Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is the latest video game adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's Legendarium, yet it breaks the author's established continuity. The sequel continues the story left off from the first game, Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, with the ranger Talion and the Elven spirit Celebrimbor forging a new Ring of Power that's capable of controlling an army strong enough to defeat Sauron.
Both Shadow of Mordor and Shadow of War take place between the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and are based on Tolkien's written narratives. However, neither game is considered canon. The games abide by Tolkien's established continuity for the most part but their primary inspiration comes from Peter Jackson's films, particularly with regard to the world's look and feel. It's an understandable creative choice considering how revered Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies are with modern audiences.
Shadow of War is an exceptionally well-made game, with its Nemesis system taking the cake, but that doesn't mean it's without flaws. For those familiar with either The Silmarillion or The Lord of the Rings books may find that the bulk of the game's issues arise from directly contradicting traditional Middle-Earth lore, beginning with the basic chronology of events.
Shadow of War's story is centered around the fall of Minas Ithil, the last Gondorian stronghold just outside Mordor at the feet of Ephel Dúath. Following the downfall of Númenor, Isildur co-founded the kingdom of Gondor alongside his brother Anárion and he created the new kingdom's bastion atop a mountain adjacent to Mordor. Sauron had endured Númenor's sinking and returned to Mordor to recuperate before eventually carrying out his invasion of Minas Ithil in 3429 S.A. (Second Age). Gondor lost the battle and Sauron renamed the stronghold Minas Morgul. The city was overrun by Sauron's forces thousands of years prior to the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings - and to Shadow of War, for that matter. The game drastically alters the core timeline of Tolkien's Middle-Earth mythos by thousands of years and effectively reduces the importance of one of Gondor's defining moments.
The One Ring
In The Silmarillion, Tolkien explains that Sauron had forged the One Ring himself and taught his methods to the Elves of Eregion, who created the Seven (for the Dwarf-lords) and the Nine (for the Mortal Men). Celebrimbor, who was one of the Elves of Eregion, studied the craft and created the Three Rings (for the Elves) on his own, without Sauron's guidance. And so, the Rings were never corrupted by the Dark Lord, which meant Sauron couldn't control the Elves without first spoiling their Rings. However, the Three were still bound to the fate of the One Ring, as were all the other Rings of Power. When Frodo destroyed the One Ring in Return of the King, the Three Rings' power had also diminished.
The history of the Rings of Power is vital to Tolkien's stories, specifically to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the game breaks the crux of the Rings' creations by changing their creator to Celebrimbor. In the game, Celebrimbor created the One Ring - which allowed the Dark Lord dominion over all the other Rings of Power - and thus brought into question several facets associated with the Ring. If Sauron didn't create the One Ring, is his soul still bound to it? Furthermore, it's illogical to believe that Talion and Celebrimbor could create another Ring of Power that would be invulnerable to Sauron's corruption since Celebrimbor had created the original Rings as well, yet those were still all dependent on the power of the One Ring.
The Nine Rings worn by the Mortal Men bound them to the One Ring and, therefore, to Sauron. The Men succumbed to the Rings' power and eventually were enslaved by Sauron as his servants the Nazgûl, or Ringwraiths. The Nazgûl comprised of nine Great Lords of Men, of which one was Khamûl the Easterling and another was the Witch-King of Angmar. Another three were the Men of Númenor, though their names were never revealed. It's never specified who the rest of the Nazgûl were in The Lord of the Rings books and movies - and that's precisely what Shadow of War exploits.
Shadow of War rewrites history and claims that Isildur (Aragorn's ancestor and the second King of Arnor) was saved from death - after being shot by an arrow and plunged into a river - and given one of the Nine Rings by Sauron. The ring saved his life but instantaneously turned him into one of the Ringwraiths. That happened in neither the books nor the movies. What's more, the game also falsely suggests that Helm Hammerhand (the former King of Rohan and the inspiration for the name Helm's Deep) and Suladân (a Haradrim briefly mentioned in Return of the King) were another two Ringwraiths. Talion became the fourth unidentified Ringwraith mere decades after the events of Shadow of War, when it should actually take centuries for someone to succumb to the Rings' power and become part of the Nazgûl.
Do the changes matter?
Simply put: not really. Shadow of War is meant to be an enjoyable action-adventure title that's set within the world of Tolkien's Middle-Earth, yet also allows players to carry their own story apart from the Baggins family and their adventures. Continuity is certainly important in all adaptations, but video game developers and publishers should be granted some amount of leeway in order to give players an exceptional experience, thus allowing gamers - those who are familiar with the source material and those who are not - to undertake an adventure of their own.
Shadow of War doesn't strictly adhere to Tolkien's established continuity, but the general concepts from the game may provide gamers with an illuminated perspective if they ever read the novels or watch the movies again (or the first time). Warner Bros. Interactive's Middle-Earth series should be thought of as something akin to BioWare's The Old Republic games; existing within the established continuity but can also be considered glorified fan-fiction - and that's okay.