In a recent interview, celebrated film director David Fincher discussed being approached to helm the forthcoming Star Wars sequels. In laying out his vision, Fincher compellingly argues that Star Wars is not a tale of guys with magic powers running around the galaxy dismasting each other with laser swords, but instead the story of two metal slaves, C-3PO and R2-D2, who “go from owner to owner, witnessing their masters’ folly, the ultimate folly of man.” Unsurprisingly, this wasn’t exactly the tack Disney planned on taking with the $30 billion franchise, and the company anointed J.J. Abrams instead. But Fincher’s unrealized robot slave opera was very much on my mind as I played Middle-Earth: Shadow Of Mordor, the latest video game set in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings universe.
You play as Talion, a dour human ranger of the North—a guy cut from much the same haggard cloth as Tolkien’s Aragorn. He lives with his wife and son on the border of Mordor, the sulfurous black land administered by the duly elected Dark Lord, Sauron. Unsurprisingly, things go very, very bad very quickly, and Talion soon finds himself, in the immortal words of Miracle Max, mostly dead. He’d be all the way dead if it weren’t for a blood curse put on him by the one of Sauron’s top lieutenants, who, in killing Talion and his family, linked the ranger’s essence to that of a long-dead elf lord. The grim elf wraith has no memory of who he is or why he and Talion have been spiritually fused together, so the two of them are off to get some answers in what is sure to be remembered as Middle-Earth’s strangest buddy comedy. As Mordor is primarily peopled with foul orcs—or Uruks—it is these creatures who Talion and the ghostly amnesiac elf lord interrogate for answers.
In Tolkien’s mythology, the orcs can trace their lineage back to elves whose genes were long ago spliced with distilled evil and possibly some kind of booger-based genetic pool. The resulting creatures are grotesque and extremely violent, as well as lacking any formal government structures other than following the guy who is best at murdering his constituency. They are predisposed to serving as the willing slaves of evil wizards and the occasional iron-fisted demiurge, and in the game commonly sport ironic names like Nazkuga The Merciful or Ratanak The Endless, whose quick death by Talion’s blade belies his title.
Indeed, being mostly dead has done nothing to dull Talion’s considerable fighting skills, and being linked to the elf wraith has given him an impressive range of powers that can be augmented as the game progresses. This comes mainly at the expense of wave after wave of orcs, with players mowing through using a familiar combination of counter-based brawling from the Assassin’s Creed and Batman: Arkham games. The initial goal is to eliminate orc war chiefs and sow confusion among Sauron’s army, but killing for killing’s sake becomes its own source of twisted satisfaction. The orc hierarchy is a fluid thing, and shifts accordingly after a captain is killed, either by Talion or a rival. Killing captains outright isn’t always the best strategy—important intel about the strengths and weaknesses of their superiors can be gleaned through Talion’s brand of advanced interrogation technique.
Death is a constant companion in Mordor, and the ranger is sometimes overwhelmed by the onslaught of the black land’s denizens. But Talion’s curse ensures that he can never truly die. Any time you’re overwhelmed by orcs, Talion respawns in one of the ghostly white towers that dot the map. Orc leaders, though, remember details of your encounters and usually have an off-color comment referencing them prior to a rematch.
Shadow Of Mordor starts a little slow. You’re just killing orcs without a real purpose beyond getting better at killing more orcs. (The game’s main storyline kind of exists independently of your orc-culling missions.) It quickly opens up, though, as details of the elf lord’s past are revealed, and familiar characters start to appear. Sauron may have inadvertently created a rival, though, when Talion develops the ability to control orc minds and make them his own lobotomized servants to counter the Dark Lord’s army. This dynamic has raised troubling issues for some. Is Shadow Of Mordor not, in fact, the story of Talion at all, but instead that of an oppressed race of orcs doomed to do the bidding of a series of tyrannical masters? Have we as a society gotten the orcs wrong this whole time? Are the likes of Nazkuga and Ratanak the real victims here—not Talion and his brutally murdered family? Is the wraith-ranger’s mission tantamount to ethnic cleansing and slaving?
Vaulting over an orc, stabbing him with the broken blade of your dead son, and then making his head explode shouldn’t cause any moral hand-wringing. These guys are pure, unadulterated evil, and they’re getting exactly what’s coming to them. Objective evil might not exist too often in the real world, but what’s fantasy for if not to paint things in black and white?
So as for orc slavery, the nature of evil, and the ultimate folly of man, we’ll leave that for Fincher to explore more deeply when Peter Jackson inevitably hands him the keys to Bilbo’s hobbit hole some time in 2020. Until then, all I know is that I have a lot of guilt-free street justice to mete out along the Black Gate. More salient is how Shadow Of Mordor itself expands and connects to the Tolkien canon in fascinating ways. Middle-Earth has always been a fairly closed system, in that there hasn’t been too much added to the mythology beyond that written by Tolkien himself or compiled from his notes by the author’s son. Most agree that The Silmarillion—Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings prequel, if you will—would be a particularly difficult book to capture in film. Shadow Of Mordor, though, successfully draws on some of that material in a way that is simultaneously engaging for a fan of Tolkien’s extended works but not alienating for those passingly familiar with the story.
Middle-Earth: Shadow Of Mordor
Developer: Monolith Productions
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One (available now); PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 (available November 18)
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4