So I finished the game.
I normally have no desire to 100% complete a game. But this game reasonably rewarded the completionist impulse, the world was easy to explore, and it helped that the game flagged virtually everything (so very little actual exploring was done, and while it did get me to collect all the doodads, I think it hurt the challenge and intrinsic value that exploring an open game world usually has).
Now that of course only reflects all the story missions, side quests, collectibles, and challenges. I completed all sections of the Appendices, as well. But I did not unlock all the Steam achievements, and I didn’t even touch any of the DLC (bundled as it was in whatever Game of the Year-type digital package I purchased when the game was on sale). I don’t think I will. I’m satisfied with my time in the game. I could go back to it if I wanted, but I don’t feel compelled anymore. I’ve exhausted everything I wanted to do with the game. Steam records 34 hours played for this title, so I think I got my money’s worth.
The story, unfortunately, remained abysmal. Part of it is that it is simultaneously a prequel and a bridge between stories, yet not about any essential characters or events. So nothing in it matters, nothing in it could matter, and nothing in it answers anything unexplained or adds anything truly interesting to the lore. Rather than having an interesting question that prompted the game, it feels rather like Monolith started with the IP acquisition, developed the gameplay, and then forced an arbitrary narrative concern (“Ah, you know about The Lord of the Rings–but, uh, who is The Lord of the Rings, really???”) to connect the two. Given Monolith’s attention to detail, excellent game design, and clear love for establishing lore, I think it would have been considerably better if they had simply developed a fantasy hack-and-slash game like this built around original IP. We could have had a much better story that was serviced better by the game mechanics, rather than another boring revenge narrative set in a tiny corner of Middle-Earth that someone apparently felt had not been adequately covered yet.
The clumsy tropes continued in finishing the story, of course (some spoilers follow). We meet Marwen, a sort of pirate queen who appears ancient and half-dead. She is a seer and provides aid. It turns out, though, that she is possessed by Saruman; after the possession is broken, she becomes an attractive older woman. So ugly and old equal unsexy equals evil.
Then we are sent on quests to help out Lithariel, daughter of the Queen. First, we need to help find medicine so the queen can get better (isn’t she better? what’s still wrong with her? the game doesn’t say). Then, we have to break into an orc camp to rescue Lithariel, who has of course gone and gotten herself captured.
All the while, Boring Hero reluctantly has to remember his dead family and his need for vengeance so that he doesn’t just follow his dick into another romantic relationship. This last element is played up for dramatic effect. This fails, though, because other than being a Brooding Handsome White Guy and a Pouting Beautiful White Woman, there is no reason for the two to enter into a relationship.
The revenge narrative wraps up with shocking speed, and the final boss battles are ridiculously easy. The ultimate battle is in fact a series of (actually rather slow) quick time events. And then, after a million lines of credits, we are dumped back into the world to do more stuff. Mostly killing orcs.
That all said, killing orcs remained really fun the whole time! I just completely stopped looking at my moral compass within the first few hours of the game, so there was plenty of murdering and torturing and dominating of orcs throughout the rest of the game (I don’t care how much the game tells you the Orcs are evil and Boring Hero is good, Boring Hero still does a lot of really evil and sadistic things with very little moral reflection or reluctance). And all those mechanics work really well, and the game looks really good while you do those things.
In particular, the “branding” or domination system–capturing and controlling orcs so that they follow your will–is excellent. The politics of the setting rapidly became more complicated with this power unlocked, and in a good way. I had some fun dominating high-level orcs, especially war chiefs. But it was also fun setting up groups of sleeper cell orcs in enemy encampments to help me when I finally took on a captain, or setting up a captain to become a bodyguard of a leader I wanted to take down. Weakening, corrupting, and dominating power structures became the name of the game. So much fun!
The game was dynamic enough, too, that my bigger plans would sometimes spiral into surprising outcomes, and sometimes a small moment (like a chance encounter with a captain) would lead into something far more advantageous down the line.
Also, older rivalries proved to result in really rewarding spontaneous and organic narratives. Take good ol’ Kaka Prison Master, my hopeless rival. I guess his sheer tenacity (and perhaps his reputation as a survivor of the unlikely-to-stay-dead Boring Hero) eventually earned him a promotion to war chief.
He was also getting far uglier, thanks to all the beatings I’d given him. Well, when I saw he had the promotion, I thought to myself, “Good for you, guy!” Now that I had the ability to dominate and control orcs, there was no reason to outright kill the guy. After all, he’d always been a bit of a ridiculous character to me, more comic relief than any of the forced “comic relief” characters in the main story, and he’d never been a true threat to me. He was a familiar “enemy” without being antagonistic. He was the Master Jr. Troopa to my Paper Mario.
So I sought him out. He not only remembered me, he seemed sort of fond of me, too.
After besting him in combat, he knelt before me, defeated.
Okay, so he was getting a little creepy. But he clearly just wanted to be buds! So I spared him (and dominated him), and he’s my bud now. His scars don’t even look that bad anymore! Sort of!
I have another story for a bit of a contrast. In the final big battle of the story campaign, in which my orcs fought against defending orcs, the game apparently inserts the Boring Hero’s biggest outstanding rival as the commander of the opposing forces. For me, this was a jerk who had managed to kill me once before, while I’d taken him down a couple times, including once, I believe, with fire. The burning seemed to have inspired him to use powerful poisons, and I found him to be quite the nuisance in the past.
After a slightly-less-than-epic battle between our armed forces, I had subdued this rival, as well. He even begged for mercy.
Well, I wasn’t so fond of him.
There are lots of little stories like that I could share. By the end of it, I had all war chiefs in both maps of the game under my control. It was great fun getting to that point.
If you’re okay with playing a game involving over-the-top violence against an objectively Evil Race (and I understand if you would be opposed to that), then I think you’d probably have a lot of fun playing this game (you know, if you haven’t already). There are some excellent game design elements present here. It’s just too bad that you have to push through the most uninspiring, dull revenge story to unlock all of those elements.
P.S. Hey, check out this Batman reference from the game:
“The poison slowly eats at their minds, sending them nightmares of a demonic man-bat who preys on fear.” Pretty good.