I imagine everyone has sunk their teeth into Shadow of War by now, and I’m looking forward to doing the same. But first, a small tale of my own stupidity, and how I hope to mend my ways before I tuck in to Monolith’s new epic.
In something stupid like 2015, I was staring vacantly into space and listening to Sgt. Pepper’s. Something happened. It wasn’t the kind of drippy-hippy failed-seeker epiphany you might expect; it was a soft click in the recesses of my brain.
‘Beatles’ is a pun on the word ‘beat’.
Epiphanies are sublime, but they sometimes have a sharp edge to them that leaves you feeling foolish. I told my flat mate my revelation and he stared up at me, as if over the rims of imagined spectacles like a grumpy school headmaster, and said in an exasperated way, “Yes mate, obviously, yes.”
I can be a bit slow on the uptake, then. There have been a few moments of isolating discovery like this; it feels as though I’ve crash-landed here and am trying to integrate with the humans, trying to get in on the joke. It happened again.
I read recently that the upcoming Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is going to let you import your data from the first game, so that you can bring over your nemesis. This was distressing. My Nemesis? As far as I was concerned, the ‘Nemesis System’ was that chessboard set-up that you access from the main menu: pitting Orcs against one another, marking targets and killing them off, it even gave them all names and called them out when they threw down the gauntlet.
It was a quirky, faux-bespoke way of organising your enemies and tailoring the battlefield. I clashed memorably with some bastard Uruk-hai; I parried my way from the brink and vaulted over shields; on occasion they would try and run, so I’d pin them to the floor with an arrow to the foot and relieve them of the burden of their heads. If I died, then I’d whip out the chessboard, circle my killer, and close in for swift retribution. It always came.
What I didn’t realise, what I hadn’t realised until recently, was what would happen if I failed to kill my mark. If I didn’t immediately hunt down the naughty bastard, then apparently he’d get promoted; he’d become more powerful and storied; and, if left unchecked long enough, he would become ‘my nemesis’, my own personal arch-villain.
I never got that far because, despite some very nice touches like Orcs developing a fear of fire if I burned them when we fought, these always preceded their summary demise. It’s my fault for the way I play, but I am a product of my environment: the open world game.
Consider Mordor. A land of spell-binding allure and decay, it’s like being in Lordran at the very moment the sulphurous tides began to turn. Sunlight struggles to push through the suffocating fug of black smoke hanging in the air. Sometimes it streaks through, a dying star, not so much setting as beginning to bleed, scarring the sky in ashen reds and yellows.
If you know where to look you can see beauty in Mordor, in what you can see of the place that was. When pale light casts the landscape a faint verdant shade, it feels like peeling off old wallpaper and seeing something fresh in what lies beneath. There is a different kind of corruption here than Sauron’s though, insidious and banal.
In places as sprawling and spirited as this, it’s rare that we have the chance to really unwind. The digital tourist is often cursed with that intrinsic dictum: objective. It reminds me of When the Music’s Over by The Doors: “What have they done to the earth? …Stuck her with knives in the side of the dawn and tied her with fences and dragged her down.”
In the case of Shadow of Mordor, those fences and knives were the watchtowers, the intel packets, the equipment missions, and yes, the picking off my prey. I was bound with the same check-list mentality that some open-worlds instil in us. The urge to inhabit and explore is cluttered with HUD and set in opposition to map-markers and to-do lists.
My obsession wasn’t the usual acquire-charter-collect colonialist bent that the modern open-world is so comfortable in. There was a little of that, but my obsession leaned toward that lurking chessboard in the menu. The landscape became a doppelganger for that board, and as such, I adopted a scorched-earth policy: loosing enemy Carrigors to turn them on their captors, setting barrels of grog ablaze, and dropping hornets nests into enemy camps sending troops screaming before I set boots on the ground.
There was no room for such romance as a nemesis; my ruthless pragmatism and dogmatic devotion to demolition ensured Hollywood didn’t get a look in. Aside from the names and their place on the board, there were no storylines here aside from the one laid forth in cut scenes.
All of this leaves me with a sense of epiphany, and that same sense of alien stupidity, and, of course, tremendously excited for Shadow of War. Not so much for the chance to revisit the stricken land of Mordor in all its ravaged beauty; not even for Shelob and her new-found, suspiciously sexy form; it will be for the chance to loosen my grip on the battlefield, and allow some stories to play out. In other words, to do this: