I recently got around to playing Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, a game that came out in 2014. What I found there pleasantly surprised me, as the story touches on some of the lore in an interesting way while also doing its own completely non-canon thing.
As far as the game itself goes, it is a pretty decent one. It is very similar to the Assassin’s Creed games in terms of combat and movement, except thankfully the enemies don’t just wait their turn to be countered, but can end up swarming you instead. You also end up with some very powerful abilities to deal with the huge amount of orcs you may have to kill. The most interesting thing about the gameplay is the interaction with the enemies themselves. A large part of the game is focused on ‘Sauron’s Army’, and in the menu you can see the composition of the enemy captains and warchiefs. The first thing you’ll notice about the enemies is that they will be directly influenced by you in a few ways. One such way is that if one kills you they may gain a promotion, and then if they see you again they’ll react, usually with annoyance, at having to kill you again. You can also manipulate the enemies into fighting among themselves, or even dominate a lesser captain, and help him rise through the ranks. This element of the game becomes the main point of the story half way through, but I’ll leave it there for now.
The main thing I wanted to mention was the way in which the game uses Middle Earth history in its story, as well as where and when it is set. The story starts off with the main character, a Gondorian ranger named Talion, at the Black Gate of Mordor. Straight away this made me question the game a little because I’m pretty sure Gondor wasn’t able to have rangers stationed there at this point. Also the place is immediately overrun by orcs, or uruks as Talion points out. This is apparently meant to be the moment that Sauron has returned to Mordor to build his army. This also doesn’t exactly fit, as I’m pretty sure there wouldn’t be such a sudden event, but rather a slow establishing of power until Sauron reveals unveils his presence in Third Age 2951. I’ll allow the game a couple of small liberties like these however, and at least we now know roughly when the game is set; before the War of the Ring.
The game fully starts when the main character and his family are executed by the ‘Black Hand of Sauron’ and others, who are presumably Black Númenóreans similar to the Mouth of Sauron. This was apparently a sacrifice that was meant to bring forth a certain wraith into the physical realm, which does happen bu the wraith ends up possessing Talion. Talion later wakes up and for the first part of the game is talking with this wraith who appears to be Elven but apparently can’t remember who they are. It is eventually revealed through flashbacks tied to objects from the wraith’s past life who he is, and that is Celebrimbor. This is where things got interesting for me, as there is usually never a reference to something so far away from the time of the films, and here we are with an elf from the First and Second ages as a playable character essentially. For those not aware, Celebrimbor was the greatest smith an craftsman in Middle Earth since his grandfather Fëanor, and was the original creator of the rings of power. Though the flashbacks that Celebrimbor experiences in the game, he sees memories of Sauron, who came to him disguised and called himself Annatar, the Lord of Gifts, and got Celebrimbor to make the rings of power. Sauron, with this knowledge, then forged the One Ring in order to enslave all other rings and their wearers. However, when this did not work on the three Elven rings, Sauron revealed his true self to the Elves and demanded the rings were given to him, and when refused he invaded. The first place to be attacked was Eregion, the land in the South-East of Eriador that Celebrimbor ruled from the capital; Ost-in-Edhil. when Celebrimbor was defeated he was tortured for the location of the rings, but didn’t give them up, and was in the end killed and his body used as a banner for Sauron’s forces.
So as the game goes on with Talion and Celebrimbor inhabiting the same body, there is a little bit of conflict between the two of them, despite them both originally being united in the goal of killing the Black hand of Sauron. At first Talion believes he needs to do this in order for him and Celebrimbor to be separated and to finally die, something that he wants but Celebrimbor has bigger plans. It turns out the Celebrimbor had been manipulating him the whole time by lying about not remembering who he was, and about them being stuck together but he is actually possessing Talion on purpose. Celebrimbor simply wants revenge against Sauron for the events of the past, and will do anything to eventually get to him. This leads to the core mechanic of the game where you dominate enemy captains and warchiefs to make your own army of orcs to rival Sauron’s own. Celebrimbor seems determined to ‘use the weapon of the enemy against him’, sound familiar? All the while Talion is uneasy about it, but continues upon seeing how effective it is.
As well as including the history of Celebrimbor and the rings, the game also has a bit of ‘alternative history’ in it. It comes in the form of a secondary mode you can play where you directly play as Celebrimbor. Instead of being killed by Sauron he is taken back to Mordor and forced to improve the One Ring for him. Celebrimbor steals the ring and escapes, and from there you get to play as Celebrimbor wielding the One Ring and forming and army or orcs in Second Age Mordor to defeat Sauron. At first I was wondering why they overlooked the fact the the ring shouldn’t actually give anyone but Sauron it’s full power, but it is explained as Celebrimbor modifying it for himself, which i suppose he could do. Presumably he fails to defeat Sauron in the end and this is what causes his wraith to be roaming around Mordor in the Third Age when he possesses Talion.
In terms of locations, it is also quite interesting to see a different part of Mordor that is entirely forgotten about everywhere else. The game starts off in the area around the black gate called Udûn, where there are some named places such as the ruins of Durthang that appear in the books, it being an old castle built by Gondor after the Last Alliance. The game then has you journey deeper into Mordor, past the ashy plateau of Gorgoroth, which is what everyone assumes Mordor is entirely like, into Nurn. This is a land in southern Mordor that makes up the majority of it, and is actually a green and fertile land, and despite being fairly arid nearer to Gorgoroth, it is quite lush around the giant lake called The Sea of Nurnen. This land was originally inhabited by Westron speaking humans, but they were enslaved to work the land for Sauron in order to feed his armies. In the game you can help free the slaves here as well as work with the few who remain in hiding with their queen. It turns out however that she had met with Saruman in the past, and becomes possessed by him in a similar way as King Théoden of Rohan. Apparently Saruman was doing this to spy on Sauron’s forces from within Mordor, but when he discovers Celebrimbor he reaches out to him, pleading for them to work together against Sauron. I thought this was an interesting little addition as it shows part of Saruman’s character that is often overlooked in other portrayals in that although he did turn to evil himself, he did so with the aim to overthrow Sauron, and became obsessed with obtaining the One Ring for himself.
Now the game doesn’t actually explain all the lore in detail, so I can see why many people were confused about the story when it came out, especially if you bought the game because you were just a fan of the movies. But as a big Tolkien fan, the depth that they went into in this story is awesome to see in a game, and isn’t very common to find. Usually any videogames are just based on the films and don’t try to do anything different.