Last week I wrote about how the combat in Shadow of War doesn’t make a fuck of a lot of sense. It’s not a Shadow-specific issue, it’s more the broader issue around health bars and how they systematise violence, how they largely disconnect it from the actual physical body. This week I wanted to talk about another element of combat, specifically looking at the Ringwraiths. Basically, Ringwraiths show up in Shadow of War, but they’re not really that intimidating – definitely not compared to how they are in the films. I wanted to talk about why that might be.
If you’ve not played the game, here’s a video with the specific fight I’m going to be talking about. It’s right at the end of the game’s first act, so there are some spoilers. I’ve also time-stamped it, so you don’t have to wade through the whole thing.
Right from the get-go I think you can see some of the issues with these Nazgul. When the Witch King starts walking, he looks a little bit like a pregnant duck. I think partly his animation just isn’t quite right – his hands come up quite high when he walks, and there’s not really a sense of weight or gravitas to his movement. Check out his sassy little butt wiggle on his way out the door at 24:45. He looks and moves basically like a regular human being. Compare how the Nazgul move in this sequence from Fellowship of the Ring:
The uncanny aspect of their character is brought out through a few different techniques. Some of it’s editing tricks, which are actually available to Shadow of War in this instance because we’re dealing with a cutscene. Notice, for example, how at 1:28 Frodo turns and sees a Ringwraith. It comes in out of the mist, and then the camera cuts in for a series of close shots. When we zoom out to the wide shot again – oh shit suddenly there’s five of them. The editing creates a surprise that adds to the sense of fear.
I actually wondered if the issue with Shadow was partly about costuming, but I went and checked the Witch King fight in Return of the King, and his costume is consistent. The helmet’s different, but the relationship between robes and armour seems roughly consistent. One of the things that is worth noticing about that RotK fight, though, is how the Witch King is framed when he’s fighting. You don’t really see a lot of him – probably because they know it would look silly if you did. In the video below, the fight starts at about 1:15. The Witch King stands up and looks pissed off, and then it cuts to look at Eowyn through this fucking great dirty flail. You see the Witch King’s cloak, and the bracer on his fore-arm, and then it cuts to a close-up of Eowyn’s horrified face. In some ways, you’re told about the Witch King through her reaction more than you’re actually shown him directly.
The fight moves quite quickly after that – lots of jumps and short shots, changing camera positions so you have to re-establish where you are, where your focus is, all of that. And amidst all of it, you don’t really get a good look at the Witch King. It only calms down once he’s smashed Eowyn’s shield – then we get a mid-shot of him posing with his sword and shit. The fight with Sauron in Fellowship during the prologue is actually very similar – they don’t spend a lot of time on mid-shots of Sauron. You get lots of extreme close-ups of the Ring, his hands on a mace, the back of his helmet – but they don’t want to treat him like just a normal character. He’s mysterious, he’s scary – and the shots reflect that. Now roll back to the first video and watch the Witch King butt-wiggle his way up those stairs. Wiggle wiggle wiggle. Booty booty booty. Swing those arms, swing those hips. Yep.
One of the further problems, then, is gameplay. If your Nazgul already look a bit dumb during the cutscene, there’s no way you’re sustaining that atmosphere during the game proper. Jump to 25:15 in the first video, and you’ll see the start of the actual gameplay, with the big fight against the Nazgul. If you watch for a minute or so, you’ll see they all kinda just pace around and do nothing, and you hit them a bunch and they still just kinda do nothing. They just soak it up, pace around looking menacing, and lazily swing a sword every now and again. It’s really fucking boring. Notably, actually, the higher-level Orc captains are much more intense fights than this. You’ve really got to put work into those things. The most that can be said for this fight is that you’ve got to have some endurance just to keep the blocking and dodging consistent. But that’s not the tone you want for this fight. The Nazgul shouldn’t be tedious and drawn out. They should fuck you up, all day every day.
There is one cool little moment in there, actually – right at the start, all the Ringwraiths attack in quick succession. So one phases in and attacks, and then hops out as another one jumps in, and you just have to block repeatedly. And if you get caught off guard and one of them gets you, it’s likely that the next couple will as well. This move gets repeated a few times throughout the fight, but the best example in this clip is the very first moment of the battle, at 25:20. They all phase in and attack and suddenly you’re surrounded by a bunch of Ringwraiths. You can hear the Youtuber go ‘This looks vicious, man’ – but then he jumps out of the circle of Nazgul and starts just swinging away at one of them, and all the others just stand there like they secretly hate that Nazgul and want to see him die. And then the whole fight stops and you get the slow-mo dodge moment, which really just worsens the already slow pace of combat. This seems like a fight that should be frantic. There’s a little glimmer of what that frantic-ness could have looked like in the first fifteen seconds, but then… *sigh*. You’re fighting five ultra-powerful Ringwraiths. Why are they conceptually easier to deal with than the Orc captains? Why doesn’t the combat convey any sense of their threat or their power? It’s really part of a broader issue around games not really coping with boss fights well – it’s not a conversation for today, but it’s definitely part of the issue.