We share our favourite Tolkien themed games and consider if Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor has a place in the all time Tolkien inspired greats.
In many ways, as soon as a game ventures into the realms of high fantasy it’s hard for it not to show some influence from the celebrated works of J. R.R. Tolkien. From the hero quest storylines of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings to the fastidious imagining of a world, complete with its own creation story and grand histories, Tolkien laid in place many of the fantasy tropes that return time and again in RPG’s and fantasy themed titles.
The archetypes of the peoples of Middle-Earth: the lithe keen-eyed archers of elven birth, the stout, resilient dwarven miners, the mortal, corruptible kingdoms of men, even the silent-footed halfling ‘burglar’, are repeated so often in various ways, And where would any good fantasy be without aged bearded wizards, bloody-thirsty orc hordes, fiery demons, dragons, ancient talking trees, trolls, magic, undead, rangers and a dark powerful enemy focused on bending the world to its will? Well Tolkien’s stories have all these and more.
Games that are directly inspired by the books and the resulting Lord of The Rings movies are numerous and often not all that great but here are seven that have come out over the years that we hold most dearly.
The Hobbit -1982 (multiplatform)
One of the hazards of the Hobbit, the nasty goblin's dungeon
No list of Tolkien games would be complete without mention of Beam Software’s ground-breaking text based adventure of The Hobbit. Using an advanced parser the game introduced pronouns, adverbs, prepositions and punctuation allowing you to type much more lengthy and expressive sentences than ‘use key, open door’ etc’. NPCs in the game could turn up at unpredictable moments and - like the player - could get into fights (the outcomes of which were impossible to predict) and collect objects themselves. Many locations in the game came with illustrations and you could play through The Hobbit in many different ways leading to numerous possible outcomes, making this game an early example of emergent gaming and one that is up there with Zork as a milestone text based adventure.
War In Middle Earth - (1988 multiplatform)
War in Middle Earth's beginning as you set out from The Shire
A really ambitious strategy game taking place on Tolkien’s map of Middle-Earth, War In Middle Earth did much to honour the Lord of the Rings books but would also let you play around with the story for your own amusement, you could for instance have someone other than Frodo take the Ring if he died. As well as controlling Frodo, you could play other characters in the books in scenarios that are mentioned but not fleshed out in the story, the battles between Gondor and Mordor early on in the war of the rings chronology for example. These gave you wider insights into the story and extra strategy to play around with. You could view the world map or zoom into ground level to find objects and wander off to have a chat with incidental characters from The Lord of the Rings such as Radagast or Tom Bombadil. As a whole, War in Middle Earth went into a lot of depth to interpret the LOTR saga and recreate the grandeur and intricate histories of the books whilst simultaneously letting you muck about with the events.
Lego Lord of the Rings - (2012 PC, PS3, Xbox 360, Wii, Vita, 3DS, DS)
Lego’s brick-tastic interpretation of The Lord Rings movies was rich with little details and gave you the chance to free roam through Middle-Earth. What the game lacked in previous Lego signature slapstick it made up for with talking Tolkien Lego people using actual dialogue taken from the films set against some silly scenes. The original meeting of the Fellowship awaiting the arrival of the ring bearer as a toilet flushes out of shot, an Uruk-hai shooting Boromir with a banana, the forces of Rohan suring-up helms deep with a pig... While this is a daft imagining of Tolkien that could make some purists cringe, it’s a decent Lego title that pays homage to Peter Jackson’s movies in true Lego style.
Lord of the Rings: Return of the King - (2003 PC, PS2 Xbox, Gamecube)
Gandalf on the PS2
The movie tie-ins for Lord of the Rings can also be included in the rather short list of movie tie-in games that are actually not totally rubbish. While The Two Towers game was also good, we’ve included the Return of the King as it refined the formula somewhat. Sure the experience was very linear and combat often a tad ‘button-bashy’, but the cinematics were great and the experience of actually slaying orcs in the LOTR movies is as close as a game’s got yet. You had Sir Ian McKellen (Gandalf himself!) narrating and orc-obliterating hack and slash combat combos that remained satisfying. The co-op multiplayer was great too.
The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth II - (2006 PC, Xbox 360)
Elves battling giants in The Battle for Middle Earth II
Command and Conquer meets Tolkien on a big interactive map of Middle-Earth. An irresistible draw to fans of both RTS games and LOTR. This game unlike its 1980s predecessor gave you some great in depth epic scale battles with something of the feel the movies were able to give the Wars of the Ring. The game’s story mode steered clear of directly referencing the movies however, with you playing a light side campaign as Glorfindel protecting Rivendell and gathering forces, amongst them the Dwarves, and a dark side campaign where you send out the Mouth of Sauron and the Nazgûl to gather orcish armies. The plotlines focused on The War in the North and tended to stretch the Tolkien universe a tad (Bombadil took a combat role for instance) but had some great production values for an RTS of its day, Hugo 'Elrond' Weaving lending his vocal talents and some marked improvements upon its predecessor. This game did a great job of capturing your imagination as you fought your way through Middle-Earth, and got a fair amount of play over LAN by us despite there being better RTS titles around
The Lord of the Rings Online - (2007 PC)
Have at thee!
With Tolkien having a ready made, richly populated world complete with maps it was surely only a matter of time before an online MMORPG arose from the LOTR universe. Turbine, Inc.did just that in 2007 and since then the game has managed to hold onto a place in the top MMOs played by subscription, owing the introduction of a free to play model to its popularity. What’s pleasantly good with Lord of the Rings Online is that for a fantasy RPG the use of magic is underplayed a bit, you don’t have mages for instance burning mana up for spells, instead a power stat lets you use active skills and a knowledge of lore lets you perform spell-like abilities, such as healing. Instead of hit-points a character’s life is measured by its morale which is maintained via food, rest, music and battle cries. This places both an emphasis on ‘Shire-folk’ cooking and farming crafting skills and offers a different take on the ‘healer' and 'nuker’ MMO archetypes - your prime healer in the game for instance is the Minstrel - keeping you chipper with songs of the great deeds of elves and men - quite a way away from your common-or-garden plate clad cleric. There are wizards in the game but only as NPCs, which solves perfectly the problem of an army of ‘Gandalf-alikes’ that could have arose. With this you don’t also have the generic arcane laser spell caster. All-in-all LOTR Online does well at giving you an original class system to play around with that still offers clear group roles. Raiding Tolkien-created locations and playing the monster vs player PVP are both great fun. If you’re a Tolkien fan who wants to get deeply invested in a imaginative online experience inspired by his books this is definitely the game for you.
But what of Shadow of Mordor?
Aragorn-alike Talion wants to infiltrate an orc horde near you
Adam’s review of Shadow of Mordor has plenty of good things to say about Monolith’s latest generation LOTR inspired title and with the development of the game’s deep Nemesis system, Shadow of Mordor manages well to offer up something new to open world adventures that make it well worth a play. Despite existing outside the main cannon of the wars of Middle-Earth we’ve enjoyed Shadow of Mordor’s blend of Assassin’s Creed style exploration and Batman Arkham-esque, counter-move-heavy melee combat. In our opinion the game is certainly the most original Tolkien-inspired title in terms of gameplay and it is definitely deserving of a mention amongst the best Tolkien universe video games ever made. What say you?
More HITC opinion pieces: