Jan 1, 2018

Let's Read Tolkien 40: The Great River

Frodo was roused by Sam.

The Fellowship drifts down the Great River. On their left, the Brown Lands stretch out; on the right, grass grows between the river and the Misty Mountains. They all gradually become more uneasy as they float through the barren landscape, with Boromir muttering to himself and occasionally glaring at Frodo. He's not the only problem, either: Gollum has found the Fellowship's trail again.

Soon the landscape starts becoming steeper and rockier: the Fellowship is approaching the rapids of Sarn Gebir. Traveling by night, they almost ends up in the rapids, and gets shot at by orcs before they make it to safety on the western shore.

Ashore, Sam tries to work out how long they spent in Lórien, because by his reckoning, the moon was the same when they left as when they arrived, but he remembers spending several days there. There is debate on the nature of time and its passage in Lórien, and Aragorn maintains an entire month passed outside while the Fellowship spent maybe a week inside.

Boromir argues that the Fellowship should abandon their boats and head for Gondor, but no-one agrees with him. Instead they portage the boats and their supplies past the rapids, and carry on downstream. The river narrows into a gorge, which takes them past the pillars of Argonath: stone statues of Aragorn's ancestors, the brothers Isildur and Anárion. Aragorn is delighted to see them and return to his kingdom - and torn by his responsibility to Frodo in Gandalf's absence.

Beyond the Pillars is Nen Hithoel, a long lake beyond which lie the falls of Rauros. To the south stands the peak of Tol Brandir, with two tall hilltops below it: Amon Hen and Amon Lhaw, the Hills of Sight and Hearing. Here the Fellowship stops. The falls are impassable, and a decision has to be made: where do they go next?

**

This chapter is another excellent Tolkien travelogue, and one of my favorites - which probably explains my improbable liking for the Hills of Emyn Muil quest in the Lord of the Rings living card game. But I continue to maintain that travel and geography are Tolkien's strengths, and they're on display here in the parallel journey from the desolate Brown Lands to the northern reaches of Gondor, and from uncertainty to decision. The pillars of Argonath bring history into geography, and connect the Fellowship and especially Aragorn to the land around them.

The conversation on time in Lórien pretty much seals its status as Faerie: we've hit most of the other tropes, and now we also get accelerated time.

Other than that, though, we're still busy building up to the end of the book and volume. Next time: decisions.

Dec 26, 2017

Tenth anniversary

I can't believe I've had this blog for ten years.

It just seems like such a ridiculous amount of time. Of course, some things have happened. Back in 2007, I had a job occasionally writing things for a Finnish defence magazine, but that was kinda it; my studies at university had ground to a halt, and I had pretty much dropped out of everything. I barely even remember anything I was doing in 2007 or 2008 - likely because I was in the grip of a fairly serious depression and wasn't actually doing much of anything. As I've said before, I decided to start a blog to stay in practice with writing English, and it's served that purpose excellently by giving me something to do that felt at least a little bit meaningful. Since 2013, I've been running my Let's Read Tolkien series, which will keep on going for several years more.

In a sense, I've come full circle in these ten years, because earlier this month, I learned that I've once again failed to secure any funding for my PhD, and my attempt at an academic career is now pretty much over. So ten years ago, I started writing a blog because I didn't really have a whole lot else to do. Now, I'm in a depressingly similar situation, because I don't really know what to do with myself.

Keep on blogging about Tolkien, I suppose.

Dec 11, 2017

Cities: Skyrim and the Mass Transit DLC

Last time, I was building freeways and wondering about the rise and fall of commercial zones in Cities: Skylines.

I've taken to using a couple of mods: All Spaces Unlockable does just that, with costs scaling up as you unlock more map squares, and Infinite Oil & Ore Redux, which makes the ore and oil industries a reasonable proposition. The latter was since rendered obsolete by a mod bundled with the game itself, but All Spaces Unlockable is definitely worth it.

I also wanted my city to look a bit more diverse, so I trawled through the Steam workshop looking for more vehicles and growable buildings. I especially wanted more delivery vehicles; donut vans are all well and good, but too many of them start to look a little ridiculous. In case anyone's interested, I put together a collection of assets on Steam that includes all the vehicles and buildings I use. They all work, and as far as I can tell, they haven't slowed my laptop down at all.

Finally, I also tried a couple of custom maps. There's one of Tamriel that's kinda fun, but I really enjoyed this map of Skyrim, so that's definitely one I'd recommend.

