Licensed video games tend to go wrong when they miss what their source material is about.
Game developers can import worlds from film or literature, faithfully rendering their imagery or even casting their voice talent. But if the way you interact with those worlds doesn't bear any thematic similarity to their representation in other media, their places and people become nothing more than surface, familiar sights on an unfamiliar journey.
Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment's "Middle-earth" series has a complicated relationship with this rule of licensed games. J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy world has no shortage of themes for studio Monolith Productions to mine in 2014's "Shadow of Mordor" and new sequel "Shadow of War," but its gaze is fixed upon two. And "War" fleshes them out greatly — for better and for worse.
The first is less a theme than a sensation: The feeling of being hopelessly outnumbered in battle against Sauron's forces.
Like many scenes in Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, and namely its Black Gate climax, "Shadow of Mordor" surrounded your Gondorian ranger Talion with dozens of orcs that seemingly never thinned as you shed their oily blood by the bucket. "War" does the same, increasing how many can swarm your screen at the same time. Meanwhile, Monolith adds helpful new crowd control measures like arrow shots that poison grog, as well as a takedown that sees Talion's wraith cohabitant, the elf ringsmith Celebrimbor, watch his host's back while he guts an orc on the ground.
The combat of "Shadow of War" remains safely similar to "Mordor's." Talion carves up orcs and new, beastlier enforcers like olags in the exhilarating rhythm popularized by the "Batman: Arkham" games, hammering attacks but defensively vaulting, parrying and stunning when prompted by button icons on the screen. Each battle tells a new story, though, through Monolith's own innovation: The Nemesis System. Every orc has a name, strengths and, if he survives Talion's sword, a memory of the encounter he'll sneeringly recall the next time they meet. Whether it's the orc who keeps coming back from death or the one you keep failing to kill, the emergent stories in "Middle-earth" continue to be some of its most engaging. My bitter adversary was Horg the Survivor, not Sauron.
New skills and enemies aside, the major improvement to "Middle-earth's" combat in "Shadow of War" is one of context. Talion's campaign is not the bare bones tech demo for the Nemesis System that it was in "Shadow of Mordor." Across five vivid maps that span the city of Minas Ithil to the molten slopes of Mount Doom, he and Celebrimbor bring the fight to Sauron with their own One Ring. They find a guide in the spider Shelob, who takes a Liv Tyler-looking human form that — along with another Gollum cameo and other canon revisions — will surely annoy Tolkien purists.
Monolith mostly plays with Tolkien's text for the better. It structures Talion's main quest and a few lines of side quests around his encounters with the Nazgul, some of which are given the identities and backstories of other figures from Tolkien lore. The wraiths can be lethal, largely due to the company of orcs you have to fend off to get a crack at them, but crossing their spectral swords isn't as fearsome as the movies would suggest. Another familiar foe is the towering, whip-wielding balrog, he who shall not pass. And Monolith handles its obvious mismatch against Talion well, though the finale suffers from a finicky button prompt. Still, in scope and challenge, the boss battles of "War" at least feel like boss battles, not the afterthought quick time events of "Mordor."
The less recognizable bosses in "Shadow of Mordor," the overlords ruling its regional fortresses, are even more challenging. Flanked by olags and impervious to all but a few of Talion's offensive moves, they can only be toppled with strategy and some luck. But it's getting to those overlords that raises the other theme from Tolkien's world that runs through "Shadow of War": strength of will.
It's tempting to compare "Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor" to "Batman: Arkham Asylum."
As in "Mordor," Talion gains the ability to make followers of his orc foes midway through "War." But the sequel turns them into outright armies. The ranger can recruit them, the higher-level the better, and send them to spy on Sauron's captains, assassinate them or even spar to the death with each other. Armed with purchasable siege tactics, they support Talion when he raids fortresses, then garrison them when he moves onto the next region. All Talion has to do is "dominate" them by sneaking behind or sauntering toward them, outstretching his hand and howling, "Kneel!"
After 20 hours of "Mordor" and 15 of "War," though, it still feels vile. Your orcs are slaves. And Monolith's repeated use of "followers" in its menus only underscores the word's role as a euphemism.
Like the One Ring, Talion and Celebrimbor break others' wills. You spend the second half of "Shadow of War" doing so, both general and slave master. Monolith tries to wriggle out of the latter implication a few ways, but without success. It appears to make more of "War's" orcs whiter, particularly those of the forest region Núrnen, to avoid the racial allegory of enslaving them. But that's made moot by Celebrimbor calling them "not noble men ... but savage orcs" like some 19th century phrenologist. Monolith also gives "War's" orcs more personality, especially Bruz the Chopper, who serves as your guide to the game's fortress modes of play. But humanizing your subjects only highlights how wrong it is to subjugate them in the first place.
As the story of "Shadow of War" nears its conclusion, Monolith flirts with a critique of the slavery mechanic that would ask you to consider the morality of your actions and, hopefully, feel bad about yourself. That critique doesn't quite take form, though. What does, in "War's" fourth act and endgame, is further commodification of the orcs, a veritable slave market. Buying high-level ones is all but necessary to complete that endgame, a lengthy series of fortress conquests that reveals the game's "real" ending. Worse yet, you can buy the loot boxes containing these orcs with real money.
But buying orcs is unnecessary to enjoying "Shadow of War," to experiencing Tolkien's world. And as thematically resonant as it may be, so is enslaving them. So I resisted.
If you play
GAME: "Middle-earth: Shadow of War"
TL;DR: "War" evolves the open-world combat of "Shadow of Mordor" in ways that are mostly enjoyable, particularly a much fuller campaign, but the priority on enslaving orcs remains problematic.
CONTENT RATING: Mature for blood, gore and intense violence
DEVELOPER: Monolith Productions
PUBLISHER: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
PLATFORM: PlayStation 4 (also available on Microsoft Windows and Xbox One)
PLAY: Single player, online multiplayer
DISCLOSURE: I received a copy of "Middle-earth: Shadow of War" from Warner Bros. and completed the first three acts on standard difficulty in about 15 hours.