Fun and games in Shadow of Mordor. Image: Monolith Productions
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Shadow of Mordor is Middle Earth's ode to slasher movies

You’ll never go too far wrong with a commercial product that makes the players feel like supermen, but this is a miscalculation on the part of the developers.

The most impressive thing about Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is just how much like a great game it manages to look. Great games, like great works of art, are originals - they capture something that speaks of their time and place in the world, yet resonate forever. They carry the brush strokes of the master, or, in the case of great video games, the deftness of design that advances the whole medium without causing existing hardware to explode.

As such Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is not a great game. It looks like a great game, it plays like a great game, but, no. This is not a game for the ages. In the same way that a talented painter might mimic the style of an old master the developers of Shadow of Mordor have borrowed heavily from the Arkham series of Batman games to create a game that answers the question “what if the people who made Arkham City made a game in Middle Earth about a ninja?” The final product is a highly polished exploration of the generic. A fake based on the Rocksteady classic.

Shadow of Mordor has you playing Talion, a ranger on a quest to avenge the killing of his wife, son and - in an interesting twist - himself, by a mysterious character called the Black Hand. Upon death Talion becomes joined with the restless spirit of a long-dead elf whose past is revealed over the course of the game. This unlikely partnership means that Talion becomes effectively an unstoppable revenge machine. Orcs (also known as "uruks" in the game) can kill you, and doing so earns them a promotion and bragging rights over you, but you always come back. Unlike most games where death is a failure state and you go back and try again, in Shadow of Mordor death is an inconvenience and acknowledged as such in the game's reality.

Talion shares many qualities with monsters from slasher movies, except instead of teens at a summer camp his prey are orcs, and instead of waiting until (yet another) sequel to make his reappearance when he is finally bested, he just pops straight back up. The orcs grow to fear you, and they mutter about you around the camp fire. You haunt them almost as much as you hunt them.

Something that Shadow of Mordor also has which lends itself to slasher movie comparisons is lashings of violence. A lot has been written about this - however, what it is important to bear in mind is that this is a stealth game. A good stealth game is essentially a murder simulator, and I say this with the utmost affection for the genre. You’re not fighting, you are killing.

Ever since Tenchu: Stealth Assassins on the Playstation set its stall out with vivid blood sprays and decapitations, the genre has been noted for providing gruesome and graphic kills. It goes with the territory that when you spend a long time stalking and lining up your prey the payoff - the reward for the successful hunt - has to be worth it. From Tenchu’s stylised ninja carnage to Manhunt’s infamous brutality by way of Velvet Assassin’s eye-watering head stabs, the Hitman series and its "have object, will provide stealth kill animation for" philosophy and (last but by no means least) the Assassin’s Creed series, and its ability to almost create an entire subgenre out of wandering around an open area slashing throats on a whim. This is a genre that pays its rent with ruthless brutality. And more power to it -  I love that stuff.

So the fact that you’re often called upon to open up an orc like a chainsaw opens a tin of beans is hardly surprising under the circumstances. That you can do so in such a horrific way using the appropriately named "brutalise" button - such that his compatriots run screaming from the scene - is a nice variation on the formula, but it’s a formula nonetheless.

The alternative to stealth is good old-fashioned combat and it is here that the game flatters to deceive most cleverly. The thing is that the combat in Shadow of Mordor is incredibly easy, but it is designed in such a way as to make you look amazingly skilled for being able to do it. This is pure sugar as a game design, with just the bare minimum of skill, creativity or tactics necessary, and the game will keep pumping out sweet, sweet, positive feedback for your actions. Heads fly, necks snap, captains fall, and it is all as simple as can be.

At first this is great, and it’s understandable why the game has reviewed so well - the first few hours you feel like you’re a prodigious talent, as though you’ve found a game you can just tame in a matter of minutes through the sheer force of your skill. But give it long enough and you realise that you’re pushing buttons to order and that you’re not actually very good, it’s just the game loves you and wants you to feel special. The vast majority of the uruks are served up not as threats, but as harmless goons to be styled upon.

