There are two kinds of bad fanfic, and Shadow of War is both of them at once at war with each other, and that sort of rules except when it does not.
The worst kind of fanfic is by someone who clearly loves whatever the original work was, but fundamentally does not understand it. Middle Earth™ Shadow of War™ is, on one level, this sort of story, where it completely misses the point of Lord of the Rings. This is an AAA power fantasy — heavily derivative of the Assassin’s Creed and Batman: Arkham series — about how it’s cool and good for hard men to make the hard choice to embrace the destructive power of war and cruelty in order to fend off greater cruelty. Any concession that this is necessarily a self-destructive path is drowned out by the fact that cutting orcs in half is extremely powerful and cool and fun.
Talion, Shadow of War’s protagonist, has a mix of ranger martial arts and Elven ghost magic, to make this an odd mix of brawler and stealth action that works almost despite itself. There’s an overstuffed, maximalist quality to his toolkit that makes this game really aggressively annoying to play sometimes, because the control scheme is just overwhelming. To sneak, you hold R trigger. To run, you hold A while holding the stick in the direction you want to move. To sprint, you press L stick, but you don’t spam it because that wastes your focus bar (one of four resource bars!). So just traveling from place to place without attracting too much attention, something you want to do all the time, involves holding three commands while occasionally tapping a fourth. Buttons also often have different uses in context; draining an orc, dominating an enemy captain, healing an ally, stunning enemies, or jumping down from something all use the same button with contextual prompts. This really intimidating array of different controls means there are constant obtrusive “hint” prompts reminding you what your seventeen million abilities are. On one hand, it’s awesome that Talion is so powerful and versatile, but on the other, it is a bit overwhelming and it is annoying to mean to do one thing and do another.
But Talion being a powerful and supercompetent stealth assassin who overcomes his enemies with his martial prowess and magical power is missing the point of Lord of the Rings. For example, he can gruesomely murder an unaware orc in order to terrify that orc’s companions. Lord of the Rings characterizes these urges as fundamentally inhuman: of the orcs, Theoden says, “How shall any tower withstand such numbers and such reckless hate?” In Shadow of War, “Reckless Hate” is an upgrade you can buy to make your executions even more horrifying so they scare off more orcs. Shadow of War doesn’t necessarily paint Talion and Celebrimbor as unalloyed good — without spoiling too much, Talion ends up acknowledging his self-destructive path in a hilariously gothy way, smeared black eyeshadow and all — but the game itself does, because all of these abilities are very powerful and awesome and unlocking them and learning to master them is the central appeal of the game. Lord of the Rings is a story about the virtue of humility and service to protect the beauty of a simple life, and Shadow of War is about how awesome it is to be a mixture of Ezio and Batman and command a slave army of orcs to fight marginally worse evil.
This also extends to Tolkien “lore.” Shadow of War retcons a bunch of things to fit its story in as a prequel to Lord of the Rings, without a lot of regard for not contradicting those appendices. Shelob is recast from a mysterious giant spider to a shapeshifting temptress and oracle whose main role is to lay out the backstory, the elf smith from the Silmarillion is a would-be rival to Sauron, Minas Morgul has not yet been captured by Sauron so that it can be the setting for a recreation of the Helm’s Deep battle from the LOTR movies, and so on. There’s the heretofore-unmentioned Elven ninja assassin in service to Galadriel, and you’re either okay with that or you’re not. The weird part is not that there are all these retcons — the Assassin’s Creed LOTR prequel was always going to be a rough fit — but that they are mixed in with deep-cut trivia that is clearly pandering to the sort of super-invested fan of J.R.R. Tolkien who is going to absolutely hate the shit out of all of the retcons. Who both knows who Helm Hammerhand is, but is also okay with the compromises necessary to make this story work? There’s all this pandering fanservice namedropping, but I can’t figure out what audience it’s intended to appeal to. I’m not put off by this, just baffled.
Shadow of War’s main narrative, of the protagonist Talion the ranger and the ghost elf smith Celebrimbor teaming up to make their own competing Ring (the Two Ring?) to usurp Sauron’s control of Mordor is dumb. It mostly involves three different layers of flashback in order to briefly recap the first game, Shadow of Mordor, while setting up a bunch of backstory and prophecy to foreshadow the ending that would have been very predictable even without the foreshadowing. This is a prequel to a story I read when I was 12, I know it isn’t actually going to end with defeating Sauron, so all of the attempts to build suspense to that end are completely wasted.
The weakness of the story mirrors the weakness of the things you’re doing in service to that story. Everything takes forever to get going, and even when it does, it involves lots of stopping to interact with minor human and Elven characters doing inane tasks. There isn’t even any proper resolution to the story of stalwart expatriot Baranor and plucky shieldmaiden Idril; those characters wander off into their own DLC that I didn’t bother to buy. There are a few big setpiece fights that are just weak and ugly and boring and less interesting than the basic task of exploring and traversing the different areas in Mordor. For example, there’s a QTE kaiju battle with a cheap and crappy-looking Balrog at one point. It should rule but does not.
But that’s only one kind of bad fanfic. The other kind of bad fanfic is the sort where the author clearly doesn’t give a shit about what the story actually was, and instead wants to write a silly story about the kind of wacky quippy characters they find interesting, usually with a heavy-duty sexual subtext that appeals to their particular sexuality, tastes, and kinks. This sort of bad fanfic can be annoying because it’s clearly just the author using the original subject as a prompt for what they actually want to do, but also sometimes it rules because the fanfic author is genuinely funny or interesting somehow in their own right.
Friend, the orcs of Shadow of War are funny and interesting in their own right. Shadow of War humanizes Tolkien’s faceless eugenic Great Enemy into a host of quarreling, fractious dickheads. Most of the orcs and trolls (Uruks and Ologs in their own language, despite the fact that they all humorously can’t understand the only character who speaks Sauron’s own Black Speech) are cannon fodder, but they’re led by procedurally-generated captains with names like Koth the Poisoner or Ogbur the Fool. They’re roving minibosses, appearing in randomly-generated missions to raid their daily activities like trying to hunt or guard a checkpoint or get in fights with each other, but they also seem to have minds of their own, seeking out Talion to interrupt whatever it is you’re trying to actually do, with an apparent memory of previous events. You’re just trying to go back to Shelob to get the next stupid vision to move the incredibly square main story to progress, but suddenly you’re ambushed by Gruk the Poet! He’s here with his silly hat and his axe-lute to recite a rhyme about how bad Talion sucks for trying to kill him the last time they met, and his lust for revenge just seems to shade into regular old lust. But, it’s fine: he’s terrified of being set on fire, so after a few smacks with a flaming sword, he ran off, presumably to write another blisteringly awful verse about how fire hurts.
These orcs (and trolls) are the real stars of Shadow of War, as they constantly interrupt, eventually taking over the whole game. Eventually Talion learns the ability to enslave them to serve as the leaders of his own army, and Shadow of War’s dreary main story contrasts with the chaotic orc army ant farm. The captains quarrel with each other, they betray Talion at the worst times, they “helpfully” randomly show up in the middle of things to help, they go off and get themselves killed. This randomness was frustrating in the moment, but highly entertaining in retrospect. If anything, I wished my orc army was even more present after being co-opted. It was almost disappointing to dominate a difficult or funny rival, because I knew I he probably wouldn’t show up very often after that unless I set him as my bodyguard, and even then his role would be fairly minor. The last interactions you have with most orcs — unless you kill them —is usually to enslave them, so their reactions to this leave a real impression. These reactions are as varied as the orcs themselves: enthusiasm for a chance to turn the tables and settle scores, a weary “new boss same as the old boss” attitude, or, jarringly, a traumatized and broken acceptance of their horrible lot.
There is a lengthy side story featuring Brûz, an inexplicably Australian troll captain with an enthusiasm for popping off heads, that drives contrast home. Brûz walks you through the basics of dominating and managing your orc army, then betrays Talion, who then has to make an example of him, breaking Brûz’s spirit in a horrifying way. You can then kill Brûz or enslave him, and either way the worst part of it is that he can no longer fully express the terror he now feels. It’s a very blunt way for Shadow of War to say, “Even though these orcs are bad people, they are still people, and Talion and Celebrimbor are bad people for enslaving them.” That is an uncomfortable contrast with how wacky and fun the orcs are overall.
Shadow of War’s two halves are at war with each other, and each of them is incompatible with Lord of the Rings proper. Assassin’s Creed: Mordor is even more overcomplicated and janky than the original, and its story’s self-important antihero nonsense owes more to Bronze Age comic books than it does to J.R.R. Tolkien. On the other hand, the unpredictable, goofy orcs are a fun send-up of Tolkien’s dehumanized (and uncomfortably racialized) hordes who threaten the light of Western civilization, but a large part of why they are fun is because they are an element of chaos disrupting a different kind of square story, a very boring and conventional AAA video game narrative of hard men making hard choices.
It’s tempting to say that this doesn’t work, but, paradoxically, Shadow of War does work. The orcs are the most fun part of this game, but this isn’t because collecting and managing them is particularly compelling. It isn’t! But managing them turns them into an element of chaos and fun and humor in what is otherwise a game about fighting a bad control scheme in order to fight evil with slightly lesser evil. Shadow of War is compelling despite itself, and I don’t think it would be if it weren’t for the fact that it indulges in its worst impulses. It’s so bad that it’s good, and isn’t that the magic of fanfiction.