There’s a murmuring coming from below. Chanting rises with the smoke that spews from a fissure in the ground. I can practically feel the heat on my face as Talion warily walks close to the edge of the rocky pit. Once he reaches the lava’s edge a giant balrog explodes from the bubbling magma, stretching his wings wide, towering above me. How on earth do I defeat that, I wonder? I’m used to being the hero, the lone warrior, perhaps with the rare support of an ally sniping from a distance during an especially tense boss battle. Shadow of War (opens in new tab) teaches a harsh lesson to people like me: you can’t do it alone. And sometimes, even with help, you can’t win. But that’s the point.
No sooner has the ever-so-slightly intimidating (understatement of the year) Balrog general appeared in front of me than I hear the rustling of leaves on the breeze. Beside me appears the Spirit of Nature Carnan, who’s oversees Middlearth’s forests and is a Tom Bombadil-level creature of old. Now that she’s on my team, in a split second the cloud of leaves that foreshadowed her arrival transforms into a hulking beast made of wood and vine, ready to help me fight the Balrog general. And when I say ‘help me fight’, I don’t mean that I start controlling her every move. No. The Balrog knows his equal, and charges straight for Carnan. While the two titans tussle, I’m left scampering around beneath their feet, trying not to get stepped on while avoiding the balrog’s AOE attacks and using my skill with a bow and arrow to add a new literal turn to the phrase ‘pain in the neck’.
Spectacle doesn’t even begin to describe what it’s like to witness a creature that the Ents would probably use as a bodyguard beat up a Balrog. The Orcs lumbering around the forts that litter Mordor’s barren lands have already got me familiar with the concept of brute force, but this is something altogether different. Imagine the Balrog said something particularly unpleasant about Carnan’s mother. In a pub. After about 7 pints. Far from using elegant vines as whips or summoning creatures to fight by her side, Carnan goes full-on bar brawl. Punches fly from either side, with each giant grappling each other as they near an edge or bringing both fists down in full force when the other stumbles. For a while I pause and just watch them duke it out, enjoying not being the focus of 100% of attacks for a moment.
Because in Shadow of War, not everything is about you. Sure, you’re the leader of what gradually grows to be an indomitable force, and sure, you have the spirit of a legendary wraith inhabiting half of your body. It all sounds rather impressive, doesn’t it? Yet this brief brawl teaches you an important lesson about war. You can’t always be on the front lines - sometimes you have to hang back and let your forces do their thing. I realise that I’m not the unstoppable force games so often make us players out to be.
I play the expected part in the ensuing battle: wait for the glowy part of the balrog to shine, then shoot it. Occasionally I climb on Carnan’s back and clamber up the sheer rock walls of the lava pit, but within a second or so of reaching the top and facing a very big, very angry Balrog, she forces me to dismount and fight from the ground. In no time at all she’s got the fire incarnate back in a headlock. However much I’d like to be the one to press the button prompt to execute a finishing move, I have to let Carnan do her stuff. She has her strengths, and I have mine. Namely, commanding from afar or tackling much more human-sized enemies. In this fight as I’ve wandered in alone, more or less without backup, that doesn’t do much good. It shows.
The Balrog escapes. It doesn’t come tumbling down in a gust of smoke and smouldering flame. I don’t get to do an ultra-precise slow-motion shot into its glowing chest as Carnan bellows in the background. Nor do I have to deal with its attack pattern changing three times over as its health bar depletes. Instead it rips Carnan’s head off and runs. Lumbering around the corner and out of eyeshot, this Balrog is now part of Mordor. I’ll run into him later on when he’ll undoubtedly have got quite a few lieutenants on his side and will have already begun to affect the story in his own, firey way. Part of Shadow of War is accepting that you’re going to fail every now and again. Your allies are going to fail every now and again. I’m not even talking about the nemesis system here - this Balrog is a narrative boss, destined to become part of the story just as much as the ones you’ll accidentally create with every death.
Instead of having him already exist, you’re given a hand in his creation. You failed to stop him once. Even with help, he still got away. Talion is tied to the rise of Mordor through his failures and through witnessing its most feared generals succeed - despite narrative conventions telling us that a boss fight means we get to kill the boss. Because what’s important isn’t the fight - it’s what you learn from it. Now I’ve learned that I can’t always win, but it ends up giving me an altogether richer, more complex story to dig my nails into. Not that that’ll stop me going hell for leather at the next boss I encounter. I pity him already.