You’ll never go too far wrong with a commercial product that makes the players feel like supermen, but this is a miscalculation on the part of the developers. A good stealth game should have combat feel like the last resort, a survival tool when all else fails. In Shadow of Mordor stealth can be a tool for eliminating a tough captain, or it can be inflicted on you arbitrarily as a condition of a mission, but it is seldom genuinely needed. Walking into an enemy stronghold, slaughtering everything in the entire place and walking out the other side is perfectly achievable and not particularly challenging.

One of the better features the game boasts is called the "Nemesis" system. This is a genuinely fun mechanic that works in effect as a procedurally generated whack-an-orc game. Captains rise - complete with names, skills and personalities - and you whack them. Sauron, the big baddie of Middle Earth, has an army with captains and war chiefs, and you can pick these off or play them against each other, or even recruit them to weaken the army. Captains gain power by killing you or completing tasks of their own, and they will remember encounters with you, especially if they win. Sometimes a captain will last long enough to become established, and hunting him down, or avoiding him, becomes more fun than the main storyline.

The system sadly lacks some key elements to excel though. For example there’s no end of new captains no matter how many you kill and they often die incredibly easily, which makes it all feel like a sideshow rather than what it should have been, a strategic tool for plotting the downfall of an army. Also the tendency of dead captains to return undermines it badly. What’s the point of chopping an orc’s head off if he’s grown a new one the next day? Although if it feels bad from the player's point of view, it must feel worse for the long suffering orcs seeing you punch into work every day regardless of your earlier demise(s).

The orcs themselves are the real heart of the game. There is more emotion in those monstrous faces as they contort in fear right before you rip their minds apart for information than there ever seems to be in Talion. They’d be almost sympathetic in a more believable setting, but given how gamey everything feels - from the neatly administered structure of the Nemesis system to the way that death is impermanent - it’s impossible to see them as fleshed out characters in themselves. Under the circumstances this is probably a good thing.

All of this is not to say that Shadow of Mordor is not an enjoyable game, nor is it a badly made game, but it is not a great or especially memorable game. It’s far from a blot on the copy book for Monolith Productions, but they can and should have done better.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

Philippe Halsman/Magnum Photos
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Peter Adey's wonderfully digressive book explores the science and history of levitation

From flying carpets to rocket men, we have always dreamed of defying gravity

In the winding rooms of Rotterdam’s Museum Boijmans, among Dürer’s eldritch owls and Man Ray’s one-eyed metronome, is an extraordinary oil painting by the Haarlem artist Frans Post. Dated to 1648, it is notable not just for the fact that it depicts a Brazilian landscape, complete with cacti, armadillos and iguanas, but because, rising from the jungle, over those exotic flora and fauna, is a white-robed angel. The hermaphrodite being hangs there, quite matter-of-factly caught in mid-air, like a three-dimensional wisp of smoke, or a Renaissance scene reimagined by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The image is made even more enigmatic by the way that the gallery caption declines to mention the angel at all.

Who hasn’t dreamt of levitation? When I was a boy, at school Masses I prayed hard that my pious thoughts would lift me into the air in our suburban Catholic church. I would lean forward on the balls of my feet, ready to launch myself upwards, to the astonishment and admiration of my fellow pupils. Perhaps it was something about the vaulted roof and its yawning space that tempted me, or maybe the bursting filtered light of stained-glass windows hypnotised me. Perhaps I just got high on the incense. But I must have also heard of Padre Pio, the Italian mystic who, as Peter Adey observes in his brilliant book, could fly so high that during the Second World War he rose like a barrage balloon to deter Allied bombers from blowing up a munitions depot in his home city of San Giovanni Rotondo.

These days we are blithely accustomed to being in the air. I have written part of this review 24,000 feet above the English Channel, flying without any effort, holy or otherwise, of my own. We send drones into the sky and astronauts into zero gravity; the air is a crackling conduit of communication and knowledge; the work we do on our blue screens ends up in a cloud. But in the medieval world – where images were rarer and more precious – Christian myth presented levitation as the “unburdening of human flesh and the lightness of divinity”, in Adey’s lovely phrase. Christ’s bodily ascension into heaven, after His resurrection, was depicted in illuminations in which only the Saviour’s feet were seen as his disciples looked up, theatrically, as though they might pull Him back down. Yet that scene is repeated at every Mass, as the priest holds up the Eucharist, Christ’s body incarnate.