**

Since I last blogged about Cities: Skylines, the Mass Transit DLC came out. So far, it's the only DLC I've bought, because come on, mass transit. In practice, it's kind of a mixed bag.

To start with the bad, most of the exchange hubs are nuts. The ferry-bus exchange has a regular ferry pier and like ten bus platforms. Same with the monorail-bus exchange, which is also huge. We finally got multi-platform train stations - with platforms for six sets of double track. Six. Who has six sets of tracks? Multi-platform subway stations though? Not included.

Frankly, the only useful transit hub is the metro-monorail-train hub. It takes two sets of train tracks, so for 70 000 cash, it already costs less than two train stations and keeps the intercity trains with like six passengers on them from clogging up your whole intracity train network. You effectively get a metro station and two monorail stations for free.

As for the new kinds of transit, I have to say I'm kind of torn on the monorails. They have the same passenger capacity as trains and you can run the tracks over roads, so it's really handy for areas where you don't have space for rails; but this is kind of countered by the fact that the stations are massively noisy. Also, annoyingly, the roads with stations on them won't snap to your roads but only to the global grid, so that sometimes makes your streets irritatingly wonky. I'm currently mostly using them because the train-monorail hub is the only reasonable multi-platform train station.

Cable cars are very niche, but if you've got steep inclines on your map, they can be darn useful. Blimps I'm still sort of struggling to find a use for; they only take as many passengers as a bus and are darn slow. But really, who cares, because the reason you build a blimp depot and set up a route is to see blimps floating majestically over your city. So I love them.

Finally: boats! Ferries are wonderful. I remember playing on the Black Woods map and desperately wishing I could connect passenger harbors, but ferries are even better. The ferry piers are cheap and fairly unobtrusive, and the ferries take 50 passengers each, which means they can handle more volume that you might expect. I'd say they're almost worth the price of the expansion on their own, but I guess you do really have to like boats for that to be true.

Some of the stuff we got for free with the accompanying patch, and I'm extremely grateful for the opportunity to add and remove traffic lights. However, the stop signs aren't exactly ideal. In one of the developer diaries, Colossal Order intimated that they were originally considering yield signs rather than stop signs, which is disappointing because yield signs would have been so much better. Stop signs are useful for small roads with low traffic joining bigger roads, but any time there's a larger volume of traffic, they'll just create a massive traffic jam. The specific instance given in the dev diary is roundabouts, which are a great example of why stop signs are bad. Yes, if only one road has moderate or heavy traffic, putting stop signs on all the others gives it priority. But if there are two or more roads with real traffic feeding into the roundabout, stop signs are useless as they'll just create a massive backlog of traffic. Yield signs might actually work, but stop signs turn moderate traffic into a total logjam.

On the whole, though, Mass Transit is a pretty good expansion. The weirdest thing is how impractical the transit hubs are, and the absence of multi-platform metro stations is inexcusable, but the boats and blimps are good. I'm happy with my purchase; as with everything on Steam, this too will be on sale, and unless you're some kind of revolting monster that doesn't like boats and mass transit, I'd recommend picking it up.

**

As I was writing this, Green Cities was announced as the next expansion. I'm cautiously optimistic; leveling specializations sounds good, and I'm intrigued by the promise of road modding. Might we finally get to place zebra crossings? Apparently we are getting a non-polluting alternative for garbage disposal; frankly, it'd be about time! I do wonder what "sustainable cities" means, though. You can have a city with no polluting industry right now; because you'll then be importing all your goods, that just means you're having someone else do your polluting for you - not exactly sustainable.

Nonetheless, I remain very happy with Cities: Skylines.

Dec 4, 2017

Let's Read Tolkien 39: Farewell to Lórien

That night the Company was again summoned to the chamber of Celeborn, and there the Lord and Lady greeted them with fair words.

Celeborn and Galadriel tell the Fellowship that it's about time they cleared out, and offer each of them the choice of heading onward or going back home. It's a good point: in War of the Ring, this can be a good moment to split off some companions from the Fellowship, especially if you've got an event card like There and Back Again. This time, however, everyone stays with the Company.

But where will they go? The Great River, Anduin, flows south past Lórien: on its west bank is Minas Tirith, Boromir's home; to the east, Mordor and the Cracks of Doom. Boromir is for Gondor, but no-one else can decide. Celeborn saves them from their dilemma by offering to give them boats, which the Fellowship gladly accept.

On their last night in Lórien, they briefly debate the road ahead. Most of the Company want to go to Minas Tirith, where they could at least be safe for a while. This was also Aragorn's original plan, but with Gandalf gone, he doesn't know what to do, and Frodo doesn't say anything. Boromir almost straight up says that it's madness to throw away the Ring by going to Mordor, but checks himself. The debate adjourns, with nothing decided.

The next day, the Companions are given lembas, elven waybread, and hooded cloaks woven by Galadriel and her maidens. They head southeast, to the shores of the Great River, where they practice boating and, to Sam's delight, receive a gift of elven ropes.

After a song and a ceremonial meal with Celeborn and Galadriel, the first lays out their options on the trip to come. The River flows through barren lands until it comes to Tol Brandir and the falls of Rauros. To the west of there is the way to Minas Tirith, where Celeborn warns against venturing into the forest of Fangorn. To the east of Rauros are the Dead Marshes, and Mordor.

Finally, Galadriel gives them all gifts. Aragorn gets a sheath for his sword and a special green stone; Merry and Pippin get silver belts with golden clasps. Sam the gardener gets a box of earth from Galadriel's orchard, Legolas a bow and Boromir a golden belt. She asks Gimli what he wants as a gift, and Gimli says that seeing her has been gift enough. When pressed, he requests a lock of her hair, to be treasured as an heirloom of his house. He gets his wish, and finally Frodo is presented with a phial of water, which will give him light in dark places.

After this ceremony of gifts, the Fellowship get in their boats and leave. They seem to perceive Lórien floating away from them, and after one last song by Galadriel, it's gone, and the Fellowship ride the river into the barren, brown lands.

**

This is kind of a brief chapter, very focused on the road ahead. After a breather of sorts in Lórien, the Fellowship has to move on, but it's become painfully obvious that no-one really knows where. Maybe Gandalf had a plan, maybe he didn't; at any rate, he never told anyone, which isn't great leadership. Maybe he was planning to use the Eagles. Who knows?

For now, the boats provided by Celeborn and Galadriel postpone the decision, but the choice is clear: Minas Tirith or Mordor. Boromir is beginning to speak his doubts, Aragorn is indecisive and no-one else is saying anything. The stage is being set for the end of the first volume.

Also, Lórien is truly Faerie here: rather than the Fellowship boating away from it, Lórien withdraws from them, and leaves them weeping in the desert of the real. We've had epic river crossings before, but this is kind of an epic river navigation, leaving Faerie behind and drifting down the river of time.

Next time: boating.

Nov 27, 2017

The most beautiful Magic: the Gathering cards

Now that I've returned to Magic, I want to take a moment to talk about the cards. Especially in an era of digital entertainment, part of the appeal of any card game is having the actual physical cards to handle, shuffle and look at. With Magic, this is what my high school history teacher would have called a double-barreled sword. On the one hand, I have to be honest: in terms of overall looks and design, getting back to Magic has strongly reminded me of how well-designed the cards of the Lord of the Rings living card game are. They are just lovely in a way that I think Magic cards have never been. But what Magic has going for it is sheer scale. With over 15 000 different cards, several with multiple versions, there's a huge library of cards to discover and rediscover, and whole boatloads of art. Some of it is, frankly, incredibly good.

To start with, here are some of our favorite contemporary(ish) Magic cards. We're great fans of Magali Villeneuve from her work on the Lord of the Rings card game; Arwen and Éowyn are staples of our decks and simply gorgeous cards. She's been doing more work for Magic lately, like the spectacular Wildfire Eternal for Hour of Devastation:


Her women are on another level altogether, though; Dulcet Sirens and Scrapper Champion are particular favorites of mine, but the best of the lot is surely Titania, Protector of Argoth.


Another fantastic current artist is Cynthia Sheppard, whose Shadow Alley Denizen is simply beautiful.


Dark Salvation is also a favorite of mine.


Mike Lim aka Daarken is another prominent exponent of these darker themes, with lovely cards like Shipwreck Singer and Bloodhusk Ritualist:


Looking at these images, it might not be entirely unfair to guess that he's a bit of a Luis Royo fan. That's okay, though, so are we. Here's a Barony Vampire:


For whatever reason, vampires seem to get some of the best art, but so do their opposite numbers, so to speak; as a theologian I'd be remiss if I didn't post at least one angel, so here's Avacyn, the Purifier by James Ryman.


