Contrary to popular belief, one can simply walk into Mordor—at least, if you’re an unkillable badass possessed by a magical spirit with a grudge. What’s harder is walking back out feeling content with the journey. When Talion, the fallen Gondorian soldier stationed at the border of J.R.R. Tolkien’s hellish region in Middle-earth: Shadow Of Mordor, reaches the end of his gruesome tour, he’s technically gotten what he set out for. The Orc legions are in disarray, he’s personally gutted his nemeses (multiple times), and he’s had a shot at the dark lord himself. Celebrimbor—the elfin ghost riding inside Talion and keeping him mostly immortal—ends up where he wants to be as well, getting back at Sauron for stealing his work and trapping him in a ghoulish, eternal limbo.
They both get the revenge they want so badly, even though they know from the outset that it won’t satisfy them. It won’t give Talion his family back, and it won’t let Celebrimbor regain all his lost years. What’s bold about Shadow Of Mordor’s ending is that it leans into the inevitable anticlimax awaiting its heroes. The game itself is full of cathartic fantasy violence, but it all culminates in a deflating cake walk of a final confrontation that can scarcely be called a boss fight. Violent vengeance is empty, says Shadow Of Mordor, and it’s not going to dull that point to fit into video games’ traditional challenge-centric arc.
Both Celebrimbor and Talion have legitimate gripes to get violent over. Talion starts the game with the worst job in fantasy land’s worst place. Shadow Of Mordor is set between The Hobbit and The Fellowship Of The Ring, when Sauron is starting to rev his world-conquering engines. He’s been lurking for a few thousand years after losing the Ring Of Power, and the orc armies of Mordor are getting squirrelly again. As a ranger leading soldiers at the Black Gate, the massive fortress separating the human city-state of Gondor from all the orcs and beasts on the other side, Talion is already a skilled fellow in a stressful position. When the Black Gate is assaulted by Sauron’s best, he isn’t just out of a job. He, his wife, and their adult son are ritualistically, horrifically sacrificed by The Black Hand Of Sauron. Talion’s resulting Liam Neeson-esque drive to punish those who wronged him is not unsympathetic; from the first time you swing a sword after the game’s grisly opening, his quest feels bluntly righteous.
Sauron’s crew sacrifices Talion and his family to summon the long-dead Celebrimbor, a demagogue craftsman who ruled Mordor back when it was a verdant place. Sauron screwed Celebrimbor over, too, but on an even more galling scale. Middle-earth’s premiere necromancer duped him into creating the rings of power that wrecked all of Middle-earth for an age, including Sauron’s one ring to rule them all.
At that time, Celebrimbor seized the one ring back from Sauron, stole his army, and took over Mordor, but this first revenge didn’t last. Not only did Sauron steal back the ring, he turned Celebrimbor into an wraith, neither alive nor dead, and murdered his family in front of him. When he’s summoned and accidentally fused with Talion’s dying body, like many trauma victims, he doesn’t remember most of that awful stuff. He knows slightly more than Talion himself, sure only of the fact that they are both pissed and they are both going to walk across Mordor killing everyone in their path until Sauron and his goons get what’s coming. Who cares that revenge didn’t work the last time he was conscious a few millennia back? Maybe it’ll work this time.
That insidious logic drives most of the action in Shadow Of Mordor and often to thrilling effect. Retribution is ultimately a potent drug, providing a euphoric high in the perception that two wrongs do in fact make a right. Every time an orc general dies, that’s one more monster paying for the lost lives of Talion and Celebrimbor’s families. Even if it doesn’t strike directly at Sauron or the leaders that followed his orders, it whittles away at the structure they’re part of, and that feels good.
The game, in turn, keeps ramping up the scale of its revenge fantasy with bigger targets and, thus, headier highs. In order to reach the Black Hand, Talion and Celebrimbor have to work methodically through the orc hierarchy, taking out low-level sergeants to lure out the generals and ultimately the Black Hand himself. Doing so requires manipulating orc leaders’ fears and rivalries. Sometimes you can even trick them into killing each other. Each time you face down one of these leaders, though, the game remembers your actions. If you die trying to bring one down, he’ll taunt you the next time you run into each other. “Ready for another go!” some drooling, tusked freak will yell at Talion from a crumbling rampart. Suddenly the revenge quest has sub-revenge quests.
Shadow Of Mordor constantly finds new ways to needle you, too, going so far as to pick one of these orcs to come back to life no matter how many times you kill them, a true nemesis. The tide of stronger enemies, the access to the Black Hand’s inner circle—it all gives Talion and Celerbimbor’s quest a false sense of progress. Just when it looks like it might be over, it turns out there are even more people to punish. This all has to be going somewhere, right?
Finally, after killing nearly every orc general and leaving a trail of blood across Mordor, you get your shot at the Black Hand and Sauron. With his own army of orcs, magically brainwashed into servitude, Talion storms the Hand’s fortress only to find that irksome orc nemesis standing at the gates. One last irritation before the big show, your nemesis is even stronger, taking more and more hits to bring down.
The vengeful high is going to be hard won this time, but when you get inside, the fight against the Black Hand isn’t a fight at all. Attacking him head on is useless. Instead, you have to sneak behind him and use Celebrimbor’s ability to drain the life out of people like the monster you are. Once you realize what you have to do, it’s less taxing than every orc fight you’ve ever had, let alone the final tussle with your nemesis that you just scraped through just minutes earlier. There’s no catharsis here—no victory for Talion—and the emptiness of this moment is felt in the hollowness of the action.
When you “win” the fight, the Black Hand doesn’t die. He sucks Celebrimbor’s soul out of Talion and takes off for the Black Gate, where the whole vicious cycle began, and then you’re off one more time. What seemed like the ending wasn’t actually the ending. Maybe this time things will be different. Shadow Of Mordor, speaking pretty plainly at this point, demonstrates one more time that choosing revenge, choosing violence, never ends differently. Talion returns to the gate, fighting all of the orc chiefs yet again, and climbs to the top for another confrontation. This time, the game doesn’t even offer the pretense of a massive fight with the Black Hand, instead putting you in the middle of a scene where Talion scraps with Sauron himself and you have to tap a few buttons when prompted. The commitment to revenge leaves you playing a quick time event, tapping a button once to dodge a massive blow from the most badass villain ever.
It should be an epic confrontation for the ages, but there’s no high to be had. It’s nothing. The Black Hand dies, Celebrimbor paralyzes Sauron from within, Talion puts down Sauron’s physical form but causes no real lasting damage, and instead of our would-be heroes shuffling off their mortal coil with vengeance in hand—as planned—they concoct a new plan to forge another ring of power and try to destroy Sauron once and for all. More power to launch a bigger fight against the biggest bad guy. Maybe this one will be the victory that convinces Talion and Celebrimbor to give up this constant cycle. Sure. Right. Of course it will.
Shadow Of Mordor ends there, with Talion, nearly as much a wraith as Celebrimbor, plotting the duo’s next attack. Meanwhile the player is maybe looking at their controller a little mystified, wondering why the end wasn’t as exciting as the middle when they were sneaking into massive fortresses and tearing apart legions of orcs. In video game logic, the softball showdowns with the Black Hand and Sauron don’t make sense. But as points on the senseless loop of hurting those who have wronged you, they are inescapable nothings, the ineffectual dose that forces you to realize this isn’t working.