas and Gimli, the pair's ongoing scorekeeping for most Uruk-hai killed during Helm's Deep, the tiny moments between Merry and Pippin or Gollum singing to himself about fish. These moments bring levity to an otherwise very serious-business story without detracting from it, and Shadow of Mordor safely does the same. That takes a skilled hand.
There are moments when Talion is staring off into the distance and Celebrimbor will just appear and say, "Hey. You should be doing this." Whenever Tal makes a major decision, CB (as he is referred to internally among the Shadow of Mordor team) is immediately there to comment. It's less of a haunting or a possession and more of a devilish "angel on his shoulder" kind of relationship.
It's another way of exploring the emotional bond between men that Tolkien so often praised in his books, and is so often lacking modern pop culture.
Ratbag's addition, based on trailers, could be written off as a silly addition meant to bring something interesting to the plot. By having one Orc front and center in Talion's quest, we are given a more intimate look at how their society works. It's an important addition, and we'll talk about it more in a moment.
What initially made me nervous about Shadow of Mordor was the addition of Gollum. I feared that he was being packed in as a familiar face, one visual link to the original trilogy that people would recognize and connect with. An easy way to grab existing and new fans.
But Gollum serves a much greater purpose, one I will not get into here to avoid spoilers, and for the most part hangs around being his same conflicted, nasty self.
Shadow of Mordor's Gollum was motion captured and voiced by veteran voice actor Liam O'Brien, whose daunting task of filling film actor Andy Serkis' shoes was no doubt a large order. But the Gollum we see scampering alongside Talion is the one we have come to know, the same fragile, unhinged creature that's gross and delightful in equal parts.
If you know nothing else about Lord of the Rings, you know who Gollum is, and his presence in the game is grounding. He also, to my joy, sings to himself.
On a surface level, developer Monolith Productions has given players something previously unexplored within the somewhat rocky history of games based on The Lord of the Rings. Rather than tread familiar grounds covered in previous games and Peter Jackson's films, Shadow of Mordor spends most if its time tramping around the evil wasteland of Mordor prior to said wasteland phase.
This alone is a massive task, as designers work to construct an area typically treated as the untouchable badlands by modern takes on the source material. But Shadow of Mordor manages to present a lush, beautiful landscape slowly falling to corruption under Sauron's influence, with orc camps and machines of war slowly killing the environment. For Tolkien fans, this is the same as being able to visit BioShock's Rapture before it fell to the Splicers.
Not only does the game dig into this previous unexplored environment, it highlights one of Tolkien's cultures that has been treated like nothing but cannon fodder up until now: the Orcs, the Uruks of Mordor. Previous games have treated them as obstacles to be mowed down.
While Jackson's films take deeper dives into their personal motives — see Azog and Bolg in the Hobbit films and those rowdy scenes with Saruman's Uruk-hai in The Lord of the Rings — we still don't know much about their culture outside of their ferocity in battle.
Orcs aren't just "bad guys" — they are a race with their own language, their own hierarchy and social rules, their own personalities. Some of the Uruks in Shadow of Mordor are all sharp objects and insults, while some are cowardly, fleeing at Talion's approach.
Others are downright funny. If you listen to them talk as you sneak up onto one of their camps, their chatter is mostly banal: What's for dinner, no I'm not sharing, did you see what that one guy did and oh my gosh his armor looks horrible. When you encounter a captain, the short lines of dialogue they spout before you engage them in combat vary from threatening to hilarious. One Uruk commented that, when we were done fighting, he wanted to keep the Caragor cages around him, "For ... reasons," he purrs.
It does, however, get very uncomfortable when you realize that you're turning enemies against each other, enslaving Orcs to your will, dominating what Lord of the Rings' audience — unless you are, in fact, rooting for the bad guy — considers a lesser race.
Shadow of Mordor is a study in Orc culture.
The Lord of the Rings proper does have some questionable racial politics in terms of how Men, Elves and Dwarves see each other, but one thing is clear: they all look down on Orcs. And Shadow of Mordor humanizes them in a way that makes this aspect of the characterization troubling in a way that enhances the game. They didn't choose this lot in life. As a race bred for war and ruin, this is all they know. They have their own way of doing things and seeing the world, and since it's intrinsically incompatible with ours, violence can't be avoided.
The day-to-day Orc life shown in Shadow of Mordor, from the hierarchy presented in the Nemesis system to the way strongholds are set up to how every Orc has their own strengths, weaknesses and fears, draws its inspiration from Tolkien's works without overstepping its boundaries into campiness.
If every other piece of Tolkien's literature and adapted media rounds out depictions of his Elves and Dwarves, Shadow of Mordor is the missing piece fleshing out (pun intended) the Orcs.
The weapon of the enemy
One of Shadow of Mordor's central mechanics is mind control. You crack open the minds of Orcs to gain information on other Orc leaders, and then you either make them do your bidding or kill them.
At its core, this is what the Rings of Power are all about: knowing your enemy, controlling them, and protecting yourself against them. The Three Elven Rings protect the realms of their wearers. The seven Dwarven Rings and nine Rings of Men didn't do such a good job with that. And Sauron's One Ring was designed to dominate the minds of all wearing the other rings.
The One Ring was forged in secret by Sauron, but the Three Elven Rings were forged in secret by Celebrimbor. Like his fell Elf leader Galadriel and her ability to speak to and read people's minds, Monolith has designed Celebrimbor with a similar ability: The ability to look into and take hold of the minds of others.
This is essentially using the weapon of the enemy against the enemy, which numerous Lord of the Rings characters warn each other about. This is one of the central conceits of the rings themselves: You can use their power to try to do good things, but once you give into that temptation you're lost.
In the game you're doing a terrible thing and it's the very thing Tolkien warned us all about. Monolith upends Middle-earth's virtues and gives us a look at the dark side, the messy and the crude down in the Orc pits and on the fringes of the less-prettier places. It's a look at the deep, dark side of Middle-earth, the one no one really wants to talk about and one that modern films and games have labeled only as bad country. Embracing a power this dark and open to abuse shouldn't feel comfortable, and it doesn't.
We're in Mordor, enslaving its people and bringing our grievances to Sauron directly. It's weird, unwalked grounds for a piece based on Lord of the Rings. But it works because it doesn't do anything by half-measures. If only other adaptations were as fearless, while understanding what made the original material so enduring.