The best Middle-earth experience this year is a game, not a movie
Over a decade after The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring debuted in theaters, Peter Jackson’s cinematic excursion into J.R.R. Tolkien’s universe finally concludes after approximately 782 hours worth of movies with The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.
Armies should be a victory lap—celebrating the series and its mark on film while bringing the six-film series to a fitting conclusion. But instead, the bloated trilogy of Hobbit films—originally meant to be a two-parter—has demonstrated audience and critical fatigue with each new outing. Both Hobbit films released so far have made less at the box office than any of the three Lord of the Rings films, and the praise heaped on the first trilogy has been virtually absent for Bilbo Baggins and his crew.
The Battle of the Five Armies doesn’t look like it will be reversing that trend, especially when the best adventure into Middle-earth this year was in a game.
Monolith Studios released Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor to equal amounts of audience anticipation and skepticism. Dozens of Lord of the Rings games have been released throughout the years. Some have been fun, even really good, but few have been great. Mordor looked to change that, and it succeeded. More than any of its achievements, the game provides a more interesting model for how to tell the stories of Middle-earth than The Hobbit films have.
Mordor‘s tale fits right in between The Hobbit and Fellowship of the Ring, exploring a rarely visited era of Tolkien lore. This period gives the developers both creative freedom to enrich this world while working to meet the standards that have made Tolkien’s work so beloved in the first place.
Players control a ranger named Talion, who is killed and brought back to life with the spirit of a powerful wraith bound to him. The two decide to exact revenge on Sauron, who moviegoers first came to fear in the original Lord of the Rings films.
While there are issues with the pacing of Mordor‘s story, there’s no doubt Monolith devised a narrative to appeal to casual fans of the film and diehards who may speak Elvish. The game steeps itself in the source material’s mythos–the wraith that revives Talion is Celebrimbor, a major Middle-earth character who has only ever surfaced in the pages of The Silmarillion, essentially a history of Tolkien’s world. And appearances by characters like Gollum and Sauron satisfy those with only a faint understanding of Middle-earth’s war-torn landscape.
Most importantly, Mordor doesn’t outstay its welcome. The actual narrative is only a small piece of the game, which really thrives through its ability to allow the players to create their own stories. The game’s Nemesis system essentially allows the player to manipulate the balance of power among enemy orcs. You can kill an orc to create a power vacuum, or use Celebrimbor’s powers to turn an enemy into a forced ally and have them do your bidding for you.
The Nemesis system transforms the hierarchical machinations of Middle-earth into something the player can exploit and enjoy, and it’s a fascinating attempt to turn the CGI masses of enemies in the Lord of the Rings films into memorable characters. Do the choices usually come down to killing an orc or forcing that orc to fight for you? Yes, but it’s still a brilliant twist on an aspect of a world audiences may already think they understand.
So even when Mordor buckles under the weight of its own potential toward the end of its story, that doesn’t prevent the experience from being more satisfying than just about anything Tolkien onscreen since Return of the King. Mordor made me care more about the lore of Middle-earth than any of the Hobbit films have.
And in some ways, The Hobbit trilogy and Mordor share a structure that showcases the weakness of the Hobbit films. They both have what is a generally clear main narrative, stretched out with, in the film’s case, secondary plot threads and action sequences, and in the game, side quests, items to collect, and bits of lore to learn. For the film, these excursions serve as reminders that one about-300-page book has been transformed into a trio of three-hour films.
Mordor is fashioned to last as long as its story is meant to, with enough extra content to satisfy players are curious to learn about Talion and the region. The game feels designed with the audience in mind. The movies appear formed from the combined ambitions of a director, a studio, and the afterthought that, oh, maybe the films should include some interesting stuff so audiences want to come back.
That isn’t to say the Hobbit films lack genuinely exciting material and ideas that are a thrill to watch play out. But they’re bogged down by too much ancillary padding. If Mordor‘s story feels like its best beats are too far apart, the player has the ability to make up their own exciting sequences to fill in those gaps rather than wait for the sequel. And even for those who might see The Hobbit primarily for its action and spectacle without knowing an Elf from a Dwarf, Mordor effortlessly achieves that goal better than the two previous Hobbit films have by being fun from one moment to the next.
By honoring its source material and pushing games of its ilk to do something different, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor has proven that the future of Tolkien’s work doesn’t have to be another trilogy of films. Instead of Jackson and his crew adapting well-trodden territory for Tolkien fans, it’s time to let video games explore the uncharted territories of Middle-earth.