Shadow of WTF

by Arthur B

Middle Earth: Shadow of War is essentially Fanfic: the Videogame.
When we last left the story of the Ranger Talion in Shadow of Mordor, he’d started his day being murdered by the forces of Sauron and then things just kept getting worse. Given a strange sort of half-life by being fused with the spirit of Celebrimbor, the legendary elven smith who had forged the Rings of Power with Sauron, we followed their journeys together as they began their guerilla war against Sauron, using the power to control orcs’ minds to turn the Dark Lord’s forces against him.

All this Grand Theft Mordor shenanigans was fun enough, but whilst the original Shadow of Mordor was like the Saint’s Row of Middle-Earth, Shadow of War is its Saint’s Row 2: it takes the gameplay of the original and injects it with a hefty dose of absolutely bizarre nonsense that makes a farcical cartoon of the whole thing.

In literally the first cut scene, we catch up with Talion and Celebrimbor in the process of forging a brand new Ring of Power underneath Mt. Doom. The New Ring looks like a silly gothic version of the One Ring, where it’s black with silver writing instead of gold with gold writing. Celebrimbor has gone all-in on calling himself the Bright Lord and is intent on conquering Mordor, and Talion is along for the ride since he reckons overthrowing Sauron like this will ultimately be what's best for Gondor.

This project must wait a while, however, thanks to the intervention of Shelob. Now, friends, I realise you are used to Shelob being a big ol’ spider monster, but the producers of this game apparently decided that it'd be too hard to depict you having extended conversations with a giant spider, so she only spends a few seconds of this game in that form; for most of the time she's in the form that in honour of that Simpsons meme I think of as Stupid Sexy Shelob, where she's this dark-haired pale-skinned gothic lady in a flimsy dress. (“In this spider silk I feel like I’m wearing nothing at all… Nothing at all… Nothing at all…!”)

Still in the first cut scene, Shelob steals the New Ring, and when Talion and Celebrimbor ask for their toy back she's like “lolno, I’m just going to weirdly flirt with Talion for a bit”. Talion and Celebrimbor go off in a grump - particularly Celebrimbor because he's permanently grumpy and gets all jealous when Shelob gets sexy at Talion - and they go off to Minas Ithil, Gondorian fortress, where they reckon they can obtain a Palantir as a consolation prize. It's under siege by an orc army led by the Witch-King of Angmar, however, and is only days away from being conquered and becoming Minas Morgul (as seen in the movies). A certain amount of questing later, and the city falls, the Palantir is lost, but Shelob decides that owning the New Ring brings more Nazgul-themed trouble than it's really worth and gives it back to Talion all wrapped up in a package of enigmatic flirting. And that's when things get really wacky…

So, as you might have inferred from all this, this really isn't the game for you if you are very precious about Middle-Earth canon. Whereas Shadow of Mordor took a few liberties here and there but could conceivably be a tale that unfolded in that downtime between The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring, this is some developer’s wildly divergent fanfic exploding across the screen.

There's collectible shards of Shelob’s memories which eventually reveal that she and Stupid Sexy Sauron (in full bishounen mode) totes used to bang but then he dumped her when the armies of good came calling, so she's sad and wants him to suffer. There's a Stupid Sexy Nature Spirit who I am 99% sure is meant to be an entwife; Monolith have been coy on this point, but it could just be that the licence won't let them overtly declare that she's an entwife, even though it would make more sense for her to be that than anything else. There's a Balrog that you have to fight along with the Stupid Sexy Entwife, which at one point degenerates into an extended pro wrestling-esque brawl between the two big beasts. You have an elf ninja sent by Galadriel to harass the Nazgul. You have the revelation that Isildur became a Nazgul, having been resurrected after dying so he could be forced to wear one of the Nine For Mortal Men Doomed To Die until he got Nazgul’d. You have Zog, the orc necromancer, as the leader of a third side in the Mordor civil war you're fighting and whose main plan includes raising that Balrog you killed as a zombie Balrog. You have the ultimate fate of Talion, which is only exceeded in silliness by the ultimate fate of Celebrimbor (which involves full-on fusing with another character Dragonball Z-style). You have the final boss battle against Sauron, where he spends lost of the fight not in his badass armour from the flashback that begins the Fellowship of the Ring movie but in his bishounen form. You have the New Ring apparently having the power to take over the minds of Nazgul and, but for a last-minute twist of fate, Sauron himself.

At some points the game’s own logic curls in on itself and starts gnawing on its own innards. The New Ring, so far as I can tell, does nothing beyond giving you the mind control powers you already had in the previous game and provide another bit of gear you can level up with loot drops. There’s one bit where the first orc captain you mind controlled breaks free of your control and starts a rebellion against you, and the game even flags this as an unusual and worrying event… but never bothers to explain how it actually happened. Nor does it explain why my ability to make all my followers’ heads explode at will stopped working on him. It’s just a random thing which happens to pad out the side quests and waste time without any real explanation of how it happens or any further consequences going forwards, beyond allowing you to unlock a more severe version of your “shame an enemy captain so they lose levels” power.