**

The above, I think, are fair examples of some of the best of the current line of Magic cards: almost hyperrealistic contemporary fantasy art of fairly uniform quality. Of course, this wasn't always the case. In older Magic sets, the quality and nature of the art varied wildly. You could get comic book art or an impressionist painting; it might be brilliant, and it might be awful. This is where you find the ugliest cards, but in my opinion, also the most beautiful. Rather than giving you a practically photorealistic depiction of what the card was supposed to represent, the older art often left you with a lot more room for imagination.

I talked about my enduring love for lands in my last post on Magic, and I think this is why I'm so fond of them. There are lots of great examples, but one that particularly stuck with me was Academy Ruins by Zoltan Boros and Gabor Szikszai.


There are lots of other lands I could mention, like Brian Snoddy's take on Urza's Power Plant, John Avon's Lantern-lit Graveyard and Submerged Boneyard by Chris Childs, and many others. Of the two-color lands that are a prominent feature of Magic Duels, I think my favorite is Highland Lake, by Florian de Gesincourt.


While I think these lands are very beautiful, none of them really stop me in my tracks. For that, we have to go back all the way to Urza's Saga, which came out in the fall of 1998, when I was starting high school. It included what I genuinely think is one of the most beautiful and evocative cards of all time, Lingering Mirage by Jerry Tiritilli.


This card has everything for me: the boat, the dramatic swell of the ocean and the wonderful range of blues in the water, from the greenish water in the distance to the dramatic dark blue in the foreground. The massively exaggerated curve of the horizon gives the picture an air of unreality, reminding you that this isn't just a painting of a boat, but a Magic card. And it really is a painting printed onto a collectible card.

Of course, this isn't a feature restricted to older cards: one of the most beautiful Magic cards ever, Seek the Wilds by Anna Steinbauer, is from the Battle for Zendikar block.


This is where my bias in favor of the older cards really shows up, though. I think Seek the Wilds is a fantastic card with wonderful art. But compared to some of the older art like Lingering Mirage, Seek the Wilds leaves less room for the imagination. It feels, perhaps paradoxically, like a more direct representation of its subject than the older, more organic images. Lingering Mirage invites me to stop and look at it closely and think about it. Seek the Wilds is just a really cool picture.

While we're on the subject of old cards, by the way, I do have to mention a card that may not be the most beautiful piece of art you'll ever see, but is by far the most kickass depiction of a badger ever: Rysorian Badger by Heather Hudson.


That is literally a badger playing a drum solo on someone's skull with their bones. You just don't get art that awesome any more. Heather Hudson also did the art for Lonely Sandbar, an amazingly beautiful card which returns us to our nautical theme.


I make no apologies for featuring ships and the sea so prominently here; having grown up by the seaside, I love them, but I also genuinely feel that for whatever reason, disproportionately many of the most beautiful Magic cards I've ever seen have featured both. A case in point is what I'd nominate as the second-most beautiful card in all of Magic: Exploration, by Brian Snoddy.


One of the particular charms of Magic has always been that it isn't tied to a particular setting. Not only does this mean that designers have a very free hand in inventing new settings and themes, but also that cards don't necessarily have to be in any way tied to any of them. They can even represent completely abstract concepts, like Exploration does. Here the combination of the title and image, but also just the image alone, suggest a story, but they leave it to your imagination. In my opinion, that's what makes truly great card art.

Finally, it's time for what I believe is the most beautiful card ever created for Magic: the Gathering. All the way from Fifth Edition, it's Reef Pirates by Tom Wänerstrand.


Everything I said about Exploration is true here, and then some. The flavor text is also pretty good, and works with the image and title to give you the idea that this is a snapshot from a much bigger story that you're free to fill in on your own. But the art itself is simply wonderful. The sky is simply amazing, and a perfect contrast with the brilliant emerald water. And the sails! Look at the sails! For me, this card has everything, from story to craftsmanship.

So yeah, I still feel that the Lord of the Rings living card game has better quality cards in general. But when it comes to individual cards that make you stop and think and feel, you'll find them in Magic.

Nov 20, 2017

Let's Read Tolkien 38: The Mirror of Galadriel

The sun was sinking behind the mountains, and the shadows were deepening in the woods, when they went on again.

