Nothing gets us more excited than a good villain we can hate. The history of gaming is full of legendary antagonists to whom we have enjoyed delivering crushing defeat. As it turns out, this is the exact thing that seems to resonate the most with people in Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor. The twist this time is that the most memorable villain is hand-picked just for you.
Shadow of Mordor owes much of its style to two other heavy hitters of the action genre: Batman and Assassin's Creed. When you explore a new section of the map in Mordor, you're looking for the large tower you can climb that later serves as a fast travel point. When you engage a pack of enemies in combat, you're primarily using a single button for the majority of your attacks, vaulting over enemies to stun them, and remaining ever watchful for the icon indicating that an enemy is about to strike and a counter-attack should be utilized to keep your momentum going. Mordor doesn't just borrow from its influences, it lifts mechanics wholesale.
Normally when a game has so much in common with established leaders in its genre, its easy for the audience to write it off as a cheap copy. Enter the Nemesis system. With one seemingly simple addition to the formula, Shadow of Mordor brings about evolution at a time when doing the same thing as the competition just isn't enough, no matter how well its done.
Explaining how the Nemesis system shakes things up is best done by first providing some details on the enemy hierarchy. Basically, there are three tiers of enemy ranking. Warchiefs are at the very top, with Captains directly reporting to them, and regular grunts reporting to Captains. Should an enemy manage to take you out in battle, they are promoted and rewarded further with their own gang of immediate followers as well as extra armor or decoration. The next time you encounter them, they will be stronger than the last time and will even boast about how they've taken you out once and will be happy to do so again. If you lose again, they are promoted once more or at least placed into a position where they can challenge their superior in an effort to take their place and their following grows a bit more and maybe they get even better armor.
Now let's say this hypothetical enemy loses to you on your first encounter. If they are a Captain, their standing will be lowered and they will actively seek you out in order to exact their revenge. They'll be bloodied, bandaged, and ready to spit out an excuse for their earlier defeat. Should you fail to decapitate them, they will keep coming back again and again until you make that impossible.
Now factor in that each enemy above the average grunt has special attributes that make them unique among their peers. Some are afraid of fire, some get enraged by fire. Some are immune to ranged attacks, others will fall with one well-placed arrow. You learn about each enemy by unlocking an ability that lets you dominate and intimidate them as they kneel defenseless in front of you. After they give you the intel on their peers, you can either kill them or let them go. Should you choose to let them go, you can send them on missions to overtake their superiors.
This is the entire purpose of the game. You need to work toward having every Warchief take their marching orders from you and once they are all under your command, you'll be ready to march your new army of orcs against Sauron's forces. The journey you experience on your way toward this goal is filled with encounters that all reference the ones that came before while setting the stage for the ones yet to come. If you and your friends play Shadow of Mordor you may all ultimately tell the same story, but the events along the way will be very unique to each person and that is what has earned this game so many accolades in the few months it has been on shelves.
In my quest through Mordor, a lucky blow landed a regular grunt a promotion and a title. That same orc would be a thorn in my side with various draws and exchanged attacks taking place over time. I started to consider him my rival and ultimately the game agreed as it worked toward a final confrontation between us. The payoff was very satisfying and the only reason I need to recommend that people check this out. Its just an experience that I feel is unique to this game and exactly the kind of storytelling through gameplay that I feel many players appreciate. If you haven't already picked up Shadow of Mordor, there are already sales and promotions taking place fairly regularly, so I suggest checking it out. I played through once in around 20 hours and was thoroughly satisfied. The game's longevity will vary for everyone depending on how much you enjoy taking part in the power struggle between all the officers in Sauron's army. I have not yet decided if I will play through it again, but there is additional content on the way so I will likely decide once that is out. Even if I don't play it again, I definitely feel that it was a worthy purchase and certainly one of the most memorable of last year.
*Editor's note - this review is based on a complete play-through on the PlayStation 4 platform.