In short, plotwise the game is absolutely bananas. It also has this weirdly gendered approach to things; Shelob and the entwife both have monstrous forms and sexy forms, and use the sexy forms for talking and monstrous forms for fighting, whereas Sauron also has both but will happily fight in both and actually spends more time fighting in his bishounen form than in his spiky armour form. There's also a really dodgy handling of race: precisely one PoC character shows up, and he's a leader of the otherwise overwhelmingly white Gondorians (which apparently clashes with canon since the Gondorians, as descendents of the Numenoreans, apparently ought to look like north Africans), and at first it goes uncommented-on and that's cool. Then, however, it turns out he started life as a Haradrim who was sent to the Gondorian court as a hostage (this sort of arrangement happened a lot with medieval noble youths) but then identified more with and adopted Gondorian culture. What this boils down to, then, is that the only black person of any significance in the game is a dude who abandoned his own culture because he realised the superiority of a white-dominated culture. Toss in the fact that the Haradrim serve Sauron (a bit of canon they decide not to change here) and it's really not a good look.

As with Shadow of Mordor, it's the orcs and the associated nemesis system that saves things. Whilst the plot spirals off into wild nonsense, the orcs remain there, grumbling away to each other and getting in your face. The much-vaunted region conquest system new to this game is essentially a further elaboration of the orc management system, and it's clear that a lot of brainstorming went into coming up with increasingly wild orc personality bits that can be applied to them. (There's orc bards! They play the lute and sing at you!) Here, the development is more evolutionary than revolutionary.

As a mashup of absurd fanfic theories, well-meaning clumsy racism, and sexy spider ladies with dresses that look like they are in danger of falling off if they relaxed their shoulders, Shadow of War is an incredible car crash. As another open world in the series to flip about in Assassin's Creed-style and mess with orcs in, it's alright, but not alright enough to hold my interest once the plot runs out of absurdity to offer up. There's a point the game reaches where Monolith clearly ran out of the story they want to tell but felt like they hadn't offered enough gameplay, so you have to do a bunch of grindy, repetitive siege defence missions to unlock a final cut scene which shows you nothing you could not infer from the previous cut scene, but I skipped that.

Still, you'll probably want to play to the final act to get the end of Talion's story (because make no mistake, that grindy stuff is all essentially a coda to Talion's tale, which for all intents and purposes has its ending set in stone already by the end of the penultimate act) if you enjoyed Shadow of Mordor. Monolith have gone on the record as saying that they deliberately were a bit cautious with Shadow of Mordor, concentrating on getting the Nemesis system right and learning the ropes of this whole open world business, whilst Shadow of War represents their fully realised vision of what they wanted to do with this franchise, and as bizarre as that vision is I can't pretend that they don't commit to a particular approach to the material and then nail the execution.

Given that this is unambiguously the end of Talion's story, I suspect it's also the end of this series - though given the eccentric imagination on offer here Monolith might surprise us. To be honest, I’d kind of like to see them working with a fictional franchise which had more compatibility with their general approach and sense of humour; Warhammer orcs would fit the Nemesis system and Monolith’s writing approach nicely, for instance...

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Comments (go to latest)
Ronan Wills at 13:39 on 2017-11-10
I bounced off the first game pretty hard due to being thoroughly fed up with both Assassin's Creed style open world games and Batman combat. So maybe I'm missing something, but all the gameplay I've seen of this looks completely baffling and inscrutable; the siege sections are this chaotic whirlwind of NPCs and minimap icons where the camera keeps cutting away to what looks like canned animation sequences.

Is it actually that confusing to play, or does it all make sense once the game eases you in?
Arthur B at 15:45 on 2017-11-10
It is - the canned animation usually happens either because of something you've triggered, or it's drawing your attention to a captain being killed somewhere else, so it isn't as jarring when you are playing as it would be if you're watching.

You get lot of cutaways during sieges because that involves a bunch of captains fighting each other, so obviously you have much better odds of having captains killing each other regularly during the mission.
Daniel F at 11:19 on 2017-11-13
On the racial politics front, if you'll forgive me being a Tolkien nerd about continuity?

To my knowledge, Tolkien never says anything explicit about the usual skin tone of the Gondorians. At times he mentions Gondorians looking 'pale', which seems like it rules out anything excessively dark (so, no sub-Saharan African Gondorians!), but that's about it. Beyond that, we can guess a bit based on the cultures we think they're supposed to correspond to, I suppose. I'm curious where the heck you're getting the idea that the Gondorians should look like North Africans. Even leaving aside that ancient North Africans should not be distinguishable from European Mediterraneans, Tolkien doesn't seem to give you any North African association. You can read Gondor as a stand-in for Byzantium, with Minas Tirith as a crypto-Constantinople, but that would surely give you Greek or, well, Mediterranean Gondorians. At any rate, the only comparison to a real nation that I think Tolkien ever gave Gondor was in letter #294, where he comments that The Lord of the Rings ends "in what is far more like the re-establishment of an effective Holy Roman Empire with its seat in Rome than anything that would be devised by a 'Nordic'", which would surely suggest Romans or Italians as an ethnic model for Gondor.

