Get ready for some Middle Earth mayhem. Monolith Productions released an epic gameplay walkthrough for its upcoming open world action game Middle-earth: Shadow of War yesterday.
After its original reveal last week, Shadow of War still had a lot of questions surrounding it. Players wondered if this game would live up to the excellent example its predecessor set. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor came out of the gate strong with a large open world, bloody and brutal combat system, and the innovative Nemesis system.
Right away the gameplay trailer answers that question with a resounding, guttural “yes!” From the start, it’s clear the scope of this game is way more epic. The battle in the debut gameplay is much larger than anything in Shadow of Mordor. Monolith is clearly trying to capture the feel of large-scale battles in Tolkien’s work. There’s also the same gory combat and Nemesis-built custom enemies (and now allies) that players loved in the first game.
But even with all that in mind, there is still one big unknown: the story. From the little Monolith has revealed, it’s clear that Monolith is still taking a fast and loose approach with J.R.R. Tolkien’s work.
To say that Shadow of Mordor took some liberties with Tolkien’s world would be an understatement.
Games have adapted Tolkien’s work in a number of different ways. Yet Monolith has used Tolkien’s world as the backdrop for new stories, carving their own path into Middle-earth. How do these games fit into the many game adaptations of Tolkien’s work? How does Shadow of War hold up under scrutiny from an actual Tolkien scholar?
For Shaun Gunner, chair of The Tolkien Society and a Tolkien scholar, it certainly doesn’t. He defined two kinds of adaptations: those that look like Tolkien’s work and those that feel like his work. For him, Monolith’s games are more the former. In an email conversation, Gunner said, “Visually, these games look like Middle-earth; but they don’t feel [Gunner’s emphasis] like Middle-earth as described by Professor J.R.R. Tolkien.”
Founded in 1969, The Tolkien Society is an educational charity and literary society that studies and promotes Tolkien’s work. Members, like Gunner, have devoted their time and effort to Tolkien and the world he created.
‘What If’ Scenarios
Boromir’s dream of using the One Ring to fight Sauron in The Fellowship of the Ring inspired Monolith’s story. But the way they’ve interpreted that scenario is “a little far-fetched” for Gunner. This “what if” scenario is less a challenge question of Tolkien’s work and more a violent power fantasy.
“It’s not really a challenge that can exist within the bounds of the story Tolkien wrote,” Gunner said. “So ‘What if Bilbo had killed Gollum,’ sure. But this is ‘What if a man dies and a dead elf lord bonds with his body to turn him into a wraith and then he is able to control orcs?'”
In the last game Talion, a Gondor ranger, seeks revenge against the Black Hand of Sauron, who killed him and his entire family. Revived from the dead and possessed with the spirit of Celebrimbor, an ancient Elven smith and the one who helped forge the Rings of Power, Talion uses his new wraith powers to chip away at Sauron’s forces.
That’s a great foundation for an action game, just not a story in Tolkien’s world. Shadow of Mordor gave players the tools to kill and manipulate their enemies with flashy powers. It was, like many other games, a power fantasy. Tolkien’s work, especially Lord of the Rings, critiques the idea of power and often focuses on the idea of power as a corrupting force. Monolith’s games challenge that theme, but Gunner said, “It’s not really a challenge that can exist within the bounds of the story Tolkien wrote.”
Gunner did admit that games can offer effective and challenging “what if” scenarios of Tolkien’s work. He cited Battle for Middle Earth II as “an excellent game which really did challenge our ways of thinking about Middle-earth.”
Good Adaptation or Good Game
Shadow of War’s story may fall flat under the scrutiny of a Tolkien scholar, but that doesn’t mean it will be a bad game. Even Gunner admits there’s a difference between a good adaptation and a good game.
“Undoubtedly the Shadow of War will be an incredibly popular game, but that will be due to good game design, not thanks to Tolkien,” Gunner said.
Some games like the Arkham series can straddle the line between authentic adaptation and being a great game, but it’s not easy. Taking the themes that are at the core of Tolkien’s work and wrapping them in a new story inside an action game was, and still is, a bold move on Monolith’s part. Even with its challenging interpretation of Tolkien canon, it’s hard to deny the appeal of Shadow of War. Great combat, cool powers, and now dynamic, large-scale battles make Shadow of War a game to look forward.
Players will be able to slice and dice their way through Middle-earth and canon when the game launches on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC on August 22.