Is Shadow Of War Straying Too Far From Tolkien's Vision?

Who needs canon when you've got an orc army and a fire-breathing fell beast?

Last summer we were befuddled by a lack of a Shadow Of Mordor sequel at E3, but patience was rewarded when less than a year later Monolith Productions very unexpectedly dropped a reveal trailer for Shadow Of War.

Other than the disappointing final boss fight and a few minor nit picks here and there across the campaign, Shadow Of Mordor was pretty close to a perfect game. It easily remains one of the best current-gen titles to this day and was among the greatest titles released in 2014.

Expanding The Scope

While keeping the same main character, the follow-up game is set to expand in many different ways, with the sword, bow, and dagger now getting ghostly spear and hammer companions when switching over to the undead Celebrimbor.

There will reportedly be more than 100 skills to choose from -- quite a boost from the first game -- in addition to siege warfare and a frequently shifting map with territory lost and gained over time.

The ranger Talion will eventually have a whole army at his back and laying sage to strongholds is becoming a chief focus, moving up in scope from the previous Nemesis system where your goal was essentially just to kill one orc leader at a time, regardless of location.

       A human ranger leading an orc army isn't quite how I remember LOTR

It's not clear if we'll see the Easterlings at all or if will primarily be orcs as the main fodder, but we do know there will be many bigger and badder enemies from the previous game, like Shelob and barrow wights. How that will be handled remains a mystery, since presumably Talion can't kill Shelob if the game is going to dovetail into the The Lord Of The Rings proper.

Based on the trailer we know at some point you get a graug into a grudge match against a drake, which is another head-scratcher in terms of style and tone. It seems based on the imagery released so far that we'll be battling balrogs -- who weren't known to inhabit Mordor -- and perhaps even Sauron himself in one form or another.

This little nugget of information presents some thorny issues, since the developer has stated Shadow Of War essentially ends where The Lord Of The Rings starts. Unless the story veers completely away from the source material (which is a distinct possibility), that tells us either that:

  • A) Talion loses big time -- R.I.P. Talion
  • B) Sauron has the ability to take human form somehow and Talion is responsible for forcing him back into incorporeality atop his tower
  • C) Talion subsumes Sauron, takes control of the One Ring, and takes up the mantle of the new Dark Lord at the end

That latter possibility seems like it will more than rile up the Tolkien purists and could see a full scale nerd revolt.

Leaving The Source Material Behind

There was already some departure from the novels in the previous game, which drew more from the style of the movies than the literary source material. Caragors and graugs were invented wholesale for instance, and aren't The Lord Of The Rings canon.

Celebrimbor was also known to have forged the rings for the other races under the tutelage of Sauron, but wasn't involved in crafting the One Ring to rule them all. Those changes seem minor in comparison to what's coming next as Monolith leaves Tolkien inspiration behind and essentially become high quality fan fiction instead.

Talion is now leading his own force of orcs back into Mordor against Sauron while flying around on a drake (or perhaps a fell beast?). This addition is an instance where a cool gameplay element that will expand the game in fun ways doesn't actually match the lore.

There's no question that I want to rain down fiery death on an orc fortress astride my winged stallion, but unless its a ringwraith on a fell beast, or a hobbit catching a ride on a deus ex machina eagle, typically characters don't fly around on mounts in Tolkiensville.

 Something about this doesn't feel quite right

To be fair, Talion is sort of a free willed ring wraith (another story departure) and turning the weapons of the enemy against itself was a primary theme of the previous game, so in a roundabout way it could fit. I'm not sure just how your chipper dwarf companion Torvin is going to have any knowledge of fighting and taming a fell beast, though...

Green Is The New Black

The addition of strategy elements, placing specific types of orc troops into different armies for besieging strongholds, will let us see a broader view of the typical Tolkien experience, rather than just one man (or hobbit) on the ground level view.

After taking over a stronghold, someone has to keep the rest of the orc horde in line, which means Talion must assign a new overlord after killing the previous one, allowing for changing experiences depending on who you pick and how they rule in your stead.

Here we've got an interesting enhancement from the first game, adding further personality differences between orc captains. Before those traits were simple things like "afraid of caragors" or "hates fire," but now we're going to dive into the shadowy realm of loyalty and betrayal.

The result is an attempt at humanizing the orcs and infusing them with more personality, which is an odd choice, since orcs are essentially supposed to be the faceless enemy that it's acceptable to butcher by the thousands. You aren't supposed to ask yourself "What is this orc thinking? Did he have a bad day? What's his relationship like with his parents?"

That issue aside, the expansion of orc abilities, aesthetics, and weaponry leads to some combinations that don't particularly feel Tolkien-esque. I mean, Ur-Hakon has a freaking flamethrower. Again, that's cool for a video game, but we're not even remotely in traditional Middle Earth territory here anymore.

 Call Of War: Shadow Of Dutysiders II?

Forget Canon And Have Fun

On the canon and Tolkien style fronts, Shadow Of Mordor and now sequel Shadow Of War have a major issue of scale and scope.

Although fractured and only uniting at the last possible moment, the forces of men and the various supernatural powers like Gandalf and Galadriel only just barely scraped by in defeating Sauron and his armies. Yet somehow little ole Talion and his wraith host can just decimate all of Mordor by himself.

It's inherently a problem in changing from a book or movie to an interactive video game experience: how do you keep a player entertained for 40+ hours when there's a whole army of orcs out there and you only have one main character?

Without question, Shadow Of War absolutely is straying too far from Tolkien's original vision, but unlike those abysmal Hobbit movies, I'm not convinced it will actually detract from the experience.

Legolas (who wasn't even in that book) straddling two broken barrels while flying down a river at top speed and perfectly aiming and headshotting orcs was ludicrous and absolutely destroyed The Desolation Of Smaug, but it would be pretty darn fun in a video game.

What do you think -- have we broken away much too far from canon, and will that impact your enjoyment of the game at all when Shadow Of War lands on August 22nd?

Published May. 3rd 2017

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