There’s a subversive idea at the heart of Shadow of Mordor, one which goes against the whole premise of the source material, but which tickles the mind of anyone who’s ever read the books or seen the movies has thought, quietly, to himself:
“Yeah, but what if Aragorn used the ring?”
I mean, sure, the explicit premise is the the ring is a machine of corruption, and will bend anyone to the will of Sauron. Okay, yeah, but what if like, a really, really good guy took the ring and used it to become the ultimate badass fighter? That’d be pretty kickass, right?
Mr. Tolkien, meet modern AAA gaming. They have some script notes for you.
The story: Talion the ranger lives a life of duty guarding the lands beyond Mordor, and happiness with his wife and son. Since this is a video game, that doesn’t last long and his family are murdered in front of him and his soul is bound to that of an ancient elf lord. This gives him access to mystic powers and makes him a wraith, which is the game’s explanation for why being killed causes him to
respawn resurrect. He then sets off on his Revenge Plot, killing orcs, completing side quests, powering up, and collecting hidden trophies. In surface terms, it’s your standard third-person battler.
The most intriguing difference comes in the behind-the-scenes aspect of the game, because while the ultimate goal of Talion is to kill those responsible for the murder of his family, the way the game advances this plot is by having you take down Sauron’s command structure, one piece at a time. You’re presented with an org chart of lieutenants, and captains, working your way up with the ultimate goal of eliminating all five of the war chiefs and leaving the army in disarray.
But once you do that, the game is only half-over. Because then you move into a new area where you have to do it all again. But, in a very smart twist in the gameplay, the focus turns from killing your enemies to controlling and making sure they survive because you have now gained the ability to dominate your enemies, and you have to build an army.
Consider that from the perspective of the tone of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, in which everyone who attempted to wield that kind of power—Saruman, the Nine Kings of Men, Gollum—became hopelessly corrupted, consumed by evil, regardless of whether they had the best of intentions like Steward of Gondor. In Shadow, however, it just works.
I kept waiting as Talion (and I) pulled more and more of Sauron’s army under my control that either he or the elf-lord would slowly succumb to the temptation to do more, to maybe drive some humans away (by force) for their own good, of course, or maybe dominate a few humans who’s help was required, wether they liked it or not. But no, you take control of an army of savage, barbarous, cannibalistic orcs, and there’s absolutely no downside.
Let’s be clear: Shadow delivers the goods otherwise; this is a fun game to play, especially once you move up the skill tree, power up your magical abilities, and can take on sixty opponents in one fight and walk out the winner. The moves are well-choreographed and shot, and if you like brutal kills, this game has them in spades, with combat beheadings, arrow headshots, stealth brutalizations that send onlookers running, and eventually the ability to teleport between multiple opponents, slaying each one. Just like Aragorn did!
And ultimately, that’s the itch that Shadow scratches; it takes the one-on-many fights from The Lord of the Rings films and adds magical abilities that Gandalf never displayed into a game that’s a visceral joy. I really enjoyed playing this game, but the more I think about it, the less it feels like the Third Age, and more like a Mary Sue version of it where the central question isn’t, “Can these characters bear the unbearable and resist their own darker nature,” but is rather, “What if you could slip your moral tether and there were absolutely no negative consequences?”
Developer: Monolith Productions
Mac Publisher: Feral Interactive
System Requirements: 2.4Ghz processor,OS X v10.10.3, 8.0GB RAM, 80.0GB Hard Drive, 1.0GB of VRAM, multi-button mouse