Like its predecessor, Middle Earth: Shadow of War is Tolkien-lite fan fiction that's loosely set in the world of Lord of the Rings. And much like 2014's Shadow of Mordor, it plays fast and loose with the world that's been created, taking cues from the movies instead of the books. Despite that, both games, and particularly the sequel, which released last month, accomplish one thing that the books never did - humanise the orcs.
As we noted in our review of Middle Earth: Shadow of War, "the green skinned warriors exhibit a whole lot more personality than anyone else in the game.” The game of course features thousands of nameless orcs but there's no shortage of named orcs with dynamically generated strengths, weaknesses, and backstories that you'll end up spending a lot of time with. Playing as the undead ranger Talion, you mostly spend that time trying to separate their heads from their bodies, or using your willpower to dominate them, but hey, it's still more time than you spend with the humans out there.
This is the story of one such orc, Takra the Machine.
He was, for most of his life, just another disposable grunt that made up the armies of Mordor. Until, one day, Takra was standing guard on a tower near Minas Ithil, when Talion decided to challenge an orc captain to battle. While other orcs nearby rushed in to kill me (Talion), and instead were neatly sliced in two, or frozen and then shattered brutally, or set on fire and then stabbed, Takra stood in the distance, trying to turn me into a pincushion with his crossbow.
The arrows barely made an impression as a heated battle was on with a tricky orc captain using a cursed blade, and explosive bombs, with whom Talion traded blows fairly evenly. Eventually, an opening appeared and the captain was executed with a decapitating blow from the sword - but then one final arrow found its mark, and killed the ranger.
Death is a minor obstacle in Shadow of War though, and you're quickly revived, but in that time, the orc that slays you gets a promotion, and pending vendettas and raids get resolved, so the world is a little different.
Still, angry that this nobody of an orc had dared to kill me, I decided that the first thing to do was to get my revenge. Newly reborn, I took Talion on a hunt, and chased down Takra the Slayer. We was wandering around an open square, bragging about killing the Gravewalker - a nickname that orcs have given to Talion. That was not going to do.
A few well placed arrows had set a swarm of flies driving away his entourage, and causing a campfire to explode, leaving him burnt and in pain. It was time to jump in for the kill. A short and brutal fight followed, ending with a horizontal strike right at his waist, tearing Takra into two. But of course, that wasn't the end of things.
No, a few hours later, we met again, but Takra wasn't Takra the Slayer anymore. He was Takra the Machine. He'd been torn in two, and he had to be put back together, more machine than orc, to extract his revenge. I was searching for a lost artifact outside the walls of Minas Tirith, when he jumped out at me, and gave me a little speech.
You cleaved me in two. Any other orc would have died, but I survived. More than that, I thrived. My brothers put me back together, stronger than ever. But they didn't make me into what I am - you did. You created the machine.
We fought, and this time Takra had a new trick up his sleeve - he'd throw bear traps onto the ground, and if you're not paying attention, you're going to wander right into one while trying to cut his head off. It was a much more annoying fight, but this time it ended in decapitation.
So much for that, I thought, until a few more hours had passed and I was lurking in the bushes in Cirith Ungol, trying to sneak through a mountain pass and into an orc fortress. Suddenly, I heard a sniffing sound. A big, heavy indrawn breath. I looked around, hidden in the tall grass, and there was Takra again, his body covered in metal, with spikes projecting everywhere, as he gave me a speech about being the machine again.
I leapt at him, but he was ready. Takra had picked up a new trick, the vault breaker. Throwing me down, he charged in but got a punch to the face instead. This was going to be a fight. Eventually, Takra was sliced in two again, but he'd be back, again, and again, like the Terminator.
Along the course of the game, you'll come across a number of other orcs; some of them are quite funny, and I'm pretty sure that some of these orcs are now my friends. There's one that's particularly creepy - we made a crazed mewling noise and then charged in with an ax in each hand. You've got a chance of coming across orcs who are drunk, and even bard orcs, bearing lutes. Some are reluctant to fight, knowing what must happen, but will still optimistically try and kill you.
Over time, you unlock the ability to dominate orcs, forcing them to become your slaves, and then you can send them to fight other orcs for you, and work their way up the ranks. It's a very effective system that was first created for Shadow of Mordor, and has gotten better over the years.
What's interesting here is that your interactions with the other "good" characters is extremely limited, and the encounters with these orcs make up a large part of the emerging narrative. You won't kill every orc on first sight either; some might kill you, while others will settle for humiliating you. There will be the ones who take a beating, and then run for it. And of course, over time, your paths will cross again. It's like meeting old friends, only they're ready to kill you, so more like a family reunion maybe? You build up a relationship with these orcs, and look forward to hearing what they're going to say next, and yes, you will feel bad when killing at least some of them.
You meet an ever growing list of orcs - some are patently ridiculous, such as the Agonizer, voiced by Kumail Nanjiani (Dinesh from Silicon Valley). They all have backstories, and you hear parts of it when you're stalking them, and they get fleshed out more in combat. It's a conversation that can either end in death or domination, but it's a conversation nonetheless, and you can't help but feel more for the orcs you kill, than the elf whose life force is keeping you alive. There's a bit of a twist related to this in the late game, but we'll leave that unspoiled, and suffice it to say that through these various battles, the orcs of Middle Earth finally feel like people too; something that wasn't the case in Tolkien's work.
As for Takra? He joined the ranks of my dominated orcs for a while, but then he died when fighting another captain. I felt bad for a while, until I was working my way through the jungle in Nurnen. I'd been looking for a memory of Shelob, when I heard an angry screen behind me. It was Takra, and he'd come to die on my blade again, and it was one of the nicest moments of the game.