By James Hancock November 4th, 2014
Back in 2003 I was completely obsessed with BioWare’s now classic computer game “Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic” and I can vividly recall how frustrated I was by the fact that the game was so clearly superior to the new Star Wars movies being made by George Lucas at that time. I felt that George Lucas had completely lost touch with everything that made his original trilogy special and that it was time for a new generation of fans and creators to express the best qualities of the universe he had created. “Star Wars: Knight of the Old Republic” put me in the driver’s seat in a tale that was worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as the best scenes found in “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980), the high water mark of the franchise for me. A few days ago I decided to take the plunge and buy an Xbox One along with the new game “Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor” developed by Monolith Productions. I am both pleased and frustrated to report that I am experiencing some intense deja vu. “Shadow of Mordor” has put me in the driver’s seat of an incredibly compelling story that captures all the darkness, mystery and magic of Peter Jackson’s original “The Lord of the Rings” franchise while at the same time calling attention to the shortcomings and failings of his latest trilogy based on “The Hobbit”, a trilogy that for me that can only be described as a misfire.
Before the legions of Peter Jackson fans line up to cut my throat let me first say that I absolutely love Peter Jackson as a filmmaker. I’m a massive fan of his early, pre-Tolkien work and spent several years bowing before him as he released his original trilogy based on the work of J.R.R Tolkien. I cried like a baby watching “The Return of the King” (2003) in particular when Theoden and the Riders of Rohan arrived to lend a hand at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. I ended up seeing the film six times in the theater. I’m also a Tolkien freak and have read “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Silmarillion” many times over. That said, I’m not a blind follower of Peter Jackson and I think that he and his co-writers made a colossal error in judgement breaking up “The Hobbit” into three mammoth-sized movies with the variety of terrible subplots and new characters they have constructed to flesh out the story, none of which add anything memorable to the movies. I’m all for making a story your own when adapting it to a different medium, but if a filmmaker makes major changes to an acknowledged classic they ought to have a damn good reason to do so. I don’t think the nonsense they concocted with the tyrannical despot in Lake Town is anything but annoying filler even to the most enthusiastic fans of the franchise and the new trilogy unfortunately is weighed down by an abundance of these rotten contributions. I’m crossing my fingers that “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” will absolutely blow my mind but I’m also a realist and I sadly believe that when it comes to Peter Jackson and Middle Earth, the thrill is certainly gone. Maybe it is too harsh to say that Peter Jackson has done with “The Hobbit” what George Lucas did with “The Phantom Menace” but there are enough parallels between both filmmakers that I don’t think think the comparison is unfair. It is time for a new generation of artists to pick up where Jackson left off before he took leave of his senses.
For those of you who have not had a great moment in the world of Middle Earth since “The Return of the King” in 2003, your wait is over. “Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor” is an incredibly entertaining gaming experience that feels as if it could exist within the framework of Jackson’s original trilogy while simultaneously breaking new ground so that it stands on its own merits. The game is geared toward an adult sensibility and pulls no punches in its depiction of the horrors one would expect to find near the borders of Sauron’s land of Mordor. The story is about a ranger named Talion who fights for Gondor and patrols the area near the Black Gate of Mordor. For those of you into continuity, it takes place just before the events featured in “The Lord of the Rings”. With war on the horizon Sauron’s forces are growing more bold. The Black Hand of Sauron and his forces attack Talion’s garrison and nearly kill Talion before sacrificing Talion’s wife and son in a ritual designed to summon the wraith of Celebrimbor (an elf lord who played a key role in creating the Rings of Power). The ritual goes wrong, however, and Celebrimbor’s ghost merges with Talion, saving him from death and turning him into what can only be described as Ranger/Wraith hybrid capable of gaining skill and power in both disciplines. Talion/Celebrimbor then set on a quest of revenge behind enemy lines that gives me a surge of adrenaline every time I play the game. Their relationship reminds me a great deal of that between Captain Marvel and Rick Jones in the classic Marvel comics written and illustrated by Jim Starlin in that the two share a life force but are able to argue about the proper course of action to take.
What makes the game so addictive in the incredibly immersive open world environment. This is an environment regularly patrolled by all manner of orcs, trolls and other horrible creatures that initially make the environment terrifying to explore. But as the player gains power, the environment becomes an incredibly rich, detailed jungle gym where Talion, like a master of Parkour, leaps and climbs about freeing slaves, engaging in assassinations, and unlocking secrets about Tolkien lore (the attention to lore and detail deserve special praise). This is a lean streamlined game with no downtime. There are no towns where the player is obligated to talk to every stranger, no inventory to keep track of. Instead, the game keeps the player busy opening up new areas filled with a variety of side quests that feel completely normal and organic to what the player is already doing. Players have the freedom to do whatever they want whether that is unlocking runes on their three weapons (sword, dagger, bow), progressing along the main storyline, or my favorite: playing around with the new Nemesis system, something I have never before seen in a game.
Without going into too much detail, the Nemesis system keeps track of all the major orcs you encounter throughout the game. Whenever one of these orcs kills you, they gain strength and power and climbs the ranks of Sauron’s army. When you meet them again they not only remember you, but they also bear specific scars from the previous encounter (burns, fake limbs, etc) and will be much tougher to kill. The resulting story lines feel incredibly personal and unique to one’s particular playthrough of the game. Some of these orcs attempt to use Talion to further their own agenda and become in effect cautious allies creating even more soap operas for the player to explore. Just this feature alone makes the game worth playing but the game offers so much more. After waiting more than ten years for a really powerful media experience based on the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, this game has filled the hole in my soul in the most visceral way possible. Nothing makes coming back from a long gaming hiatus more satisfying than a really positive gaming experience. After maintaining a tough raiding schedule with my guild throughout the “Mists of Pandaria” expansion to “World of Warcraft” I was ready for a long break from gaming to focus on film, comics, MMA and some of my other interests. But like water building up behind a dam, I could only stay away from gaming for so long and now I’m back with a vengeance. I’m already planning on tackling “Civilization: Beyond Earth” and I’ll be first in line to play “Far Cry 4” and “Dragon Age: Inquisition” when they are released. Beyond that, I sincerely hope that Monolith Productions has more plans for this world. Now if I could only convince the guys who made this game to take a look at J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Silmarillion”…
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