03 October 2014

Shadow of Mordor: First Impressions


I had the opportunity to play a few hours of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor last night and it was quite interesting. Tolkien's stuff, if it isn't obvious enough, is one of the few places I let my nerd rage expose itself (and you don't want me exposing myself), so I've been rather vocal about how entirely stupid the premise of this game is. In short, a Gondorian Ranger is killed but comes back as some kind of half-human, half-wraith thingy with the help of an Elf ghost...friend. It's as stupid as it sounds.

But let me start with the positives and with some spoilers. First, the game is brutal. I get that all/most console games are extremely violent these days, maybe even moreso than when I was a hobbit-lad, but being away from that for a number of years took some getting used to. However it is actually one of the game's strengths: the forces of evil in Middle-earth are vicious and terrible and brutal. The Hobbit slightly touches on this in its description of goblins and we get a few glimpses of it in The Lord of the Rings in chapters like The Uruk-hai, or when the Orcs fling the severed heads of Men into Minas Tirith, or especially when Sam and Frodo are making their journey across Mordor -- we get even more of it in the Silmarillion and Children of Hurin. Some seriously brutal shit happens.

But in the two popular books the violence is very vague and poetic. There are few serious descriptions of what actually happens in battles but we can imagine that Men like Boromir and Aragorn are efficient killers of Orcs and that what they do isn't very nice. The closest we get is bits like this:
 even as the orc flung down the truncheon and swept out his scimitar, Andúril came down upon his helm. There was a flash like flame and the helm burst asunder. The orc fell with cloven head.
It's not exactly R-rated stuff, but it's depiction kind of is. So in the game combat and executions are rough and bloody and so is the opening. We meet Talion and, through a series of flashbacks and flashforwards, watch as he and his family are brutally murdered by the Black Captains -- sorcerers of Sauron who execute them while ceremoniously reciting a spell in the Black Speech.

This is very creepy and very cool.

Some other highpoints, in terms of gameplay, is that the map and waypoint systems make it easy to get around Mordor. The system of Orc captains, who power up if they defeat you and bring some personality to an otherwise unending swarm of nameless Orcs, is interesting as well.

Combat was a bit frustrating, though we were likely doing it wrong. Too many Orcs, not enough firepower. Having to run (or just dying) felt cheap but we came to the conclusion that you're meant to run away at first; once you get bigger and meaner then you'll likely be able to handle hordes of Orcs. It would be nice if the game, through its perpetual tutorials, gave you a nudge on this. Even still the fights (which never end) boil down to hacking and slashing and felt a tad repetitive.

Let's get to the weird stuff: you are immediately encountered by a wraith wearing armour and looking mighty cranky. As the game goes on (or if you just watch the spoilers that came out a while ago) you learn that this is Celebrimbor, grandson of Feanor, and greatest craftsman of his age. He made a bunch of rings or something.

This is where they lost me. How is an elf a wraith? I've never come across any reference to this in any of the texts I've read and my general understanding is that the Spirits (Souls, whatever) of Elves immediately return to Halls of Mandos in Valinor when their bodies are slain. There is no hereafter, no 'Heaven' as such, for the Elves as they are bound to Middle-earth forever. They remain in the Halls until the End or until they are sent back, like Glorfindel. Perhaps there is something in the History of Middle-earth that I just haven't yet read to help me with this, but the initial premise of a ghost Elf (I keep picturing Ghost Dad) is just absurd.

In the defense of Monolith, however, they did their homework...sort of. There are lots of cool nods to elvish culture and language and the lore of Middle-earth. Celebrimbor as an amnesiac ghost is a super smart plot device; as you advance the main story the wraith, and thusly you the player, learns more about his forgotten past until we see the big reveal that he is, in fact, the one who made all those Rings. I read on some wiki or other that the reason for Celebrimbor assuming wraith-form, and not leaving Middle-earth, is because he was so brutalized after his capture in the Second Age. In brief, after crafting the One Ring Sauron goes to war against the west of Middle-earth. He sacks Eregion (the Elf-kingdom led by Celebrimbor [and probably Galadriel and Celeborn]), captures Celebrimbor, and tortures him until he reveals the locations of the Rings of Power he crafted. Celebrimbor doesn't give, according to Unfinished Tales...then he is promptly shot with arrows, impaled, and carried around as a terrible banner for Sauron's armies.

The problem here is that it creates this tangential side world that just isn't in the books. Could the power and black magic of Sauron be enough to damn an Elf, a Firstborn, a Noldo, a High Elf who knew of the light of the Blessed Realm, to eternal wraithiness? Probably not. So when this way is tread, even tread well, the writers paint themselves into a corner and the only way out is to hack through the Orcs. The end result feels like a bastardization of what could have been a pure way of representing the books. They were, however, out to make a dark game and this was one way of doing it.

Anyways, it's a cool game with lots of action and character development and an interesting story (Gollum shows up, for example, and knows ghost-Celebrimbor on sight!) that is set in a Middle-earth all its own.

EDIT -- WITH YET MORE SPOILERS

I will allow myself some correction, as a greater Tolkien scholar than I pointed out this quote from the Histories of Middle-earth (Volume X):
The fea (spirit) is single, and in the last impregnable. It cannot be brought to Mandos. It is summoned; and the summons proceeds from just authority, and is imperative; yet it may be refused. Among those who refused the summons (or rather invitation) of the Valar to Aman in the first years of the Elves, refusal of the summons to Mandos and the Halls of Waiting is, the Eldar say, frequent. It was less frequent, however, in ancient days, while Morgoth was in Arda, or his servant Sauron after him; for then the fea unbodied would flee in terror of the Shadow to any refuge - unless it were already committed to the Darkness and passed then into its dominion. In like manner even of the Eldar some who had become corrupted refused the summons, and then had little power to resist the countersummons of Morgoth.
But it would seem that in these after-days more and more of the Elves, be they of the Eldalie in origin or be they of other kinds, who linger in Middle-earth now refuse the summons of Mandos, and wander houseless in the world, unwilling to leave it and unable to inhabit it, haunting trees or springs or hidden places that once they knew. Because also, as has been said, though all that die are summoned to Mandos, it is within the power of the fear of the Elves to refuse the summons, and doubtless many of the most unhappy, or most corrupted spirits (especially those of the Dark-elves) do refuse, and so come to worse evil, or at best wander unhoused and unhealed, without hope of return.

So there is some precedence (in the previously unpublished bits) for Elves lingering in their spirit form. And so I suppose that it is possible that some kind of black magic could use those spirits to reanimate the dead.  However the fact that they chose Celebrimbor, and the fact that they show him helping forge the One Ring (even stealing it and trying to overthrow Sauron), is still a total departure from the books. So there.

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