Oct 9, 2017

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor review

Since the official release date of Middle-earth: Shadow of War is tomorrow, this feels like a good moment to say a few words about its predecessor, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, or, to those of us who play the Lord of the Rings living card game, The Morgul Vale: the video game.

John Howe: In Mordor, 1989.


I've been playing the Xbox One version, so strictly speaking this is a review of that. Set between the events of the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit, you play a Gondorian ranger on a quest to avenge the death of his family at the hands of one of Sauron's captains. You're accompanied by an elven wraith, who provides conversation, superpowers and a special wraith sight mode. In practice, the easiest way to describe the game is Arkham Mordor; it's basically Arkham City, but in Middle-earth.

For anyone unfamiliar with the Arkham series, a concise definition of Shadow of Mordor would be a third-person open-world fighting/stealth game. You explore a game world where you find various collectables and complete missions to advance the plot. You can sneak and parkour around and stab orcs in the back, shoot them with a bow or just straight up fight them with your sword. Mêlée combat is handled with a "rhythm-based" system where you build up strike combos while countering your enemies' attacks. It looks great and is good fun; I found the system a little bit more forgiving than Arkham's.

What makes Shadow of Mordor special is what's called the Nemesis system. The game world is mostly populated by randomly generated orcs doing orc stuff, like bossing slaves around and so on. Some of these orcs are captains, and each of them has a name and a distinct personality, created through a random selection of strengths and weaknesses.

This actually manages to create some fairly memorable characters. For instance, I can assure you that I do not have fond memories of Mogg the Massive. Through a fortuitous combination of traits, he was impossible to kill quickly, and when his health got dangerously low he'd hightail it out of there far more quickly than anyone called "the Massive" has any right to.

In the early game, the orc-captains are challenging opponents whom you'll meet more often than you'd care to. When one of them manages to kill you (they will), they'll be marked as your nemesis, and gain power and possibly new abilities. The captains are part of a hierarchy where they're constantly trying to advance their position by boosting their power or straight up killing each other, and you get occasional opportunities to interfere in this, and eventually start turning the captains on each other to your advantage.

The Nemesis system is, in a word, brilliant. Not only does it give you personalized opponents, but it's dynamic enough to make the game world so much more alive. At best, it creates a level of creative chaos I haven't seen in an open-world game since GTA San Andreas, and that's really something.

The only real complaint I have about the orcs is that they're green, wear kind of patchwork armor and have fairly prominent underbites. When you add the fact that their dialogue was written (well) by Dan Abnett, there are times when the game veers surprisingly far into Warhammer territory.


So it's a fun game to play. But how is it as a Tolkien product? I'll discuss this in two parts: setting and story.

Unfortunately, the setting takes egregrious liberties with the timeline. To start at the beginning, Talion serves on the garrison of the Black Gate. Quoting from Appendix B of the Lord of the Rings, the watch on Mordor was abandoned in the year 1630 of the Third Age - that is, 1630 years after Sauron was overthrown. For context, Gondor still had a king then. He refers to Minas Ithil, which apparently also appears in the sequel; Minas Ithil fell in TA 2002. The Black Gate, as depicted in the game, was built by Sauron after his return to Mordor, so it never had a Gondorian garrison.

Because Talion encounters Gollum in Mordor, the game can be dated very specifically: it has to be set between Gollum losing the Ring and Aragorn capturing him in the Dead Marshes. Gollum was captured in TA 3017. In Appendix B, "Gollum reaches the confines of Mordor" in TA 2980. So when Gollum came to Mordor, the Gondorians had abandoned its fortifications over a thousand years ago. It's not entirely clear from the description in Chapter 2 of the Lord of the Rings how old Gollum was when he found the Ring in TA 2463, but assuming he originally had a similar lifespan to hobbits from the Shire, if he was a young adult at the time he might have been in his fourties or fifties; it wouldn't be unreasonable to suppose he was born around TA 2400. So even Gollum never knew Minas Ithil.

To make a long story short, the game takes two entirely separate times in the history of Middle-earth and mashes them together. In the timeline of the books, Gollum was as far from the Gondorian garrisons of Mordor as we are from Charlemagne. There's just no way the two can be shoehorned together. In a sense, there's also a third time: in the game, Sauron is still in the process of retaking Mordor. This happened long after the watch on Mordor was abandoned, but was long complete by the time Gollum got there. By analogy, this is like making a game set in North America where a Spanish conquistador looking for El Dorado meets Jesse James in a fallout shelter.