If we step beyond that and start thinking about Gondor in terms of Arda's fictional history... you note that the Gondorians are descended from the Númenóreans, which is partly true (the aristocracy is; the common people of Gondor seem to be more mixed), but who are the Númenóreans? The Númenóreans were descended from the Houses of Bëor and Hador of the Edain, and the ethnographic characteristics of both houses are described in 'Of Dwarves and Men' in The Peoples of Middle-Earth. Of the Folk of Hador, "For the most part they were tall people, with flaxen or golden hair and blue-grey eyes, but there were not a few among them that had dark hair, though all were fair-skinned." (The Gondorians believed the Rohirrim to resemble the Folk of Hador and assumed they had some ancestral relation, though the Rohirrim themselves had no memory of this.) Of the Folk of Bëor, Tolkien writes: "There were fair-haired men and women among the Folk of Bëor, but most of them had brown hair (going usually with brown eyes), and many were less fair in skin, some indeed being swarthy. Men as tall as the Folk of Hador were rare among them, and most were broader and more heavy in build." Nonetheless the Folk of Hador and Bëor were related, as shown by their similar languages. The Númenóreans arose from the people of these kindreds who were taken to Númenor by the Valar, and so presumably share their various characteristics. (To my knowledge there were also a few people descended from the Folk of Haleth among the Númenóreans and even a small number of Drûgs, but these were the smaller groups.)

As such my presumption would be that the Númenórean-descended folk of Gondor probably tended towards fair skin and a wide range of hair and eye colours.

The Haradrim, by contrast... well, The Return of the King does have a brief reference to "out of Far Harad black men like half-trolls with white eyes and red tongues", but I take the reference to Far Harad to suggest that the folk of Near Harad did not look like this. Bearing in mind Near Harad's close history with Gondor, and the presence of Númenórean nobility among them, particularly in Umbar, I incline to this view. That is to say, the history of Near Harad is closely entwined with that of Gondor, because they are actually of very similar historical origin: they are countries ruled by Númenórean-descended lords, who in ages past colonised these lands, conquering and 'civilising' the natives, and then eventually coming to feud with each other over political power and perhaps over Númenor's legacy itself.

In that regard, then, I would take the simplistic depiction of Haradrim as African and Gondorians as European as a problem. I don't give any real credence to 'black' or 'white' in this context, and if the game introduces a distinction along those lines...

Well, I would say that I'm appalled, but frankly the game seems to have more than enough to appall me before ever bringing ethnic politics into the picture.
Arthur B at 12:19 on 2017-11-13
Huh. I confess that the North African thing comes from a friend who was commenting on my Facebook posts about the game so I don't have a direct source.
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 21:54 on 2017-11-13
You know, I've never read any of Tolkien's work, and I've never really watched any of the movies, but for some insane reason the concept of Stupid Sexy Shelob just sticks in my craw. I mean, I can barely tolerate little spiders at the best of times, never mind ones the size of a rhino, but when I heard that this game was giving Shelob an avatar, I was thinking "okay, spiders terrify me, but you told me there was a giant horrible fucking spider, so you damn well better give me a giant horrible fucking spider."

Personally, I think the whole thing would've been more acceptable if they had taken the SHODAN route and had Shelob give herself an avatar, but make her so contemptuous of humanity that she only puts the bare minimum of effort into appearing human. She could look like a woman, but have her voice processed and layered to hell and back, get a dancer for the mocap who can perform "arachnid" styles of movement, and just have her talking about creepy shit with slightly-broken dialogue. (I'd kind of like to see her just grab a bird out of the air and eat it à la Shadow of the Vampire, but that might be a bit much.)
Daniel F at 03:37 on 2017-11-14
Ah, well. I was being far too obsessive anyway, so never mind.

On Shelob... it occurs that Tolkien did talk, in On Fairy-Stories, about his contemporaries losing the sense that danger or evil can be beautiful. Arguably that might give you a road towards an attractive form for Shelob.

However, that comment of Tolkien's always rang rather false to me, because Tolkien's own work is noticeably lacking in beautiful villains. At most you have the form in which Sauron manipulated the ring-smiths of Eregion, but in The Hobbit and LotR, the villains are without exception ugly or spooky. (Unless you count Saruman's voice, I guess.)

Beyond that, there is such a difference between a beautiful form and a sex-object form that I really can't see it as a fair justification for Shelob. It feels like... well, like a bit of trashy sub-D&D fanfic.
Robinson L at 20:00 on 2017-12-15
You know, from what you describe, this game sounds inappropriate to the source material and just generally bonkers that I feel like I just might find it perversely entertaining, if I had time for video games.

I heard the thing about Aragorn canonically being North African somewhere recently, too – I think from one of my sisters, but I’ve no idea where she got it from.
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