Rising from the ground implies rising from the dead, a leaving of both gravity and mortality. The building of Gothic churches and cathedrals, whose flying buttresses allowed light to flood into holy interiors, seemed to set the scene for such miracles. In their architectural context – buildings that are already miraculous, containing the sky – levitation is both an ordinary and an extraordinary act.

There were so many levitating medieval saints that they could have earned air miles. St Teresa of Avila was positively embarrassed by her propensity to levitate without notice; not only did her fellow nuns struggle to keep her body down, but the poor woman also suffered from vertigo. And while angels were powered by God’s grace, witches, their dark opposites, rode heretically on broomsticks, and sometimes went commando. In one aside in Adey’s delightfully digressive book, a decidedly overweight witch is shot out of the sky and lands with a thud, naked and drunk on the earth.

Arguably the modern age began not with Newton – whose visions of celestial beings defied his discovery of gravity – but with the technology that enabled humans to float. During Vincenzo Lunardi’s balloon ascent from London’s Bunhill Fields in 1784, the Italian aeronaut ate cold chicken and drank wine as he surveyed, with the synoptic eye of God, the amazed populace over whom he passed. His flight was commemorated in Oxford Street’s Pantheon, under whose dome Lunardi’s balloon was suspended so that visitors could look at the painted panorama around them as if they, too, had risen to the skies. William Blake, who never shrank from the mystical, wrote his own tribute, “An Island in the Moon”, as if his poem were an in-flight magazine, while Percy Shelley sent imaginary balloons floating over Africa to survey “that unhappy country” and “annihilate slavery for ever”. These Enlightenment rides – literally “a lightening”, a leaving of the old world – “combined scientific measurement and rationality with exclamations of delight, rapture and an imagination overwhelmed by experience”, Adey writes. Their sublimity would not be matched until 200 years later, when Apollo astronauts saw Earthrise
from the Moon.

Colonialism imported another kind of levity – that of the Indian fakir. Sheshal, the “Brahmin of the Air”, was celebrated in the 1830s for touring rich houses in Madras, assuming his position behind a cloth screen that, when pulled back, revealed him sitting cross-legged in mid-air, one arm resting on a perpendicular brass bar fixed into a wooden stool. Investigators believed that Sheshal’s weight was borne by a metal frame concealed by his clothing, but so convincing was his feat that it was replicated by magicians back in London.

Notorious among them was Alfred Sylvester, the self-styled “Fakir of Oolu”, a sometime stereoscopic photographer of the 1850s who, in the exotic Egyptian Hall on Piccadilly (which housed other sensational exhibits such as a supposed mermaid and Chang and Eng, the original Siamese twins), floated his female assistant horizontally in the air, as if lying on a couch. Observers thought that such audiences had been tricked using mesmerism into believing they were witnessing miracles, another Victorian parlour fad.

Equally exotic, and popularised by Richard Burton’s 1885 translation of The Arabian Nights, was the notion of the flying carpet – supposedly devised to allow medieval scholars at the library of Alexandria access to manuscripts on upper shelves. Preferring to read while hovering in the air, the scholars sat on rugs powered by a special dye with “anti-magnetic properties”. The notion made its way into Victorian and Edwardian fantasy writing: E Nesbit’s children’s story The Phoenix and the Carpet and Mary Poppins, the levitating nanny who presides over Uncle Albert’s aerial tea party in the Disney adaptation of P L Travers’s book.

For the Pre-Raphaelites, levitation transcended the darkness of the Industrial Revolution. In his eerie 1870 painting Night, Edward Burne-Jones depicts a wreathed figure hovering over a nocturnal landscape, level with the clouds, her hands held parallel as if in a seance. It was no coincidence that this was the age of mediums with their flying furniture.

