I'm not a really big fan of Tolkein's Lord of the Rings. This is partly due to how invasive his brand of lore has become in the fantasy setting, essentially establishing the archetypes of dwarves, elves and orcs. I didn't feel like exploring this universe in an action game, but with the glowing reviews Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor kept getting with regards to its Nemesis system (an AI ecosystem where enemies vie for power in their military caste), my interest was definitely piqued. Even if the lore has no pull on you, there's a really fun game in here that gives the player a lot of power.
I'm not going to spend any time discussing the story, since it barely registers as anything more than background noise during the majority of the journey (a Tolkienite would likely have more to say on Monolith's implementation of the lore). Playing past the tutorial, you'll find yourself in an open world with a lot of UI and mechanics similar to that of the Assassin's Creed series, with a splash of Arkham Asylum's combat thrown in. If you were to look at this under a critical lens you may find the design uninspired and lacking ingenuity, solely implemented to cash in on the brand name and success of its progenitors. But Shadow of Mordor only retains this stigma in its early hours.
Once the Nemesis system becomes available to you—along with a wealth of abilities and unique runes—the game really comes into its own. The ways in which you can conquer a stronghold or engage in side missions only keep increasing as you progress, and due to the myriad of skills each orc leader can possess, you'll often find yourself in some really entertaining situations. However, Shadow of Mordor's most significant failing is that it eventually propels you into a godhood-like status where almost no encounter can deter you from victory. The optimal solution once you're fully leveled is to vault over an opponent and strike at them a few times, allowing you to build your combo quickly (which is cinch if you're timing your hits) and spam execution or branding attacks against those around you. The gap in difficulty between the first set of warchiefs and the second set is astounding, and by the end of the game it becomes a bit inconceivable how you could possibly lose.
But as long as you don't care about trampling over the endgame, Shadow of Mordor is a blast. It's pleasing visually (especially the second area), sounds great, and the combat never gets stale. The orc leaders are especially fun to interact with; thanks to their character models and the pugnacious quips they spout, many of them feel like their own unique characters (despite being a combination of randomly chosen attributes). There's also a gritty glee to be had in how outlandishly violent the game is, avoiding any kind of genocidal guilt since all your opponents are monsters anyway (well, without reading deeply into any subtext). Sometimes it can be annoying to run into a dozen captains when you're just trying to kill a single one (especially if he's fleeing), but otherwise the Nemesis system is an invigorating and worthwhile addition. Sure, it becomes trivialized when you get so strong that no one can stop you, but it doesn't stop it from being the best part of the game.
During the initial hours of the game, I undertook a mission to interrupt an orc captain's festivities. He yelled at me about how he was gonna drink grog after he gutted me, but I didn't care, striking at him swiftly with my blade as soon as he shut his yap. Unfortunately another captain stumbled upon the struggle, and the amount of troops he brought into the battle meant that I had no option other than to retreat. As I was turning to leave, Grublik—a tall, shield-weilding uruk—gave me the fatal blow. After I died he was promoted for slaying me, and I was eager to seek revenge on this audacious amateur. I took a side mission to engage him while he was battling a fellow captain, but the big blue doofus was hopelessly outmatched. I took pity on him and vowed to alter his destiny—I would help Grublik to become a warchief, and then take his life.
Grublik's ascension through the ranks wasn't hard to fulfill. Besides intentionally avoiding him whenever he'd pop up at various missions and strongholds, the dopey orc quickly rose through the ranks due to his oafish charm. That, and his competition had been cut into pieces. Despite a small detour I took to finish the campaign, I returned post-game to the Black Gate to check up on my old pal. I decided to congratulate Grublik on becoming warchief by paying him a visit. Drawing him out was simple (20 kills without being detected), but what was difficult was trying to decide how I wanted this to go down. Stab him stealthily from behind? Draw some caragors in to wreak havoc on his forces? Brand his captains and have him betrayed? I decided finally upon fighting him like a man one-on-one, though he was annoyingly persistent on calling more nameless soldiers in during our duel. It didn't matter though—vengeance was mine in the end. The first monster to kill me was the last one to die in my game (well, one of the last).
This is just a single example of the wild yarns that can be spun solely through the game mechanics alone. People can't stop talking about how good Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is for good reason. It joins Wolfenstein: The New Order as an unexpectedly competent and brilliant entry in 2014 for me, and I'm curious what Monolith will work on next.