It’s easy for purists to dismiss the mediocrity of the Hobbit movies also set in Middle-earth, along with a pair of action role-playing games released in the 2010s. The liberties taken with Tolkien’s universe, particularly in the games, are at times appalling. Yet it’s impossible to deny that these groundbreaking titles offer a brilliant realization of Tolkien’s world.
Best of all? One of these fantasy RPGs is currently available to anyone with an Xbox Game Pass subscription — and it lets you fight a Balrog.
Say what you will about the ludicrous canonical implications of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor and its sequel Middle-earth: Shadow of War, but there’s no denying that these groundbreaking games developed by Monolith Productions are a total thrill to play. At the very least, slaying a Balrog is an emotionally satisfying experience after having to see one almost kill Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring.
Shadow of Mordor follows the human ranger Talion who bonds with the wraith of the Elf Lord Celebrimbor to seek revenge on Sauron’s forces that killed his family, friends, and comrades. Together, they wreak havoc on the outer sections of Mordor, slay a legion of Orcs, and enslave a legion more sometime in between the events presented in The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring. Shadow of War picks things up shortly thereafter for a bigger, more ambitious siege directly against Sauron.
The most novel and memorable mechanic is the Nemesis System, which allows for Orc captains and generals to remember your actions and react accordingly. If you kill a low-level leader, someone else will be promoted to fill take their place. And if you’re killed by someone in mid-level leadership or even a lowly grunt, they’ll soon be promoted; They’ll even boast about it when you see them next. Things get even more complicated when you develop the power to control members of Orc leadership and those they command. In the sequel, you’re able to recruit followers from different races and plan out complicated battle strategies with your allies.
Combat focuses on flow and chaining combos in a way that strikes a deeply engaging middle-point between superhero action games like the Batman Arkham trilogy and Musou games where you single-handedly take on hordes of enemies in an open-world region.
Talion’s ranger skills focus on close- and ranged-combat, but Celebrimbor’s wraith abilities offer an interesting array of supernatural options as well. There are also stealth mechanics at play, which ultimately make both games feel like essential precursors to modern masterpieces like Ghost of Tsushima.
They’ve also drawn easy comparisons to Assassin’s Creed games for years. In many ways, both Lord of the Rings games feel like Assassin's Creed: Middle-earth with a more fluid combat system. That’s a great thing, even if LOTR purists might despise the weird canonical implications of these games existing at all.
The Hobbit known as Bilbo Baggins keeps The One Ring for about 60 years between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and its during that unmined window that this story takes place. That seems intentional when both games shoehorn in plenty of references and cameos to the wider tale, and they take some cinematic liberties that, quite frankly, make no sense within Tolkien’s larger universe.
You see, Celebrimbor is the person who created all of the Rings of Power, including The One Ring. After Sauron betrayed and killed him, his spirit lingered for 3,700 years and lost all of his memories. While bound to Talion, Celebrimbor regains memories by following Gollum to uncover lost artifacts. It’s a weird and forceful way to shoehorn in a recognizable character who admittedly should be in or around Mordor at this point in time.
The discretions don’t stop there. The giant spider Shelob can inexplicably take the form of a sexy woman, and she serves as a minor but beguiling antagonist. There are many other baffling retcons about major figures in LOTR history too spoilery to reveal here. And yet, there’s a lot to love in Shadow of War.
Even for purists, it’s worth it for the thrill of killing a Balrog, despite the fact that many of the plot beats, including the world-altering conclusion, don’t mesh well with the grand tale we all know and love.
Approach it like non-canonical playable fan fiction, and you won’t be disappointed.
Middle-earth: Shadow of War is now available on Xbox Game Pass.