It’s impossible to overlook the obvious: that Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor was built on the shoulders of giants. You could argue with some success, for instance, that Shadow of Mordor is Assassin’s Creed in the Lord of the Rings, given its focus on fluid parkour, the manner in which you scale tall towers to unlock new missions and gain access to new areas, and the diversity of ways in which to assassinate your foes. Indeed, Shadow of Mordor does more than nod at that other game series--it fully embraces it.
What makes Shadow of Mordor special, however, is how it improves on that stealth-action-parkour formula while simultaneously introducing its own unique element: the nemesis system. The mechanic is the one from 2014 most likely to influence systems-driven games in the years to come. In Shadow of Mordor, your enemies aren’t just the ones the game tells you about, but the ones you make on your own as you hack and slash your way through the game’s parched environments. The Uruk that got away will remember your face. His facial scars will be a roadmap of the brutality you forced him to endure. And when you next meet, he will bellow his displeasure before unleashing vengeance.
A lot of attention has been paid to the nemesis system already, however. Developer Monolith’s greater triumph is that it crafted a game that felt so fresh out of recognizable elements. The combat is from the Arkham Asylum school of rhythmic blows, but you might be so overrun by nearby orcs that the only reasonable reaction is to flee rather than fight. And with one simple tweak comes a consequence that makes all the difference in the world: Shadow of Mordor is challenging. If you’ve grown accustomed to charging your way through these types of games with relative ease, you must change your approach--and that means experimenting with stealth and environmental possibilities more than you might in a similar game. It isn’t just about having options--it’s about how meaningful those options are.
Meanwhile, Shadow of Mordor’s moment-to-moment gameplay is as excellent as we expect from the developer of such lauded games as Condemned: Criminal Origins, F.E.A.R., and No One Lives Forever. It is a pleasure to leap onto roaming orcs from above, and a delight to ride a caragor across the land, galloping into dangerous strongholds as if to boast to the orcs of your dubious immortality. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is fun and exciting to play, and represents what happens when a talented developer takes ideas that we’re familiar with, and makes them so much better than we could have expected them to be.