This is kind of a shame, but unlike some other nominally Tolkien-based products, at least they've taken things that exist in his works - just not at the same time - and created their own adaptation based on them. And it's a good adaptation at that, because I think they've created a phenomenally good take on Mordor.

In the first part of the game, you adventure around Udûn, which is fairly desolate but not completely waste; there are bushes and even some trees, and ruins of Gondorian forts. I was reminded of the description of the Morgai given in the Lord of the Rings:

Upon its outer marges under the westward mountains Mordor was a dying land, but it was not yet dead.
- The Lord of the Rings, Book 6,
Chapter 2: The Land of Shadow

The Udûn you visit in Shadow of Mordor seems to me to be exactly that: dying, but not yet dead. If you take the setting as representing Mordor before Sauron had fully repossessed it, I think it works excellently.

The other main game area is Nurn, briefly described in the Lord of the Rings:

Neither he or Frodo knew anything of the great slave-worked fields away south in this wide realm, beyond the fumes of the Mountain by the dark sad waters of Lake Núrnen; nor of the great roads that ran away east and south to tributary lands, from which the soldiers of the Tower brought long waggon-trains of goods and booty and fresh slaves.
- The Lord of the Rings, Book 6,
Chapter 2

I'll admit I was always fascinated by Mordor, and especially Nurn: to see something of how Sauron's realm operated outside the volcanic hell of Gorgoroth that Frodo and Sam trudge through. Again, if you go with the confused chronology where the game is set during Sauron's retaking of Mordor, this is an excellent take on Nurn: the orcs are still in the process of subjugating the land, the slave plantations have yet to be built, and nature hasn't been thoroughly devastated yet. Visiting Nurn in Shadow of Mordor is a memorable experience, made poignant by the fact that the locals' resistance to Sauron is ultimately in vain.

The only real mistake in geography that I spotted on my playthrough was in the dialogue after finding the Ornate Cameo in Nurn, where Talion remarks that not all the rivers in this land flow into the Sea of Núrnen, which means that the people living there could escape west. This is not true; on the maps in the Lord of the Rings, all the rivers in the south of Mordor are unambiguously depicted as flowing into the Sea of Núrnen. It would be difficult for them to flow up a mountain range anyway! I think the developers must have become confused in their geography, which also explains why there's a river called Poros in Nurn. Tolkien's Poros is the old southern border of Gondor, and flows west from the Ephel Dúath, meeting the Anduin below Pelargir. Talion's statement, together with the Poros on the game map, would suģgest that the developers thought the Poros flows from the Núrnen to the Anduin. This wouldn't make sense, as the Sea of Núrnen wouldn't be salty if it had an outlet to the ocean - and anyway the Poros in the game flows into the Sea!

The only other thing that flat out makes no sense whatsoever is how a former corsair and her daughter have high-elven names.


As for the story, I don't really want to go into too much detail, because I honestly recommend this game and I don't really want to spoil it. In general terms, though, if I thought that the setting was thematically very good, I can report - to my great surprise - that the story is not only excellent, but very Tolkien indeed.

As I mentioned already, the character you play is a Gondorian ranger who's been more or less possessed by an elven wraith. Obviously there's no direct precedent for this in Tolkien - or at least in his published works. However, in the early drafts of the Lord of the Rings, elf-wraiths make several appearances. Here's an early rendering of what was probably meant to be a conversation between the then-protagonist, Bingo Baggins, and Gildor:

In the very ancient days the Ring-lord made many of these Rings: and sent them out through the world to snare people. He sent them to all sorts of folk - the Elves had many, and there are now many elfwraiths in the world, but the Ring-lord cannot rule them; the goblins got many, and the invisible goblins are very evil and wholly under the Lord; dwarves I don't believe had any; some say the rings don't work on them: they are too solid.
- in Christopher Tolkien, The History of the Lord of the Rings, Part 1: The Return of the Shadow, HarperCollins 2002, p. 75

So the idea of elf-wraiths was by no means completely foreign to Tolkien; the Three only acquired their separate status much later. In the first version of the verse of the Rings, the Nine are the elven-rings:

Nine for the Elven-kings under moon and star,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Three for Mortal Men that wander far,
  One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
  In the Land of Mor-dor where the shadows are.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
  In the Land of Mor-dor where the shadows are
- The Return of the Shadow, p. 269

Speaking of rings, when I discussed the Council of Elrond, I tried to underline what I think is one of the most important philosophical themes of the Lord of the Rings: power corrupts. To paraphrase Audre Lorde, the Enemy's tools will never dismantle the Enemy's house. This being the case, when Talion's wraith buddy starts talking about how you need to use the Enemy's tools against him in order to defeat him, this should be a huge red flag to everyone that there's something going on here. As there indeed is.

The plot of the game centers around revenge. Several characters in Tolkien's works are motivated by revenge, and it never goes particularly well. One of the most prominent examples has to be Túrin Turambar, who set out to avenge the crimes of Morgoth against his family. If you don't know how that ended up working out, enjoy the Silmarillion, but mild spoiler: he could have done better. So in Tolkien's world, revenge doesn't work out, ends don't justify means and power corrupts. In Shadow of Mordor, you play an undead ranger hell-bent on using any powers he can lay his hands on to wreak his vengeance on Sauron's lieutenants.

I get that the beginning of the game is so generic fantasy / Dragon Age-y that it's possible to accept the protagonist at face value as some kind of "dark fantasy" hero, and his quest for revenge as a good thing. But if you stop for even a moment to think about what's going on, anyone with so much as a nodding familiarity with Tolkien's works should fairly quickly figure out that Talion is no hero. I'm not even sure he qualifies as an antihero, because by the end of the story he's pretty much straight up a villain. His pursuit of vengeance and Command is far more demented than Boromir's worst hallucinations, and even Túrin never led a mind-controlled orc-army. As for his wraith pal, it's worth remembering that in the Lord of the Rings, the mightiest of the elves - most prominently Galadriel - resist the temptation of the Ring and of power. Shadow of Mordor, and especially the Bright Lord DLC are what happens when they don't.

From a Tolkienian perspective, then, Shadow of Mordor isn't one of those American action movies where a crime happens, and then massive male violence is deployed in retribution and everything becomes okay again. On the contrary, the story of the gane is a horrible crime, followed by the fall of the protagonist into evil. The Shadow of Mordor in the title is the one Talion falls into, cheerfully helped along by several parties very much interested in Rings of Power.

This makes for a very dark game, but a strongly Tolkien one and a compelling story. Combined with the very well-executed setting, I was led to completely break with my usual habits and finish the game very quickly. I can't name a single other comparable open-world game where I wanted to advance the main quest like this. So whereas I strongly recommend Shadow of Mordor as a video game, it's also an absolutely excellent Tolkien adaptation. I'm more than willing to overlook playing fast and loose with the chronology and being confused about the Poros when the thematic content of the game is so spot on.


To sum up, I was very positively surprised by Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. Like I said earlier, a sequel is imminent. Based on what we've seen of it so far, I'm cautiously optimistic. On the positive side, it looks like they've taken the Nemesis system and scaled it up so that instead of fighting individual orc-captains in Udûn, you're now recruiting your own orc army and conquering strongholds in Mordor. Because again, nothing says "we're the good guys" like leading armies of orcs while wearing a Ring of Power.

I kind of like this, actually, because it seems remarkably similar to what Boromir wanted to do with the Ring.

"The Ring would give me power of Command. How I would drive the hosts of Mordor, and all men would flock to my banner!"

Boromir strode up and down, speaking ever more loudly. Almost he seemed to have forgotten Frodo, while his talk dwelt on walls and weapons, and the mustering of men; and he drew plans for great alliances and glorious victories to be; and he cast down Mordor, and became himself a mighty king, benevolent and wise.
- The Lord of the Rings, Book 2, Chapter 10

The potential problem I see with it is that judging from the gameplay footage, while the game looks fun, it also looks much more like Mount and Blade: Warhammer than a Tolkien product. The warhammerisms in Shadow of Mordor I can live with, because the setting and story are so strong around them. Shadow of War, on the other hand, looks like it's going off on such a distant tangent from the source material that I wonder if it'll have much to do with Middle-earth any more. Still, though, if it ends up being a Warhammer game, the odds are it'll be much better than anything Games Workshop ever licensed.

