'Shadow of War' Delves Deep Into Betrayal, Power, Redemption in Tolkien's World

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“Middle-Earth: Shadow of War” is a deep, dark look at a part of Middle-Earth lore that has previously been downplayed. Instead of elves, dwarves and hobbits, a single man and his orc followers are the ones who kept Sauron at bay for decades.

Talion, the ranger whose family was slaughtered, binding him to an elf lord, slices, dominates, and flips his way through the battlefields of Mordor. Along the way, he builds himself an immense orc army to claim lands inside Mordor and prevent them from becoming breeding grounds for the Dark Lord’s march across Middle-Earth.

A new ring of power is created and becomes the central focus of attention for many of the characters in the storyline. It also binds Talion and Celebrimbor, the elf lord, more tightly, which turns out to be a weakness later in the game.

The combat remains true to the first title, “Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor.” Players can choose between stealth, head on, or a mix of combat tactics. A sword, a dagger, and a ranged weapon, either bow or throwing hammer, complete Talion’s arsenal and can be powered up as the game progresses.

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Chaining together movements and combat tactics are key to clearing battlefields and weakening orc leaders. Once diminished, those orc leaders can be dominated by the new ring of power, turning them to the Bright Lord’s side.

This is how Talion’s army is built to take over the lands of Mordor. Some leaders refuse to be dominated, forcing players to decide whether to fight them to the death or break their spirits, making them potentially easier prey the next time you meet them.

The idea of domination and the accumulation of power is rife throughout the lore of Middle-Earth. Indeed, JRR Tolkien’s development of a One Ring that can rule over all serves as a backbone to nearly everything that has transpired within the region.

Talion and Celebrimbor’s drive to seek revenge against Sauron for separate injustices gives them the perceived justification to use whatever tactics are necessary to defeat the great evil. Domination of the orc leaders is the personification of that justification and the only way to ensure power over the lands of Mordor.

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Building up those leaders with individual combat helps when it comes time to lay siege to the land’s fortress. Deception and subterfuge are also helpful in winning the fortress, so planning will be key for success.

The orcs are broken down into tribes, but without indications in their descriptors, it was hard to tell the tribes apart. Their fortresses were probably the best indicators of specific tribes, being decorated in specific ways that related to the tribe’s name and tendencies.

While the action takes place before the events in “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings,” there are still some characters from those books that make appearances in the game. Gollum shows up and attempts to help Talion by serving the Bright Lord. But it is the appearance of Shelob, known previously as a legendary spider, as a woman whose power rivals many of the major players in Middle Earth that sets the story ablaze with promise.

Her treacherous history with Sauron is played out in snippets collected during play. But it tells the tale of a woman scorned as she seeks revenge against the Dark Lord. Her visions for Talion and of Celebrimbor’s plans create more betrayals, ultimately setting the ranger on a very dark path.

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New characters are introduced that lend to the overall feelings of rage and despair as Sauron attempts to carve his path through the kingdoms of men and into the greater world of Middle Earth. While some of these characters beg to be developed further, their place in the greater story is needed, and when they depart, the player is left feeling a loss.

For fans of the Tolkien world building, it is these touches that augment some of the most crucial times in the history of the franchise. The game makes sure the story is front and center with every action or collectable.

There are items to find that help develop Celebrimbor’s past. The locations are rich in history and portray a landscape that is dangerous and deadly. The roller coaster ride of Talion’s quest keeps players involved and invested.

If there is a drag in the story, it occurs during the Shadow Wars, where players are forced to defend or retake the same fortresses repeatedly. The idea was to portray Talion’s seemingly endless task of keeping Sauron at bay, but after the second cycle, it felt like a slog.

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However, the story rebounded nicely for an ending that set the franchise firmly in its place in the LOTR books. It also feels like this is the end of the franchise, which creates a happy ending, but it takes tragedy to get there.

There are planned expansions that will introduce new orc tribes and reveal two new stories. 

Overall, “Middle-Earth: Shadow of War” will keep players involved and emotional about what happens in the game. The combat requires some skill, but it is the story that will keep players pressing forward to uncover the next chapter in the life of Talion the ranger.

I spent more than eight days in game time in this world, and I wanted to spend more. The attention to details in the characters and the environment heightened the immersion for me into a world that has captivated me for years.

The storylines of power, betrayal, and redemption tugged on the adventurer in me while keeping me emotionally invested in the path and outcome of Talion. His fall was to be expected. His redemption was a joy to behold and, honestly, a bit of relief.

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“Middle-Earth: Shadow of War” is available now for the Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Windows PC. It is rated M for Mature due to blood and gore and intense violence. This post was done after playing the game on the Xbox One with a provided digital code.