Tag: tolkien

Game Review: Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor

It has been a mere week since I wrote up my First Impressions of Monolith’s open-world Tolkien-based stab-’em-up Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor. While I have not finished the game, I have opened up quite a bit of the world, engaged in a plethora of power struggles, learned a great deal about one of the darkest corners of this famous fantasy realm, and nearly thrown my controller in frustration on more than one occasion. I think we’re on to a winner, here.

Courtesy Monolith & WB

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor takes place after the time of the adventures of Bilbo Baggins in the Misty Mountains but before his 111th birthday in the Shire. At that time, Gondor was in control of the Black Gate of Mordor, its Rangers keeping watch over the dark and blasted valley of Udun that lead into Mordor. Talion, a Captain of those Rangers, lived there with his family, and was training his son to fight when the Black Gate is overrun. The assault is lead by the powerful and menacing Black Captains, on-the-ground commanders of Sauron’s armies, one of whom personally puts all of Talion’s family to the sword. Talion, however, does not die. His murder was part of a ritual, and that ritual somehow bonded him with a mysterious Wraith who has no memory of his former life. The two consciousnesses strike a deal: the Wraith wants answers, and Talion wants revenge.

It has been mentioned previously that Shadow of Mordor has some elements in common with the games from the Assassin’s Creed or Arkham games. Talion can certainly scale buildings and rock faces like an Assassin, and his combat style does have the same satisfying hit-block-hit-fininsh structure as Batman, but that is where the similarities end. These elements help shape the foundational gameplay and there really isn’t much to say either way about it. The combat is fun when it’s rolling, and it’s good to have movement capabilities that foster both exploration and escape, but a truly memorable game needs more than that.

Image courtesy Lazygamer.net
Not listed: Azdûsh’s love for ice cream sandwiches and irritation with people snickering at his name.

Shadow of Mordor does far more than giving you a list of targets to kill or a solitary objective to follow. Open world games will scatter quests, collectibles, and challenges all of the map, and this game does that as well, but apart from the map is the Nemesis system within Sauron’s Army. Every orc you encounter has the potential to become a part of this system, just by killing you. When you die, the orc who defeated you gets promoted and more powerful, possibly challenging another orc for their position. Other orc captains within the Army struggle and squabble to get closer to the Warchiefs, the cream of the orcish crop. These characters do have distinct personalities – some are afraid of fire, others become enraged when they are wounded, and still others REALLY don’t like the fact that you shot them in the face with an arrow and left them for dead. Thanks to these cantankerous Uruks, the world of Shadow of Mordor isn’t just open; it lives and breathes.

At first, the knowledge that there is no real penalty to the player for dying may sound like a deal-breaker. “Where is the challenge?” one might wonder. The answer is the Nemesis system. When you die, you have all of your powers and experience intact, but the world around you changes. Your killer gets glorified, power struggles resolve without your intervention making other orcs stronger, and another one of Sauron’s Army becomes a target for your revenge. On more than one occasion, I have put aside my desire to advance the plot or learn more about the Wraith’s story just to hunt down that one really irritating Orc that keeps getting cheap shots in on me while I am trying to kill his buddies. Dying may be free of direct consequence, but there are still ramifications that make it irritating, and coming back to exact bloody vengeance on your killer is incredibly satisfying, especially if they are in a position where killing them makes taking down one of the Warchiefs even easier. It is a stroke of brilliance that makes Shadow of Mordor unique and thoroughly enjoyable.

Image courtesy theonering.net
That “dagger” has a story. Ratbag (the orc) has a story. Talion’s story has real pathos.
The world is rich and textured, and I’m not talking about the image rendering.

There are a handful of things that keep Shadow of Mordor from being perfect. There are a few mandatory stealth missions as part of the main story that slow down the action, the way mandatory stealth always does. Getting the right prompt at the right moment can be dodgy at times, costing you precious resources as you try to detonate an explosive barrel or mount a ravenous, deadly beast to use as a mount. And your only thinking, feeling foes are the Orcs. While the Captains and Warchiefs have personalities and strengths and weaknesses, for the most part you’re just slicing through the ranks to get to those unique guys, and that can get repetitive after a while, sooner for some if you’re really itching for a lot of variety. But honestly, those are just some general nit-picks about the game, and the only real flaws that I could find that had nothing to do with my own learning curve or lack of experience.

