Pop-culture’s short attention-span can be exasperating; it’s always on a hunt for the ‘Next Big Thing’. The Middle-Earth series finds itself in this situation now that Shadow of War is on shelves. Where will the franchise go after its undead hero stays six feet under?
Luckily for us, there’s an embarrassment of rich settings to choose from in Tolkien’s fantasy epic. And because I’m unabashedly part of the problem – hooray for speculation! – here are some ideas of where we could end up next.
The Misty Mountains
Despite a quaint, charming title, this is not the sort of place you want to wind up. Crawling with a rash of goblins who’ve long-since colonised its abandoned dwarven mines, this mountain-range is a honeycomb of eerie ruins and pitch-black tunnels. Unsurprisingly, it’s where Fellowship of the Ring’s Moria can be found.
Greater danger lies below, though; both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings reference unspeakable nasties oozing somewhere beneath the earth. As such, this provides us with a fantastic setting in which we can go on an ill-advised adventure/spelunking session. It could also inform gameplay with a mess of hidey-holes and shortcuts that allow us to bypass enemies or spring an ambush.
The Misty Mountains are home to most of Tolkien’s races, too. The elves chill out at Rivendell or Cate Blanchett’s Lothlorien, little human hamlets dot the southern edge, and dwarves wander its roads in an effort to reclaim their homeland. Better still, eagles live in the eyries far above. Flying across Middle-Earth, anyone?
This is your sensible-yet-fairly-pedestrian answer. The area has already seen some action via older games like War in the North or Battle for Middle-Earth II, but that doesn’t mean the setting has been played out yet. Littered with iconic settlements such as Bilbo’s Hobbiton, Bree, and the elven port of the Grey Havens, there’s a lot of fan-service to be had here alongside gameplay opportunity. Why not step into the shoes of a Dunedain ranger, Aragorn’s noble allies who protect the Shire unbeknownst to hobbits? It’s a set-up that lends itself to the style of both Shadow games whilst adding an opportunity for alchemical crafting, tracking a la The Witcher, and the hunting of wild beasts. It’s basically The Witcher 3 with a Lord of the Rings coat of paint. I’m down with that.
However, it’s the unexplored regions of this kingdom that seal the deal. Just north of the Shire are ghost-infested wastelands known as Angmar, a place ruled by Sauron’s top enforcer. He doesn’t just have orcs by the hundred; he has a barrel-full of barrow-wights, too. These monsters will try to bury you alive unless you happen to have a weirdo such as Tom Bombadil on call to help you out. A character from the books that was dropped in Jackson’s movie-adaptation, this could be the chance to finally get him on our screens.
Alright, so this is the wild-card of my deck. While there might not seem to be a lot south of Gondor beyond inhospitable desert and giant killer elephants, that’s what makes it ideal for a series like Middle-Earth. As a largely unexplored landscape, it offers creative freedom few other settings can. Surely the angry, Sauron-worshipping tribesmen we saw in Return of the King aren’t all that’s down there? Are civilisations living amongst the dunes that don’t bow to the Dark Lord? Presumably. Could there even be a splinter-group of elves we’ve not encountered who call these sands home? The sky’s the limit. If we can get a human form for Shelob the spider in Shadow of War (*shudders*), this isn’t much of a stretch.
Meanwhile, Shadow of Mordor refers to two ‘blue’ wizards who famously went missing after travelling south. Where did they go and what did they find? Are they still alive? There’s a story in there somewhere, and it’s one that can potentially lean into full-scale magic for the player, e.g. Gandalf wish-fulfilment (for fellow Tolkien-nerds, I’m aware that this isn’t how LotR magic works – but hey, we already have a zombie ranger so why not?).
Oh, and one last thing. The Return of the King’s extended cut gave us southern pirate-raiders. Fancy a Lord of the Rings-themed Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag? I’d be more than up for that.
Do you have a better idea? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @thewordyben.
Check back each Friday for more as I go into the weeds on pop-culture story, lore, and settings.