The Lord Of The Rings isn’t interested in moral greys. Either you’re a noble Ranger or a filthy Orc. Gandalf or Saruman. It doesn’t really leave the franchise with many interesting places to go, or so you’d think. But a video game, of all things, is proving that Middle-Earth can use some murky ground.
Middle-Earth: Shadow Of War ($60, PS4, Xbox One and PC, out now) is, as a game, largely a refinement and expansion of the superb first game. You play Talion, an undead Ranger uncomfortably hosting the spirit of the elf Celebimbor. Celebimbor, as Tolkien nerds know, forged all those pesky rings, and at the end of the first game, Talion and Celebimbor decided they were going to forge a new One Ring, one without all the evil.
You do this by infiltrating Mordor, killing or enslaving Orc chieftains and slowly undercutting Sauron’s power base. The gameplay itself is a mix of Assassin’s Creed style sneaking and stabbing, Batman: Arkham dodging and punching, and open-world collectible hunting. And it’s more than capable and fun on that level; you quickly collect skill points to upgrade your abilities, and the simple combat controls make jumping into a squad of orcs a blast.
But the real selling point is the orcs when you’re not fighting them. The game uses procedural generation to come up with a ridiculous mix of orcs with various characters and personalities, from the brash to the whiny. Literally; one Orc we found in our playthrough was dubbed “The Complainer,” and he lived up to the name.
The idea is that as you play, these orcs become distinct rivals, even nemeses. If they kill you, they rise in the ranks, and they’ll make fun of you for sucking the next time you meet them. And if you beat them and they somehow manage to survive, they come back, ticked off and ready for a fight.
An absurd amount of time goes into making the Orcs characters in their own right. As you sneak through the game, you can hear them gripe about work, make fun of their bosses, comment on events in the game, and whine about the grog. They even have accidents on the job:
It’s surprisingly funny stuff and even fairly relatable. Well, aside from the stuff about gutting pinkskins. That extends to the humans, as well, for once the Gondorians have something more to do than dying nobly.
The core of the story, though, builds on ideas Lord Of The Rings brushes up against but doesn’t really touch on. By now everybody knows Shelob, normally a spider, is represented as an attractive woman draped in black silk. But she’s the real villain of the story in a way that you might not expect; Celebimbor wants Sauron’s head for the loss of his family, but Talion isn’t quite so single-minded. As the game progresses, the theme of making peace with your past emerges. Talion may be able to let go, but Celebimbor and Shelob can’t, and they’ll drag everyone they can grab down with them as they drown. The story has its problems, not least because it needs to slot in between the books. But by the end, you’re left with the uncomfortable sense that the One Ring isn’t evil so much as just too much power for anyone, no matter how noble and well-meaning they are.
This focus on the grunts, the side stories, the people left behind is what makes Middle-Earth: Shadow Of War a fascinating take on a classic book. Besides, who doesn’t want to fight an Orc named “The Moaner?”
This review was written with Xbox One review code provided by the publisher.