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is definitely a winner. Its combat is visceral and satisfying. Its Nemesis system makes it a unique and challenging experience. The story is steeped deeply in the rich lore of Tolkien, from the identity of the Wraith to the texture of Mordor itself, from the connection of Gollum to the goings-on to the palpable sense of dread contingent with the return of Sauron. The music is haunting, the voice acting superb, the environments well-realized, and the game is filled with moments you will never forget. If you are a fan of Middle-Earth, solid combat systems, or unique gameplay features that make the game compelling regardless of its story or other aspects, you must play this game.

First Impressions: Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor

At first glance, the concept for Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor seems like something you’d find on a fan-fiction site, aching for the sort of opportunity that was afforded to 50 Shades of Gray. An Illithen Ranger, one of the fabled Dunedain, falls victim to an untimely death but is resurrected thanks to the intervention of a Wraith that is, apparently, unconnected to the Ring-wraiths that plague Frodo and the Fellowship later in the canon of Middle-Earth. So now he’s immortal, a skilled fighter, and has the grizzled, manly voice of Troy Baker. That certainly sounds like a self-insertion fantasy persona to me. Thankfully, there’s more than enough going on in this game to merit more than that somewhat dubious first glance.

Courtesy Monolith & WB

First and foremost, Shadow of Mordor (as I will call it going forward because I’m not a fan of colon cancer) is steeped in atmosphere. While Mordor is not yet a barren, blasted wasteland, as this tale takes place before Lord of the Rings, the darks are deeper and the land definitely feels corrupted. While Howard Shore did not compose the music, the score is definitely in tune with the themes and timbre of those famous strains from the six films. Despite the stick I gave the developers for putting Troy Baker’s voice behind our hero Talion, he sounds less like Booker DeWitt and more like someone who’s been living rough in the outskirts of Gondor right before the events that propel him into the adventures through which players guide him.

Seeing as this is a video game on major consoles, the primary means of that guidance will be through various forms of combat. Shadow of Mordor has looked on the success of both Assassin’s Creed and Rocksteady’s very successful Batman-based games (Arkham Asylum and Arkham City to be exact) and worked on a way to combine the two. The result is quite compelling: Talion moves from place to place to avoid detection, climbs to and leaps from ledges and tall places with grace, is limited in weapon choices, and uses prompts to avoid or block incoming blows which he redirects into deft ripostes. Movements are smooth, blows are powerful, and skills are satisfying – but the really interesting stuff doesn’t happen until someone dies.

Courtesy Monolith & WB
Things look pretty amazing, as well.

Rather than simply be a quest to slay endless, nameless orcs in a quest for vengeance and XP, the game takes pains to give its antagonists names and personalities. This is more than window-dressing, however; it is essential to what makes Shadow of Mordor stand apart. Each orc Talion kills brings him closer to his true goal: the Warchiefs who control the mighty armies of Mordor. The array of nasties seen when you check your progress tells who where they rank and how much closer you are to victory. This also has intriguing implications when it comes to failure. Shadow of Mordor is not the first game to boast an immortal protagonist, at least in terms of being considered that way in-universe, and making failure mean something when you cannot die has often challenged designers. Rather than lose experience or suffer an otherwise arbitrary setback like paying a toll to the underworld, when Talion is defeated and requires rescuing from his wraithly friend, the orc lieutenants and captains he was fighting grow stronger in the intervening time. There is also a system in which orcs squabble with one another for control, and if Talion does not sweep in to kill everyone involved, the victor of the squabble will gain power in a similar fashion. It’s one of the many things that contribute to giving the game a living, breathing world.

On top of innovative design and satisfying combat, Shadow of Mordor has not skimped on the Middle-Earth lore. Dipping deep into the history and culture of Middle-Earth, the story of Talion is far more than one of mere wish fulfillment. While the Ranger has a rather immediate need for vengeance, his benefactor has an even more seething bone to pick with Sauron: he was Celebrimbor, the elf-smith in the Second Age who forged the Rings of Power to begin with. Through his experience and vision, Talion (and by extension, the player) learn the tales of the items scattered throughout the land, unearth ancient runes that add to the ongoing story of the events at hand, and give all the more reason for us to fight our way through the diabolical forces of Sauron the Deciever.

Courtesy Monolith & WB
There are even some familiar faces around.