Oct 2, 2017

Let's Read Tolkien 37: Lothlórien

'Alas! I fear we cannot stay here longer,' said Aragorn.

The Fellowship is in Dimrill Dale, mourning Gandalf. They head east, hoping to escape the orcs, and do a little desultory sight-seeing as they pass the Mirrormere. When they strike the Silverlode river, Aragorn explains his intention to head along it to the elven-woods of Lothlórien.

As they trek along, the wounded Frodo and Sam fall behind. Luckily Legolas notices, and Aragorn calls a halt so their injuries can be tended to. Frodo protests, but Aragorn takes off his jacket, revealing Bilbo's mithril-coat. Gimli is especially astonished; he recalls Gandalf's passing remark that the coat was worth more than everything else in the Shire, and reckons that Gandalf undervalued it.

With the hobbits bandaged up, the Company continues on their way. As night falls, they near the outskirts of Lórien. Frodo thinks they're being followed, but Gimli hears nothing and believes the orcs aren't chasing them. Boromir protests entering Lórien, saying that they've heard of the Golden Wood in Gondor, and its perils. Aragorn assures him that there is peril in Lórien only for the evil.

The Company crosses the Nimrodel, and Legolas sings a song about a lady who missed a boat. As they're looking for a place to camp, they run into some elves: Haldir of Lórien and his brothers. Having heard from Elrond, they knew to expect the Fellowship, but they're troubled to find a Dwarf among them. Eventually it's agreed that if Gimli is blindfolded, he can enter Lothlórien.

The Fellowship spends the night sleeping on platforms in the trees, where the elves are keeping watch. There's a commotion at night as a company of orcs passes by on the ground, and a pale-eyed shadowy figure tries to climb Frodo's tree, but is scared off by Haldir.

The next morning, the Company heads south and the elves set up a rope-bridge across the Silverlode river. Sam has the hardest time, but everyone makes it across to the other side, where they have an argument. Gimli not unreasonably points out that he never agreed to be blindfolded and resents the whole thing. The elves won't budge, so Aragorn resolves the issue by having them blindfold everyone. This obviously ticks off Legolas, but eventually they all set forth with their eyes covered. It's a smooth walk, though, and the next day, word reaches them from the Lord and Lady of Lórien that the blindfolds can come off. They then do some sightseeing in Lórien before heading off to meet the Lord and Lady.


Somehow this chapter feels as if the whole book was still a little dazed after losing Gandalf, with the Fellowship almost passengers on their own quest. The narration feels a little like the Hobbit in this respect.

Boromir's protests at entering Lórien feel strangely out of place here. I mean it makes sense that a warrior of Gondor would be uneasy about the magical elf forest - but he's just left Rivendell and is traveling with Legolas. It seems bizarre that the elves of Imladris and Thranduil's son are just fine, but this Lórien place is right out.

I mentioned ages ago that Tolkien has a thing for dramatic river crossings, and there's two of them here: the Nimrodel, which washes "the stain of travel" from Frodo, and then the Silverlode, which is maybe the most epic crossing of them all, with Haldir's rope-bridge and Sam's uncle Andy.

As soon as he [Frodo] set foot upon the far bank of Silverlode a strange feeling had come upon him, and it deepened as he walked on into the Naith: it seemed to him that he had stepped over a bridge of time into a corner of the Elder Days, and was now walking in a world that was no more.

In Rivendell there was memory of ancient things; in Lórien the ancient things still lived on in the waking world.

In short, Lórien is Faërie: the magical land beyond time. Tolkien professed a distate for Celtic mythology, but Faërie - the diaeresis is Tolkien's - made it into his portrayal of the elves, most directly in Lórien. When the Irish hero Oisín visited Tir na nÓg, where he thinks he spends three years, but in the reality he left behind, 300 years have passed. Thus Aragorn:

"Here is the heart of Elvendom on earth," he said, "and here my heart dwells ever, unless there is a light beyond the dark roads that we still must tread, you and I. Come with me!" And taking Frodo's hand in his, he left the hill of Cerin Amroth and came there never again as a living man.


Next time: more elves.