A now for something a little different. I’m going to review a video game just as I would a film. I know, movies and games are very different forms of art and entertainment with different purposes and different requirements of their audiences, but considering the basis of this game is a long-running film franchise based on iconic fantasy literature, I think the cross-pollination of art and media justifies the comparison.
I wouldn’t say I’m a passionate gamer, and I tend to go through phases of playing them a lot, then very little from month-to-month. I’ve played pretty much all of the licensed LORD OF THE RINGS video games, though not many have been particularly good, but I’ve been looking forward to MIDDLE-EARTH: SHADOW OF MORDOR since it was announced, and I’m very pleased to report that it’s really good.
Shadow of Mordor follows Talion (Troy Baker), a Gondorian Ranger posted on the Black Gate, who is murdered along with his family by Sauron’s human disciples as they lay the foundations for their master’s return. Talion is saved from death/cursed to eternal suffering when he is possessed by an Elven wraith (Alistair Duncan) and they both set out on a quest for revenge against the evil residing in Mordor.
On the surface, it’s a very handsome and fluid open world action adventure sitting at that happy halfway point between ASSASSIN’S CREED and BATMAN: ARKHAM ASYLUM. Beyond the obvious influences of those games in terms of form and style, what makes Shadows of Mordor stand out is how it pushes the boundaries of interactive storytelling in a way we haven’t really seen before with the much-hyped “Nemesis System”, where every play-through can be a drastically different experience. It also satisfyingly builds on Peter Jackson’s interpretation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy universe, contributing to the richness of this world in the process, and managing to feel like a key piece of Middle-Earth lore (the heavy involvement of Weta Workshop helps immensely here).
A lot of people might sigh at the thought of a story set between two trilogies (STAR WARS has worn out its welcome to the extreme in that regard) but Shadow of Mordor makes it work. Much like Jackson did with his extended adaptations of THE HOBBIT, the writers of this video game have made extensive use of Tolkien’s Appendices, extrapolating grand events from mere implications, embellishing the given material to great effect. The game explores the periphery of Middle-Earth lore, and brings to light a few key concepts that have (to the best of my knowledge) never really been explored before, by Tolkien or Jackson, but they marry really well in this world. For instance, we discover that the Gondorien Men were not all flawed but essentially good, on the contrary they actually had very few qualms about using slave labour after Sauron’s defeat to reconstruct their ruined world and prepare their defences for the next inevitable conflict.
The Two Istari (the ones who aren’t Gandalf, Saruman, or Radagast) are referred to quite craftily out of necessity. Like in the first Hobbit film, the writers are forced to navigate quite complex legal obligations – the two Blue Wizards are only named in material that Warner Bros doesn’t currently own the rights to, and without having Gandalf on hand to conveniently forget their names, we hear some soldiers hypothesising that they were put under a spell so they would forget the wandering wizards after meeting them so they could continue with their covert mission in the East.
Our two lead characters, another guilt-ridden, flawed human reluctantly accepting his destiny, and a bitter Elf spirit with a shadowy past and a tie to all of the key events in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, are a pretty compelling pair of protagonists, derivative as they are, and they way they are eventually able to reduce an orc to component parts is frighteningly cool.
The main antagonists are appropriately nasty, and the randomly-generated orc foes are a grotesque, love-to-hate bunch. We also get major appearances from Gollum (sadly Andy Serkis does not reprise, but Liam O’Brien does a decent impersonation) and Sauron (Steve Blum), and other Middle-Earth stalwarts have brief, but fun, cameos. The randomly-generated orc nemeses you encounter can provoke remarkably strong reactions in the player too, often being fun and frustrating to fight in equal measure, especially if they’ve managed to kill you multiple times and are getting smugger and smugger with each encounter, and really maddeningly push you to wiping their corrupted elf grins off their faces.
Sauron’s motives are presented as almost understandable here. Usually, he’s the ultimate unknowable evil, but the game’s writers present him as someone trying to rebuild a war-ravaged world. OK, rebuild it to his very specific tyrannical specifications, so in that sense he’s not that different to many 20th Century dictators, but at least there’s a logic to his actions rather than just evil for the sake of being evil. That criticism could be leveled towards Sauron’s henchmen, The Black Hand (Nolan North), The Tower (JB Blanc) and The Hammer (John DiMaggio), who serve as the game’s final bosses to fight, and while all three are interestingly designed and creepy, they are all pretty one-note characters.
Like Peter Jackson’s films, Shadow of Mordor isn’t above extracting a little bit of humour from Tolkien’s generally dead-serious lore. You get a fair few laughs from the orcs’ banter with one another, and other sniggers from dialogue unlocked with the game’s numerous collectibles, like a damning battle report that dubs The Battle of Five Armies “The Battle to Unfairly Gang Up On the Orcs”.
The game’s plot is pretty involving, and motivates you press on through challenges and complete Talion’s story, though it does admittedly become less focussed in the final third or so, and the ending sadly feels a little underwhelming after such a long build-up. There’s ample opportunity to explore and uncover Middle-Earth’s secrets, and plenty of replay value, so you should be glued to this one for a while (at least until Jackson’s final Middle-Earth blockbuster is released in just over a month), dismembering and manipulating Sauron’s armies to your heart’s content. SSP