Most notorious of all these was Daniel Dunglas Home, who convinced Ruskin, Conan Doyle, Napoleon III and Carl Jung – among others – with his ability to levitate flowerpots, three-legged tables and himself. At one seance in imperial St Petersburg, “Mr Home presently declared that he felt himself being raised. He took, as he was lifted, a horizontal position, with his arms crossed on his breast; and in this reclining attitude was transported by invisible means into the middle of the apartment.” At another gathering in Westminster in 1868, Home was seen to fly out of one window and back in through another, like Scrooge in the hands of the spirit of Christmas Past – or like Santa Claus, another serial ascender.

It was tempting, among those dark Dickensian streets, to place faith in such transformations – although new urban myths invented the demonic, leaping Spring-heeled Jack, a kind of anti-Ariel who inhabited them. The looming industrialised wars of the 20th century would deal death from above – hence the vision of the Angels of Mons over the trenches of the Western Front, an antidote to aerial ordnance and clouds of poison gas. In his field notes, Carl Jung recorded one soldier “seeming to rise in the air in the same position he was in at the moment he was wounded… All feeling of weight is lost.” Sometimes, Jung noted: “The wounded think they are making swimming movements with their arms.”

Art echoed these shell-shocked reverberations to magical-realist effect. Marc Chagall’s paintings of the 1910s and 1920s feature the mythical Jewish figure of the luftmensch – “the man of flight… messenger of the gods” – flying over European rooftops as an airy allegory of apartness and rootlessness at a time of pogrom and Holocaust.

In the Second World War, Philippe Halsman – an American photographer with eastern European Jewish origins – would reinvent the luftmensch. Imprisoned by the Nazis before the war, Halsman had written to his girlfriend: “Tell me, do you ever dream of flying?” From 1941, he collaborated with Salvador Dalí on complex images such as Dalí Atomicus (1948), which re-created the artist’s fantasies of flying using illusions not dissimilar to those of Indian fakirs. Dalí’s dreams painted “a Renaissance portrait as familiar as a Christian Assumption,” writes Adey. “I would not at that moment have changed places with a god,” said the surrealist of his visions. In his later portraits of the 1950s, Halsman persuaded celebrities from Edward and Wallis Windsor to Marilyn Monroe and Robert Oppenheimer to leap for his camera. “When you ask a person to jump,” Halsman said, “his attention is mostly directed toward the act of jumping and the mask falls so that the real person appears.”

Once again the ordinary was turned into the extraordinary. Twentieth-century science fiction relied on levitation: men flew in rocket suits, flying saucers hovered over a Cold War world, and Stanley Kubrick’s astronauts in 2001: A Space Odyssey bounced about to a classical soundtrack in what Adey calls “an allegory-rich set of images and sounds”. From there, the author segues to David Bowie’s Major Tom floating far above the Earth, and on to the Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield singing “Space Oddity” on the International Space Station in 2013. Meanwhile, 1960s anti-war protesters had tried to levitate the Pentagon, and exponents of Transcendental Meditation (and their political wing, the Natural Law Party), as followed by the Beatles, Clint Eastwood and David Lynch, were promised that yogic flying could solve all the world’s ills.

Perhaps we need a little such levity today. With only the occasional bit of excess weight – “blurring the Parmenidean dichotomies of heavy and light” – Adey’s prose rises above academic discourse to create a phantasmagorical cultural history. He concludes that although levitation “supplies us with a record of… exploitation, inequality and even violence”, it is also an expression of “freedom, emancipation and empowerment”. As sly and strange as its subject, Adey’s book is an ambiguous, allusive and fascinating manual of unassisted flight, and I only wish I’d had it to hand when I was a ten-year-old would-be levitator.

Levitation: The Science,
Myth and Magic of Suspension
Peter Adey

“RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR” by Philip Hoare is published by Fourth Estate

Philip Hoare’s books include Wilde’s Last Stand, England’s Lost Eden, and Spike IslandLeviathan or, The Whale won the Samuel Johnson Prize for 2009, and The Sea Inside was published in 2013. He is professor of creative writing at the University of Southampton, and co-curator of the Moby-Dick Big Read. His website is www.philiphoare.co.uk, and he is on Twitter @philipwhale.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear