Lord of the Rings—not even in its cinematic, action-heavy form—doesn’t really lend itself to the power fantasy of video games. That’s not stopped people from trying for years, including the latest game, the hack-n’-slash-meets-orc-dating-sim Middle-Earth: Shadow of War. But Shadow of War fails to understand Lord of the Rings in some pretty fundamental ways.
As a video game, Shadow of War is pretty good. If you’re into running around a fantasy world as a ridiculously overpowered superhero who can turn foes into slaves and can stab lots of people real good, it’s a fun time, as our friends over at Kotaku can attest to. But as a piece of fiction set in the world of J.R.R. Tolkien’s most beloved work—through the visual language of Peter Jackson’s movie adaptations—it falls short in ways both obvious and subtle.
For those not up to the latest in Lord of the Rings video games, Shadow of War is the flashy sequel to 2014's Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor. Mordor introduced us to Talion, a Gondorian ranger who, shortly after being slaughtered alongside his wife and child by a lieutenant of Sauron, is turned into a zombie-esque “Gravewalker” and possessed by the spirit of Celebrimbor—the Elf in the vast lore of Middle-Earth who actually helped the disguised Sauron forge the rings of power thousands upon thousands of years ago. Together in one body, the two went on a vengeance-happy quest across Mordor, lopping the various limbs off orcs all over the place and using Celebrimbor’s spirit-powers to enslave orcs to their will, hoping to create an army that could destroy Sauron for good.
That’s already a bit of a stretch as to what sort of magics and spirits exist in Middle-Earth anyway, but Shadow of War throws what little deference the first game paid to Tolkien’s lore out of the window pretty fast, starting with the immediate resolution of the first game’s cliffhanger: the bit where, err, you forge a new ring of power for yourself. The fact you go running about wielding a supposedly uncorrupted mirror to the One Ring for much of Shadow of War just scrapes the surface of the absurd things the game does to Lord of the Rings mythos. In the grand scheme of things, this probably ends up being one of the game’s lesser twists, which is saying something.
You may have heard about some of the crazier things in the game already, like the aforementioned ring of power and, perhaps, the fact that giant spider Shelob from Return of the King appears, but spends roughly 95% of her screentime as an attractive lady in sultry evening wear. By the way, Sexy Shelob is a quasi-noble force for good looking out for Middle-Earth’s best interests. But then there’s things like the fact that the fall of Minas Ithil and its transformation into Minas Morgul takes place in this game, a few decades before The Hobbit, despite occurring thousands of years earlier in Tolkien’s lore.
The whole quest line revolving around an Orc Necromancer named Zog is another doozy. It’s not just his actual magical powers to raise the dead that break the lore; no magic of the sort really appeared in Tolkien’s works. (Even if Sauron was referred to as “The Necromancer” in the books, it’s not used in the Dungeons and Dragons sense, as it is here.) No, it’s the fact that Zog has been resurrecting dozens upon dozens of people, yet no one seems to be impressed by an orc with the ability to literally bring people back to life (unlike Talion, who is still technically dead but animated by the spirit of Celebrimbor).
If your Tolkien-purist head wasn’t spinning enough already, there’s also the involvements of the Ringwraiths in Shadow of War that has frankly insane implications. At one point you’re tasked with hunting the nine Ringwraiths down and defeating them (albeit temporarily) and while doing so it’s revealed two of them are important figures from Lord of the Rings lore. One is Helm Hammerhand, the famous King of Rohan who lent his name to the fortification seen in The Two Towers, despite the fact he lived and died thousands of years after Sauron first corrupted the wielders of the nine rings gifted to men.
The other is even crazier, because it’s Isildur—as in, the Prince of Gondor who cut the One Ring off Sauron’s hand to end the War of the Last Alliance, before taking the ring for himself and eventually losing it so that Sméagol could find it two and a half thousand years later. While the game shows both Helm and Isildur receiving the rings that would turn them into Ringwraiths—Helm on his deathbed, Isildur literally after he’s died and had his corpse dragged from the Gladden Fields to Mordor—it never chooses to explain what happened to the Ringwraiths who they must have replaced, given those nine original Men were supposed to be doomed to serve Sauron’s will for all eternity.
But in the end, it’s not these lore-nerd grievances that are the depths of Shadow of War’s bizarre, twisted take on Lord of the Rings, as crazy as they are. Because really, what makes Shadow of War such an un-LotR-esque experience is that it’s ultimately a game about people who cast aside hope and embrace evil in an attempt to control its power, and fail in spectacular ways while doing so. General Castamir, the guardian of Minas Ithil, despite successfully mounting the city’s defense against the orcs with the help of the player and his fellow Gondorians, chooses to betray his people and undo all of your work by handing the city over, because he believes he can guarantee his daughter’s safety—as, in his eyes, the city is doomed to fall anyway. His reward? Minas Ithil falls, the Witch King kills him and countless other civilians anyway, and the city is transformed into Minas Morgul.
Eltariel, an Elven assassin who helps you escape Minas Ithil and has spent thousands of years keeping the threat of the Nazgul contained within Mordor on Galadriel’s behalf, chooses to betray both Talion and Galadriel to become Celebrimbor’s new host, so that the spirit can complete his plan to dominate Sauron’s will and rule the Dark Lord’s armies, keeping them held in Mordor’s borders. Although we see the two fail, Shelob immediately tells the player (and a now-dying-again Talion) in a vision that she saw a future where even if they had succeeded, Celebrimbor and Eltariel would’ve succumbed to the power they would’ve wielded controlling Sauron’s armies and ravaged all of Middle-Earth anyway.
And then there’s Talion himself. After being abandoned by Celebrimbor, in order to survive long enough so he can take Minas Morgul for his own and use it to guard Middle-Earth from the hordes within Mordor, Talion takes the defeated Isildur’s ring of power, fully accepting that one day it will enslave him to Sauron’s will. As long as it gives him the power he needs right now, the cost of everything he’s tried to hold on to over the course of the game is an easy price to pay.
There has always been a bleak inevitability to Talion’s plight in the Middle-Earth games. By its nature as a prequel to the events of Lord of the Rings, Talion and Celebrimbor would always be doomed to fail in their quest to lay Sauron low, because we knew that it was always going to be someone else’s job. A sense of doom is laid into its conceit from the get-go.
But instead of finding some sort of hope in those dire circumstances, Shadow of War chooses to so narrow-mindedly embrace the inevitability of its premise to the point that it sees darkness as depth, and nothing feels good about the way it all comes to an end. Celebrimbor’s quest for vengeance, never the most noble of things in the first place when you thought about it for more than a few minutes, ends with him merged into Sauron’s spirit as the fiery Eye of Sauron, and with Eltariel cast aside and likely dead.
Talion himself, now sustained by one of the corrupted rings of power, doesn’t go out fighting to contain Mordor’s hordes from the gates of Minas Morgul, but willingly falls to corruption at seemingly the drop of a hat (despite the game’s narration telling us it took decades; not showing it at all robs the moment of any real tragedy, as the transformation is instantaneous for the player). Even if the “true” ending of the game reveals that once Sauron is defeated Talion’s spirit moves on in peace, it means he spent years and years doing terrible things under the thrall of Sauron as a Ringwraith. It’s a grim end for a character you’ve spent hours and hours playing as, because ultimately Shadow of War really wants you to know that everything you achieved in the game was all futile. There was no hope at all, everyone involved in your quest dies or is corrupted—and that’s it, because everything sucks and evil will always emerge again, no matter what you do. Unless hobbits are involved, presumably.
The very heart of Lord of the Rings as a saga is about the strength within all kinds of people, from the most powerful wizard to the smallest Hobbit, to persevere when it feels like there is no hope. To stand together, and even die together, if it means you hold fast against the temptation of darkness—as long as there is hope, the smallest good can prevail against the greatest evil. Somewhere along the way, Shadow of War forgets that, wallowing in darkness for darkness’ sake. In the end, it’s that bit that feels like a much greater misunderstanding of Lord of the Rings than any giant-spider-turned-into-a-sexy-lady or random-major-lore-figure-turned-into-a-Ringwraith ever could.