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Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor takes a very big gamble bending the rules of J.R.R. Tolkien’s world in the same brutal and direct way protagonist Talion conquers his enemies’ minds. And that gamble is a successful one.

Adapting The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit for video games has been a tricky business from the start. Video games need to be either fun or present meaningful challenges. Otherwise, why would you want to play them?

I hear many comparisons between Shadow of Mordor’s combat and the Batman Arkham games when speaking to others about the final release, but developer Monolith Productions has done something special and unexpected by inserting a complex rabbit hole of an enemy system that not only fits the franchise but is a genuinely fun thing.

Shadow of Mordor is a special case of a video game IP standing up to, and even besting, that same property’s film adaptations. The game rivals director Peter Jackson’s recent Hobbit films in terms of pacing and experimenting with Tolkien’s themes in an entertaining way.

A question of pacing

Many Lord of the Rings-based properties fumble when it comes to pacing. I adore Tolkien’s descriptions but, like anyone, can get tired after 20 pages of walking in the woods. It has been necessary for modern adaptations to move at a faster clip and, in the case of the recent Jackson films, ramp up the action sequences.

For the sake of brevity I’m going to sacrifice completeness, which is a hard thing for a Tolkien fan. We’ll stick with comparisons to Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films, although the Ralph Bakshi and Rankin/Bass animated movies were definitely something special, and are worthy of their analysis.

History lesson

There and back again: A history of The Lord of the Rings in video games

Peter Jackson is good at making movies with two dramatic climaxes, each with its own lengthy action sequence. The Lord of the Rings, because the book itself is stuffed with conflicts both verbal and physical, fit snugly into his model.

The Hobbit, however, is less about the clash of swords and more about exploration, self-discovery and outsmarting your opponent. The conversations between Bilbo and Gollum and Bilbo and Smaug are the books’ high dramatic points, while escaping from Mirkwood in barrels and Smaug’s ultimate fate are things that happen, but aren’t where Tolkien places the most tension. The Battle of Five Armies is the only battle warranting lengthy explanation. The main change is the one that occurs inside Bilbo, which is why the book is so special and the films fall so flat.

Jackson’s films turn the barrel scene into a river ride of certain death, pits the Dwarves in a frantic race through Erebor against Smaug, and do things like add battle sequences and new characters (looking at you, Legolas and Tauriel) for that extra action umph.

Modern audiences need these. We have the collective attention spans of a goldfish, and with so many shows, movies, games and comics to consume we have to be judicious in how we spend our free time. These additions are necessary to keep you glued to the screen. This focus on action, while appealing to us, is not what Tolkien’s stories focused on.

Jackson’s Hobbit films, while I love watching them and appreciate his direction, fail the balancing act of taking Tolkien’s source material and presenting it in a way that makes sense and is respectful of the original themes. It’s an amazing book filtered through an unflattering idea of what modern audiences want, and doesn’t reward the act of lighting a pipe and enjoying a deliberately paced book of personal growth.

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There are moments when Talion is staring off into the distance and Celebrimbor will just appear and say, “Hey. You should be doing this.” Whenever Tal makes a major decision, CB (as he is referred to internally among the Shadow of Mordor team) is immediately there to comment. It’s less of a haunting or a possession and more of a devilish “angel on his shoulder” kind of relationship.

It’s another way of exploring the emotional bond between men that Tolkien so often praised in his books, and is so often lacking modern pop culture.

Ratbag’s addition, based on trailers, could be written off as a silly addition meant to bring something interesting to the plot. By having one Orc front and center in Talion’s quest, we are given a more intimate look at how their society works. It’s an important addition, and we’ll talk about it more in a moment.

What initially made me nervous about Shadow of Mordor was the addition of Gollum. I feared that he was being packed in as a familiar face, one visual link to the original trilogy that people would recognize and connect with. An easy way to grab existing and new fans.

But Gollum serves a much greater purpose, one I will not get into here to avoid spoilers, and for the most part hangs around being his same conflicted, nasty self.

Shadow of Mordor‘s Gollum was motion captured and voiced by veteran voice actor Liam O’Brien, whose daunting task of filling film actor Andy Serkis’ shoes was no doubt a large order. But the Gollum we see scampering alongside Talion is the one we have come to know, the same fragile, unhinged creature that’s gross and delightful in equal parts.

If you know nothing else about Lord of the Rings, you know who Gollum is, and his presence in the game is grounding. He also, to my joy, sings to himself.

#Orclife

On a surface level, developer Monolith Productions has given players something previously unexplored within the somewhat rocky history of games based on The Lord of the Rings. Rather than tread familiar grounds covered in previous games and Peter Jackson’s films, Shadow of Mordor spends most if its time tramping around the evil wasteland of Mordor prior to said wasteland phase.

This alone is a massive task, as designers work to construct an area typically treated as the untouchable badlands by modern takes on the source material. But Shadow of Mordor manages to present a lush, beautiful landscape slowly falling to corruption under Sauron’s influence, with orc camps and machines of war slowly killing the environment. For Tolkien fans, this is the same as being able to visit BioShock’s Rapture before it fell to the Splicers.

Not only does the game dig into this previous unexplored environment, it highlights one of Tolkien’s cultures that has been treated like nothing but cannon fodder up until now: the Orcs, the Uruks of Mordor. Previous games have treated them as obstacles to be mowed down.

This is essentially using the weapon of the enemy against the enemy, which numerous Lord of the Rings characters warn each other about. This is one of the central conceits of the rings themselves: You can use their power to try to do good things, but once you give into that temptation you’re lost.

In the game you’re doing a terrible thing and it’s the very thing Tolkien warned us all about. Monolith upends Middle-earth’s virtues and gives us a look at the dark side, the messy and the crude down in the Orc pits and on the fringes of the less-prettier places. It’s a look at the deep, dark side of Middle-earth, the one no one really wants to talk about and one that modern films and games have labeled only as bad country. Embracing a power this dark and open to abuse shouldn’t feel comfortable, and it doesn’t.

We’re in Mordor, enslaving its people and bringing our grievances to Sauron directly. It’s weird, unwalked grounds for a piece based on Lord of the Rings. But it works because it doesn’t do anything by half-measures. If only other adaptations were as fearless, while understanding what made the original material so enduring.

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