So yes: my very first, up-front impressions of this game were entirely wrong. A lot of care has gone into the game from all sorts of perspectives. The combat, stealth, and open world draw from a plethora of contemporary, quite successful sources. The story has threads that tie it deeply into the rich lore of the beloved tales of Tolkien. It looks and sounds pretty amazing, taking full advantage of modern rendering and development techniques. And if that weren’t enough, it both delivers satisfactory results for success and reasonable, compelling consequences for failure. In short: I must play it.

Movie Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The second part of a three-part story is often the trickiest. It can be hard to work the tale in such a way that it feels like its own complete story, yet works to connect the first part with the last. Even when a work is planned as a trilogy from the outset, the second part can suffer from a bit of ‘middle child syndrome’, and parts of it can feel artificially padded as plot points are set up for the final installment to knock over. J.R.R. Tolkien and Peter Jackson managed to avoid this with The Two Towers, which has its own contained story to tell. The question many asked is, can the same be done with The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug?

Courtesy New Line Cinema

We pick up directly where An Unexpected Journey left off. Bilbo, Gandalf, Thorin, and the other dwarves are on the run from orcs. Even as the hunters give chase, they are unwittingly driving the company closer to Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, the goal of the company’s quest. While they evade immediate capture, Gandalf must leave to join Radagast the Brown in investigating rumors of a great evil on the rise. Meanwhile, Bilbo and his friends have to navigate the shady paths of Mirkwood, deal with the king of the wood elves, and behold the area around the Lonely Mountain known as ‘the desolation of Smaug’, a land scarred by dragonfire and cowering in the shadow of Erebor.

As much as I thoroughly enjoyed An Unexpected Journey, I am willing to acknowledge that, while it doesn’t rush, its pace can be a touch inconsistent. A good portion of that film, especially the first two acts of it, are occupied primarily with flashbacks and backstory. I realize this is necessary, particularly in the first chapter of a trilogy, but it can make the story move in two directions: forward, then backwards, then forward again. It can be awkward, and I’m glad An Unexpected Journey didn’t feel that way even as it shifts gears. Thankfully, The Desolation of Smaug has only direction: Forward.

Courtesy New Line Cinema

From the opening of the film, with Thorin and company on the run from orcs, until the confrontation with Smaug in Erebor, the story is always heading into its next encounter. The nice thing is that, as much as it’s constantly in motion, it gives more than enough breathing room for its characters. We get more time with characters established in the first film, and new ones are introduced and given their own elbow room. That’s one of the advantages to Jackson incorporating so much from Unfinished Tales and The Silmarillion and expanding this relatively simple story into three extra-long films. The world of Middle-Earth, and the beings that populate it, are given ample opportunity to come to vibrant, breathing life.

Even as the world expands and the story moves along, we manage to stay with and care about our core characters, for the most part. With Gandalf leaving the company to investigate Dol Guldur, and Bilbo already having overcome his impulse to just run home and curl up with a good book under about a thousand blankets, we focus more on Thorin Oakenshield. There are moments with other characters, to be certain. Thranduil gets more personality, Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel steals most of the scenes she’s in, and I really liked the character moments we get with Beorn, Bard, and even the Master of Laketown. More dwarven moments are always good, from Bombur doing more than just being the butt of jokes to Kili turning on the charm to Oin’s healing abilities. But really, this is Thorin’s movie, right up until we meet the dragon Smaug. Thorin definitely comes into his own, having kingly moments as well as showing the nuance and questionable decision-making that comes from obsession. All of this might sound like Bilbo is taking a backseat in his own movie, but he has plenty of great moments, and I was reminded more than once that not only is he the uncle of Frodo Baggins, he’s also related to Peregrin Took. I recall grinning at the screen, shanking my head, and saying “That’s a total Pippin moment.”

Courtesy New Line Cinema

I understand that there are quite a few die-hard Tolkien fans who aren’t satisfied with these films. And I can understand why. With its additions, expansions, and digressions, these film adaptations of The Hobbit are deviating from the text far more than Jackson’s work on The Lord of the Rings ever did. From the perspective of fans that have read and digested and lived with The Hobbit for decades, the simplicity and pace and whimsy of this story are being watered down, if not entirely lost. Since so much time is being spent with characters who aren’t the hobbit of the title, the deviations seem even more aberrant, again from their point of view. I can appreciate that perspective, and if that sort of thing is a deal-breaker for you, you’re justified in not seeing it. However, from my point of view, the inclusion of more of Tolkien’s lore and the growth of Middle-Earth around the core of this simple story and these vibrant characters is a good use of the material and leads to a satisfying continuation of a truly epic tale of fantasy. I may be overly optimistic, but I honestly believe this is building to a fully coherent and connected story that begins at Bag End with Bilbo Baggins getting a visit from a wizard, and ends at the Black Gate of Mordor. Or maybe a few scenes and a couple gratuitous fades to black after that.