The Fellowship of the Ring arrives in Caras Galadhon, the City of the Trees. Haldir leads them through the city, to a really big tree topped by a platform, on which stands the hall of Celeborn and Galadriel, the Lord and Lady of Lórien. The Fellowship is taken up to meet them, and they tell the story of Gandalf's fall in Moria. Celeborn and Galadriel know what the Fellowship's mission is, and Galadriel tests each member of the Company by having a staring contest with them. Only Aragorn and Legolas distinguish themselves.

The Fellowship hang out in Lórien, and the elves sing about Gandalf. As Frodo and Sam are talking about him, Galadriel finds them and invites them to look into her Mirror. It's basically a silver birdbath, but you can see stuff in it; in her words, "things that were, things that are, and things that yet may be".

Sam looks, and sees some unclear flashes of vision, and then a longer sequence where trees are being cut down in the Shire, and his dad is hauling his possessions on a barrow. Sam is furious and wants to set off home immediately, but is dissuaded by Galadriel.

Frodo also looks in the Mirror. He sees a wizard in white - either Gandalf or Saruman - and a brief glimpse of Bilbo at Rivendell, followed by a sort of credit-sequence version of the history of Gondor. Eventually, though, the Mirror is completely dominated by the Eye of Sauron.

After the vision, Galadriel reveals that she bears one of the elven-rings: Nenya, the Ring of Adamant. She spells out the fate of the elves: if Frodo fails, everything is lost, but even if he succeeds, the elves will dwindle and disappear with time. "We must depart into the West, or dwindle to a rustic folk of dell and cave, slowly to forget and to be forgotten." This is one of the clearest statements of how Tolkien saw his elves becoming the fairies and elves of folklore.

Frodo then straight up offers to give Galadriel the One Ring. She presents a vision of herself as a terrible queen, but refuses. Frodo also wonders why the Ring doesn't grant him more powers, and Galadriel explains that he would need to train his mind to use it. Nonetheless he already sees more than most, including of her thoughts. With that, they leave the Mirror.

**

I have to say that in Lórien, Tolkien's powers of exposition and geography seem to fail him. It's possible that the failure is mine: I wrote these posts at a time when I was under quite a bit of stress, which is also why this blog is so abysmally late, so maybe I just completely missed all the good stuff. But Lórien never really made that much of an impression on me. There's just like a bunch of trees. Both Rivendell and the Elven-king's halls were much more memorable.

The focus of the chapter is Galadriel. One of Tolkien's ethereal faerie women, of whom Lúthien is the archetype, she embodies Tolkien's version of the Madonna-whore complex, which in his case might better be called the Madonna-invisibility complex: women in Tolkien's world tend to be either elfin, otherworldly creatures whose feet never quite touch the ground, or not there at all. There are vanishingly few exceptions. Of the women we've met so far, Goldberry and Arwen are Midgard Madonnas, while the lone delightful exception is Lobelia Sackville-Baggins.

Galadriel, though, gets to be a character, if not nearly as much as Lobelia. I've always read this chapter as presenting Celeborn as nominally in charge in Lórien, but Galadriel as the actual brains of the operation. Which, now that I think about it, might also fairly characterize Otho and Lobelia Sackville-Baggins. Galadriel speaks for Celeborn; she tests the Fellowship, and it's she who wears the Elven-ring, and shows Frodo the Mirror - which isn't the Mirror of Celeborn, after all. Although she's an example of the ethereal Madonna archetype, Galadriel is also a very strong female character, one of the most powerful beings in Middle-earth. She's part of the White Council with Gandalf, Saruman and Elrond, and if you know her history from the Silmarillion, that hardly makes her any less impressive.

She's also a foil for Frodo in the introduction of one of the most crucial themes of the Lord of the Rings: the Fall of Frodo. In their conversation by the Mirror, it's significant that we don't get any insight into what Frodo's actually thinking. Galadriel speaks of herself quite openly, but Frodo says little. When he offers her the Ring, she says: "Gently are you revenged for my testing of your heart at our first meeting. You begin to see with a keen eye." She may be joking, but I think she's more than half serious. Especially in the context of his questions about the Ring, I think Frodo is beginning to realize that as the Ringbearer, he too has power, and he's beginning to test it. Maybe Gandalf's absence also plays a part here.

