Welcome to our Game In Progress review of Middle-Earth: Shadow Of War. Over the next two weeks, Gameological editor Matt Gerardi will be playing through this sequel to Shadow Of Mordor, the grisly Tolkien-verse game of orc stabbing and manipulation. This second installment covers everything through the end of Act II and contains specific plot details.
There’s a horrible reality underneath all the blood and bombast of Shadow Of War: When you “dominate” an orc, you are erasing its agency and enslaving it. There’s really no two ways around it. The notion that this entire game is built upon the act of removing another living thing’s will and using them as an object is an unsettling truth that you’re forced to confront over and over again. Sometimes it’s not enough to brainwash your enemy. Sometimes you also have to explode your allies’ heads or steal their life like the miserable vampire you are. Sometimes the people around you will question your methods, pointing out that the Ring Of Power enabling your domination has been used time and again to deceive and corrupt others and that its use never ends well for the wearer. Sometimes Talion himself, the human half of the game’s possessed ranger star, even protests, calling out his bodymate, the ring-maker Celebrimbor, but offering little more than a shrug when the all-powerful Elf ghost pushes back with some pompous defense. The game clearly wants you to think about what you’ve spent dozens of hours doing, or at the very least, it’s finally accepted the fact that there’s really no escaping the hypocrisy and ugliness of its entire conceit.
But the nature of your mental dominion over the orcs is thrown into question by their newfound ability to break free from your control and betray you. One of these turns is baked into the story, and while Talion and all of his allies think it would be best to just kill the poor bastard and cut off his rebellion before it goes too far, Celebrimbor insists you have to cripple his mind even worse than you did before as a warning to other orcs who might deign to break from your grasp and seek revenge for the fact that you brainwashed and abused them. The nerve!
The ending of that story line, in which you track down and use your ghost powers to destroy the mind of this betrayer, is one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever been forced to do in a video game. After enslaving him, using him, and doggedly pursuing him once he snapped from your spell, the orc begs for you to “just end it.” Instead, you give him a fate “worst than death” and he screams out in agony. Mentally broken, he falls over in a heap and starts whimpering, only able to say “I never wanted the fort,” in reference to the stronghold he turned on you to take for himself. One of your orc allies who witnesses all this says he’d rather die than end up like that, to which Celebrimbor callously replies, “That’s the point.” Another ally calls you “cruel” and leaves you to sit with the orc you’ve just devastated, the camera panning over to his blubbering husk one more time before Talion turns his back on him.
Sure, it wasn’t very nice of him to impale me and throw me off a balcony in front of the rest of my slave army, but let’s face it, the words “my slave army” alone mean I had it coming. It’s unlikely that he never wanted the fort in question—it’s pretty clear that he did want it, at least at one point—but his sad, broken mantra makes it seem like his motivations ultimately lied elsewhere. Perhaps he just wanted to get back to the life he had before I burst into the picture and became his new master. Instead, in this world where violence begets nothing but violence, he sought the hollow satisfaction of revenge. By the end of his quest, he was finally free from my control, but I had so thoroughly destroyed his will that the specter of my wrath would haunt him for as long as he lived. That’s not freedom; that’s not life. And after I had moved on, my victim showed up again out of nowhere, swinging his cudgel and still raving about not wanting the fort. My stomach churned upon hearing those cries, and now, free from the game’s forceful hand pushing me to annihilate his brain, I finally gave him the release he wanted. It felt like the least I could do.
At another point in my Act II exploits, I was confronted by one of my orcs who had died in battle. He was stitched back together, given life by some black magic, and returned to this mortal coil to seek revenge on the master that let him down. His monologue was just as enlightening and dismaying as my interactions with the traitor. His face was covered and he called himself “the nameless one,” claiming to represent “every orc you abandoned and betrayed.” It was a poignant way to rub my villainy in my face, to remind me of all the orcs I thoughtlessly sent out to die or summoned to my side so I could drain them of their energy just to gain back a little bit of health. And he was correct. If he had a name before, I surely didn’t remember it now, nor did I remember how he fell. He’s right to call me a monster. But he’s wrong to assume I didn’t care.
The same thing that makes these reminders of your cruelty so harrowing is what makes your less fraught interactions with the orcs so charming: By design, each is an interesting, fleshed-out character with a personality and spirit of their own. I built a Pokémon-like level of connection with my favorites and beamed like a proud papa whenever they were able to handle matters on their own. Anytime they entered the fight pits to prove themselves in combat and infiltrate the orc hierarchy as my spy, for example, I’d travel to the arena and get a rush of pride as I watched them come out on top—or feel a pang of loss if they died in my name. The same could be said of the many ambushes I set up, turning all of an orc warchief’s bodyguards against them and watching as his underlings tore their unsuspecting leader apart. In those moments, as all the game’s many gears were whirring in unison and my dastardly work was coming to fruition, I forgot all about the underlying horror of my actions, that I was perpetuating the enslavement of a race that was born from torture and has been under the thumb of an evil master for its entire existence. I like to think of Dugz The Singer as my silly orc friend, but when you get down to it, I’m really no different from The Dark Lord Celebrimbor has been railing about.
With only the game’s first two acts under my belt, I can’t fully comment on how it handles this terrible truth. It’s been gradually gaining the nerve to bring up my own villainy and confront me with the nightmarish results of my actions. It’s gotten to the point where the game’s final hours have to reckon with the reality of what you’ve wrought. If after Celebrimbor shouts to his doubters that “It is not noble men we are dominating, but savage orcs”—blatantly borrowing the language and justifications behind the atrocity of human slavery—the game doesn’t address these issues, then Shadow Of War’s developers have missed a massive opportunity to condemn the evils their creation is forcing players to commit.