James Thursfield explores why Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is The Lord Of The Rings game fans have been waiting for.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor was launched 30th September and has received universal acclaim. Despite being launched in the same period as blockbuster titles such as Destiny, Thief and Watch Dogs, developer Monolith has produced a game that has critically surpassed all of them.
Nevertheless, questions have arisen about whether it is a truly great Lord of the Rings game. This concern has been triggered in part by the absence of ‘The Lord Of The Rings’ in the game’s title. It is easy to assume that a game set within the book and movie’s universe should adhere to a title that possesses such a popular following. It therefore seems to the casual that such an absence implies a lack of loyalty to the original source material. However, it has turned out that this very departure from the book and film has produced the greatest Lord of the Rings videogame ever made.
Shadow of Mordor tells the story of a Ranger from Gondor called Talion, set between the events of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. At the start of the game Talion and his family are killed during Sauron’s return to Middle-Earth. However, instead of dying, Talion is rescued by an Elven wraith called Celebrimbor, is made immortal, and gains wraith-like abilities in the process. The game quickly becomes a story of revenge, where Talion gorily crosses through Mordor on his quest to kill The Black Hand of Sauron whilst learning more about Celebrimbor’s past.
As a piece of Tolkien lore, the game succeeds. The story touches upon areas that are only briefly mentioned in the books. Through the combination of exploring Celebrimbor’s past and interaction with Gollum, the player learns more about the origins of Sauron and the forging of the Rings of Power. Furthermore, collectibles in the game pay homage to groups such as the Dwarves and the Bagginses and demonstrate the great degree of integrity and care the developers have showed towards the source material.
The big question that remains is, why the game does not possess ‘The Lord of the Rings’ epithet in its title? The game is clearly sufficiently accurate and loyal enough to Tolkien’s lore to be deserving of the title. It is even possible that the game could be more commercially successful if it possessed the official seal of the franchise.
The problem lies in the creative restrictions of “spin-off” video games. Bob Roberts, lead designer on Shadow of Mordor, alludes to the problem within the game industry by stating, “Our goal at the beginning was not to make a movie game… Not to just rehash the events over again.”
Such a statement is not unreasonable. The majority of Lord of the Rings games, including the most recent Lego Hobbit game, have been criticized for showing little creativity due to a commitment to reliving events of the movie in authentic fashion. Shadow of Mordor, in contrast, excels with the creative freedom it is allotted with its departure from the franchise.
The ‘nemesis system’ serves as a prime example of an innovative mechanic which was introduced as a result of such freedom. This system revolves around the game randomly generating orc enemies which adapt with the player’s progression through the game. The orcs will grow in rank and difficulty if they are fortunate enough to land a finishing blow on the player and they will recount their previous engagements with the player on later meetings. This creates a personal relationship between the player and the randomly generated enemy which is engaging to the extent that most players become more immersed in their own personal stories with orc captains rather than with the story of the game itself. This demonstrates how the success of the Shadow of Mordor does not come from scripting an experience in the tradition of the Lord of the Rings franchise, but with creating new mechanics which immerse the player into the universe.
The same freedom is reflected in the game’s mission structure which offers an explorable open-world and gives the player the choice of what they want to complete first. Whether that is a story mission, side mission or just playing around with the ‘nemesis system’, Shadow of Mordor gives the player the same freedom that was clearly allotted to them in the production of the game.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is the best Lord of the Rings videogame ever made because it does not hold the eponymous title. Instead of getting bogged down in rehashing the same events and environments which the player is already aware of, Monolith has produced a new experience within Tolkien’s universe. Such freedom has allowed them to incorporate systems which are genuinely innovative and ensure that the game succeeds as a stand-alone experience. Monolith has shown that it is not about having one ring, but how one bends it to their will.