But in any case, we're left to guess Frodo's sincerity in offering Galadriel the Ring, and his intentions. Whereas Sam responds vocally and emotionally to his vision, Frodo keeps his thoughts to himself, even from the reader. I think there's at least an element of mischief, if not malice, in Frodo's offer. He's feeling his power as the Ringbearer.

Next time: leaving Lórien.

Oct 9, 2017

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor review

Since the official release date of Middle-earth: Shadow of War is tomorrow, this feels like a good moment to say a few words about its predecessor, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, or, to those of us who play the Lord of the Rings living card game, The Morgul Vale: the video game.


John Howe: In Mordor, 1989.

**

I've been playing the Xbox One version, so strictly speaking this is a review of that. Set between the events of the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit, you play a Gondorian ranger on a quest to avenge the death of his family at the hands of one of Sauron's captains. You're accompanied by an elven wraith, who provides conversation, superpowers and a special wraith sight mode. In practice, the easiest way to describe the game is Arkham Mordor; it's basically Arkham City, but in Middle-earth.


For anyone unfamiliar with the Arkham series, a concise definition of Shadow of Mordor would be a third-person open-world fighting/stealth game. You explore a game world where you find various collectables and complete missions to advance the plot. You can sneak and parkour around and stab orcs in the back, shoot them with a bow or just straight up fight them with your sword. Mêlée combat is handled with a "rhythm-based" system where you build up strike combos while countering your enemies' attacks. It looks great and is good fun; I found the system a little bit more forgiving than Arkham's.

What makes Shadow of Mordor special is what's called the Nemesis system. The game world is mostly populated by randomly generated orcs doing orc stuff, like bossing slaves around and so on. Some of these orcs are captains, and each of them has a name and a distinct personality, created through a random selection of strengths and weaknesses.

This actually manages to create some fairly memorable characters. For instance, I can assure you that I do not have fond memories of Mogg the Massive. Through a fortuitous combination of traits, he was impossible to kill quickly, and when his health got dangerously low he'd hightail it out of there far more quickly than anyone called "the Massive" has any right to.

In the early game, the orc-captains are challenging opponents whom you'll meet more often than you'd care to. When one of them manages to kill you (they will), they'll be marked as your nemesis, and gain power and possibly new abilities. The captains are part of a hierarchy where they're constantly trying to advance their position by boosting their power or straight up killing each other, and you get occasional opportunities to interfere in this, and eventually start turning the captains on each other to your advantage.

The Nemesis system is, in a word, brilliant. Not only does it give you personalized opponents, but it's dynamic enough to make the game world so much more alive. At best, it creates a level of creative chaos I haven't seen in an open-world game since GTA San Andreas, and that's really something.

The only real complaint I have about the orcs is that they're green, wear kind of patchwork armor and have fairly prominent underbites. When you add the fact that their dialogue was written (well) by Dan Abnett, there are times when the game veers surprisingly far into Warhammer territory.

**

So it's a fun game to play. But how is it as a Tolkien product? I'll discuss this in two parts: setting and story.

Unfortunately, the setting takes egregrious liberties with the timeline. To start at the beginning, Talion serves on the garrison of the Black Gate. Quoting from Appendix B of the Lord of the Rings, the watch on Mordor was abandoned in the year 1630 of the Third Age - that is, 1630 years after Sauron was overthrown. For context, Gondor still had a king then. He refers to Minas Ithil, which apparently also appears in the sequel; Minas Ithil fell in TA 2002. The Black Gate, as depicted in the game, was built by Sauron after his return to Mordor, so it never had a Gondorian garrison.

Because Talion encounters Gollum in Mordor, the game can be dated very specifically: it has to be set between Gollum losing the Ring and Aragorn capturing him in the Dead Marshes. Gollum was captured in TA 3017. In Appendix B, "Gollum reaches the confines of Mordor" in TA 2980. So when Gollum came to Mordor, the Gondorians had abandoned its fortifications over a thousand years ago. It's not entirely clear from the description in Chapter 2 of the Lord of the Rings how old Gollum was when he found the Ring in TA 2463, but assuming he originally had a similar lifespan to hobbits from the Shire, if he was a young adult at the time he might have been in his fourties or fifties; it wouldn't be unreasonable to suppose he was born around TA 2400. So even Gollum never knew Minas Ithil.