Stuff I Liked: There’s a lot here for Tolkien nerds. The scene with Beorn is fantastically done. I’m glad they expanded on more of the dwarves. The execution of Bilbo in the forest of Mirkwood was very cool, from climbing the tree to the signs of his growing connection to the One Ring.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: Some of the digressions may not have been entirely necessary. A couple of the scenes’ CGI could have been sharpened up a bit – maybe they’d look better in 3D or 48 FPS?
Stuff I Loved: Thorin really seizes hold of both his destiny and our imaginations. Bard is a colorful character that makes decisions that always feel consistent from his perspective. There’s more wizardly daring-do, the fight along the river was a treat, and Martin Freeman continues to demonstrate what an inspired choice he was for Bilbo Baggins.
Stuff I REALLY Loved: Smaug.

Bottom Line: In the end, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug feels a lot more like the continuation of the overall narrative of The Hobbit rather than trying to stand entirely on its own. However, with its pace and new elements and complications, it feels a lot less like padded filler and more like a broadening and deepening of the world Bilbo is exploring. Absolutely die-hard long-standing fans of Tolkien may be turned off by its additions and digressions. However, it continues to demonstrates Peter Jackson’s directorial skill, the cast is in great form, the action’s never dull, and it delivers perhaps the best dragon on screen to date. For my money, it’s definitely worth seeing, and perhaps more than once.

The Execution of Smaug

Courtesy New Line Cinema

Previously I have discussed villainy in terms of how we relate to and perceive various villains. I’ve praised villains who achieve their aims through intelligence, charm, and guile. These traits tend to appear in villains who are not necessarily a physical match for their heroic counterparts, doing their dirty work through henchmen or other means. Usually, a villain who is smart, playful, and erudite is not an overwhelming physical presence that inspires awe without necessarily having to say a word.

Usually, that villain is not a dragon.

I’ll go into detail about The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug tomorrow, but after a few days of reflection on the film, I’ve come to the conclusion that, whatever else might be said about it, they pretty much nailed the ideal portrayal of the ancient magical beast. As impressive as the effects are that brought him to titanic, fire-breathing life, I’m more over the moon regarding the way in which his personality, perspective, and above all, his flaws have been transcribed from page to screen.

One of the first impressions we get is that Smaug likes to play with his food. Or at least, his curiosity overwhelms your typical violent response to intrusion. He is so massive and deadly, and Bilbo so small and insignificant (relatively speaking), that he could easily devour or eviscerate the hobbit at any time. However, he engages the thief in conversation. He learns more about this tiny burglar, and we in turn learn more about him. This is not anything like Bilbo and Gollum swapping riddles. There, we had a sense that the two of them were counterparts, diametrically opposed but somewhat equal. Here, the dread is palpable and ever-present, even as Smaug speaks in almost dulcet tones.

Being a creature that can fly, Smaug sees other beings as beneath him. He is so well-armed for devastation, and so capable of escape and endurance, that he really has no real sense of fear. He speaks and moves boldly. His speed belies his size and makes him all the more intimidating. All of this is conveyed through excellent effects in the film, matching well with our imaginations regarding how dragons should behave. The highlight of Jackson & Weta’s execution of Smaug, however, has got to be his flaws.

With that perspective comes a haughtiness, an arrogance, that blinds Smaug to the threats ‘lesser beings’ could present. From the dwarves of Erebor to the people of Laketown, he never once considers that his centuries-long life could be in danger. Most of all, Smaug is greedy. All of his treasure is HIS treasure, and he won’t part with a single coin of it. Dragons tend to have an instinctual draw towards shiny piles of treasure, which is somewhat odd for creatures of intelligence and articulation, but it’s worth considering that human beings can have similar instincts towards things of little consequence to overall life that still brings them joy, like football paraphernalia or Magic cards or cats.