To make a long story short, the game takes two entirely separate times in the history of Middle-earth and mashes them together. In the timeline of the books, Gollum was as far from the Gondorian garrisons of Mordor as we are from Charlemagne. There's just no way the two can be shoehorned together. In a sense, there's also a third time: in the game, Sauron is still in the process of retaking Mordor. This happened long after the watch on Mordor was abandoned, but was long complete by the time Gollum got there. By analogy, this is like making a game set in North America where a Spanish conquistador looking for El Dorado meets Jesse James in a fallout shelter.

This is kind of a shame, but unlike some other nominally Tolkien-based products, at least they've taken things that exist in his works - just not at the same time - and created their own adaptation based on them. And it's a good adaptation at that, because I think they've created a phenomenally good take on Mordor.

In the first part of the game, you adventure around Udûn, which is fairly desolate but not completely waste; there are bushes and even some trees, and ruins of Gondorian forts. I was reminded of the description of the Morgai given in the Lord of the Rings:

Upon its outer marges under the westward mountains Mordor was a dying land, but it was not yet dead.
- The Lord of the Rings, Book 6,
Chapter 2: The Land of Shadow

The Udûn you visit in Shadow of Mordor seems to me to be exactly that: dying, but not yet dead. If you take the setting as representing Mordor before Sauron had fully repossessed it, I think it works excellently.


The other main game area is Nurn, briefly described in the Lord of the Rings:

Neither he or Frodo knew anything of the great slave-worked fields away south in this wide realm, beyond the fumes of the Mountain by the dark sad waters of Lake Núrnen; nor of the great roads that ran away east and south to tributary lands, from which the soldiers of the Tower brought long waggon-trains of goods and booty and fresh slaves.
- The Lord of the Rings, Book 6,
Chapter 2

I'll admit I was always fascinated by Mordor, and especially Nurn: to see something of how Sauron's realm operated outside the volcanic hell of Gorgoroth that Frodo and Sam trudge through. Again, if you go with the confused chronology where the game is set during Sauron's retaking of Mordor, this is an excellent take on Nurn: the orcs are still in the process of subjugating the land, the slave plantations have yet to be built, and nature hasn't been thoroughly devastated yet. Visiting Nurn in Shadow of Mordor is a memorable experience, made poignant by the fact that the locals' resistance to Sauron is ultimately in vain.


The only real mistake in geography that I spotted on my playthrough was in the dialogue after finding the Ornate Cameo in Nurn, where Talion remarks that not all the rivers in this land flow into the Sea of Núrnen, which means that the people living there could escape west. This is not true; on the maps in the Lord of the Rings, all the rivers in the south of Mordor are unambiguously depicted as flowing into the Sea of Núrnen. It would be difficult for them to flow up a mountain range anyway! I think the developers must have become confused in their geography, which also explains why there's a river called Poros in Nurn. Tolkien's Poros is the old southern border of Gondor, and flows west from the Ephel Dúath, meeting the Anduin below Pelargir. Talion's statement, together with the Poros on the game map, would suģgest that the developers thought the Poros flows from the Núrnen to the Anduin. This wouldn't make sense, as the Sea of Núrnen wouldn't be salty if it had an outlet to the ocean - and anyway the Poros in the game flows into the Sea!

The only other thing that flat out makes no sense whatsoever is how a former corsair and her daughter have high-elven names.

**

As for the story, I don't really want to go into too much detail, because I honestly recommend this game and I don't really want to spoil it. In general terms, though, if I thought that the setting was thematically very good, I can report - to my great surprise - that the story is not only excellent, but very Tolkien indeed.

As I mentioned already, the character you play is a Gondorian ranger who's been more or less possessed by an elven wraith. Obviously there's no direct precedent for this in Tolkien - or at least in his published works. However, in the early drafts of the Lord of the Rings, elf-wraiths make several appearances. Here's an early rendering of what was probably meant to be a conversation between the then-protagonist, Bingo Baggins, and Gildor:

In the very ancient days the Ring-lord made many of these Rings: and sent them out through the world to snare people. He sent them to all sorts of folk - the Elves had many, and there are now many elfwraiths in the world, but the Ring-lord cannot rule them; the goblins got many, and the invisible goblins are very evil and wholly under the Lord; dwarves I don't believe had any; some say the rings don't work on them: they are too solid.
- in Christopher Tolkien, The History of the Lord of the Rings, Part 1: The Return of the Shadow, HarperCollins 2002, p. 75

So the idea of elf-wraiths was by no means completely foreign to Tolkien; the Three only acquired their separate status much later. In the first version of the verse of the Rings, the Nine are the elven-rings:

Nine for the Elven-kings under moon and star,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Three for Mortal Men that wander far,
  One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
  In the Land of Mor-dor where the shadows are.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
  In the Land of Mor-dor where the shadows are
- The Return of the Shadow, p. 269

Speaking of rings, when I discussed the Council of Elrond, I tried to underline what I think is one of the most important philosophical themes of the Lord of the Rings: power corrupts. To paraphrase Audre Lorde, the Enemy's tools will never dismantle the Enemy's house. This being the case, when Talion's wraith buddy starts talking about how you need to use the Enemy's tools against him in order to defeat him, this should be a huge red flag to everyone that there's something going on here. As there indeed is.

The plot of the game centers around revenge. Several characters in Tolkien's works are motivated by revenge, and it never goes particularly well. One of the most prominent examples has to be Túrin Turambar, who set out to avenge the crimes of Morgoth against his family. If you don't know how that ended up working out, enjoy the Silmarillion, but mild spoiler: he could have done better. So in Tolkien's world, revenge doesn't work out, ends don't justify means and power corrupts. In Shadow of Mordor, you play an undead ranger hell-bent on using any powers he can lay his hands on to wreak his vengeance on Sauron's lieutenants.

I get that the beginning of the game is so generic fantasy / Dragon Age-y that it's possible to accept the protagonist at face value as some kind of "dark fantasy" hero, and his quest for revenge as a good thing. But if you stop for even a moment to think about what's going on, anyone with so much as a nodding familiarity with Tolkien's works should fairly quickly figure out that Talion is no hero. I'm not even sure he qualifies as an antihero, because by the end of the story he's pretty much straight up a villain. His pursuit of vengeance and Command is far more demented than Boromir's worst hallucinations, and even Túrin never led a mind-controlled orc-army. As for his wraith pal, it's worth remembering that in the Lord of the Rings, the mightiest of the elves - most prominently Galadriel - resist the temptation of the Ring and of power. Shadow of Mordor, and especially the Bright Lord DLC are what happens when they don't.

From a Tolkienian perspective, then, Shadow of Mordor isn't one of those American action movies where a crime happens, and then massive male violence is deployed in retribution and everything becomes okay again. On the contrary, the story of the gane is a horrible crime, followed by the fall of the protagonist into evil. The Shadow of Mordor in the title is the one Talion falls into, cheerfully helped along by several parties very much interested in Rings of Power.

This makes for a very dark game, but a strongly Tolkien one and a compelling story. Combined with the very well-executed setting, I was led to completely break with my usual habits and finish the game very quickly. I can't name a single other comparable open-world game where I wanted to advance the main quest like this. So whereas I strongly recommend Shadow of Mordor as a video game, it's also an absolutely excellent Tolkien adaptation. I'm more than willing to overlook playing fast and loose with the chronology and being confused about the Poros when the thematic content of the game is so spot on.

**

To sum up, I was very positively surprised by Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. Like I said earlier, a sequel is imminent. Based on what we've seen of it so far, I'm cautiously optimistic. On the positive side, it looks like they've taken the Nemesis system and scaled it up so that instead of fighting individual orc-captains in Udûn, you're now recruiting your own orc army and conquering strongholds in Mordor. Because again, nothing says "we're the good guys" like leading armies of orcs while wearing a Ring of Power.

I kind of like this, actually, because it seems remarkably similar to what Boromir wanted to do with the Ring.

"The Ring would give me power of Command. How I would drive the hosts of Mordor, and all men would flock to my banner!"

Boromir strode up and down, speaking ever more loudly. Almost he seemed to have forgotten Frodo, while his talk dwelt on walls and weapons, and the mustering of men; and he drew plans for great alliances and glorious victories to be; and he cast down Mordor, and became himself a mighty king, benevolent and wise.
- The Lord of the Rings, Book 2, Chapter 10

The potential problem I see with it is that judging from the gameplay footage, while the game looks fun, it also looks much more like Mount and Blade: Warhammer than a Tolkien product. The warhammerisms in Shadow of Mordor I can live with, because the setting and story are so strong around them. Shadow of War, on the other hand, looks like it's going off on such a distant tangent from the source material that I wonder if it'll have much to do with Middle-earth any more. Still, though, if it ends up being a Warhammer game, the odds are it'll be much better than anything Games Workshop ever licensed.