What other dragons in literature would you like to see executed the way we have seen Smaug?

Movie Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien, is a far more filmable piece of work than his larger work, The Lord of the Rings. It has a more simple narrative, its plot is contained to one volume, and its themes remain focused on the character of Bilbo Baggins and how he deals with his adventures. Yet, according to interviews and as evidenced in works such as the Unfinished Tales and the Silmarillion, Tolkien knew there was more going on than a hobbit coming out of his hole, and the intent was to embellish this work. Director Peter Jackson has taken it upon himself to do just that, adapting the story into three films, the first of which is sub-titled An Unexpected Journey.

Courtesy New Line Cinema

Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit. He is concerned with remaining a respected member of his community and not inviting any sort of trouble to his doorstep. Unfortunately for him, the wizard Gandalf has the exact opposite in mind. Thirteen dwarves show up at Bilbo’s house, and while they are certainly capable of troublemaking, they’re also personable and companionable. The leader of the company, Thorin Oakenshield, is a dwarf prince bent on reclaiming his homeland from the evil dragon Smaug, and to do that he needs the help of someone who can sneak into the dragon’s lair undetected. Gandalf has chosen Bilbo for this task, in spite of Thorin’s reservations and Bilbo’s own reluctance. The hobbit does come around to the idea of at least leaving his home – and a good thing too, otherwise we’d have no story.

The term ‘reluctant hero’ has never been more apt than in describing Bilbo Baggins. Neither a great warrior nor unflinchingly brave, there’s something very charming and telling about the hobbit in a very fashionable jacket and waistcoat following the heavily armed and armored company of dwarves. And when trouble does find Bilbo, he does not immediately seek a violent solution for the problem at hand; more often than not, it’s his wits and fast talking that saves him. It means a lot, in this day and age, to see a protagonist who does what he can to get himself out of trouble without violence.

Courtesy New Line Cinema
Does the contract also protect the dwarves from liability related to addiction to magic rings?

This isn’t to say that The Hobbit is devoid of action. In fact, many of the scenes from the book have been embellished with Jackson’s trademark adeptness with epic action set pieces. We even get flashbacks to epic battles of the past. The tale tends to feel even more fantastical than The Lord of the Rings, focused as we are on non-human races and characters. And while accusations have been leveled at the film calling it too long or too padded, the moments of expanded lore and the occasional cameo are actually welcome moments to catch one’s breath between all of the fighting and survival. In spite of the film’s length, it’s paced quite reasonably and does not overstay its welcome.

Martin Freeman absolutely nails the affect of a fussy, emotionally exasperated hobbit far out of his depth. Richard Armitage brings a sort of haunted nobility to Thorin Oakenshield, who is clearly cut from a different cloth than most of the other dwarves. Boisterous and personable as they are, it can be difficult to keep track of all of them. Sir Ian McKellan makes a welcome return as Gandalf the Grey, and I was very pleased with the expanded role given to Radagast the Brown, played by Sylvester McCoy. And rather than being part of a monolithic evil as they were in Lord of the Rings, the foes faced by the company vary wildly from three culinary connoisseur trolls to an orc with a grudge against Thorin. All of this makes for great storytelling and a fine film just in time for the holiday season.

Courtesy New Line Cinema
“You did remember the Old Toby, didn’t you, Bilbo? We can’d do this without the proper pipeweed.”

Stuff I Liked: The White Council. The antics of the dwarves. The pacing of the story and the ways in which it kept moving without feeling rushed. The detail given to each of the dwarves even if they were hard to keep track of. The new look of the wargs.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: After two and a half hours, the 3D glasses really started to hurt.
Stuff I Loved: Dwarven song. The connection between Gandalf and Galadriel. Radagast the Brown. Bilbo’s affectations and tics. The perfect ominous atmosphere of Bilbo encountering Gollum in his cave. Just about everything related to Erebor. The scene with the trolls. The way Bilbo faces his problems – he’s usually pretty scared, but he steps up anyway, and that’s what makes him heroic.

Bottom Line: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey not only works excellently as a tale in and of itself, but bodes quite well for the next two films to come. It is a welcome return to Middle-Earth, with the same high quality in performances and production as Jackson’s previous fantasy trilogy. It is clearly a labor of love for everyone involved, and you can lay any suspicion of it being a blatant cash-grab to rest. It is definitely worth your time to go and see.

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