I'm not exactly what you would call a "Lord of the Rings" enthusiast. I enjoyed the Peter Jackson trilogy and maintain that I read "The Silmarillion" in college -- even if I only understood about 4 percent of it.
I am well aware that J.R.R. Tolkien's universe has captivated countless admirers and, to my surprise, has been the source material for dozens of videogames. Since the Rings trilogy, there have been around 20 games developed from Middle-earth lore.
But a lot of those games have been met with lukewarm reactions. The history of The Lord of the Rings in videogames is as layered and complex as the content on which it's based. Far be it from me to even attempt to encapsulate that complicated legacy. Instead, I can only appreciate this latest offering in the Tolkien universe, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor.
For it's worth, I think Shadow of Mordor has the potential to be 2014's biggest surprise hit. It's not flawless, but it sits confidently as one of the best action experiences I've had all year.
In it you'll play as Talion, a Ranger from Gondor who has had a really bad day. The rest of the game plays out as your campaign to strike vengeance upon the army of Sauron, the forces that have wronged you and left you cursed to roam Mordor bound to the soul of an Elvish Wraith.
If there's one theme from the trilogy of films that has stayed with me, it's the amazing costume and makeup design of Middle-earth's ugliest inhabitants. You know, the Orcs and Uruks, with their gnarled faces, bubbling skin and limited but intimidating vocabulary. They all just want to eat, drink and kill men.
Unfortunately for you, Talion is essentially the only non-slave man in Mordor, so you basically have every Captain and Warchief in the land trying to impale you with a spiked battle axe or flaming sword.
Shadow of Mordor's focus revolves around these creatures, and, thankfully, captures their striking variety with extreme detail and creativity. It's what made me want to come back for more -- to relentlessly track down these antagonists. Best of all, Shadow of Mordor introduces a really compelling system of interconnected enemy characters that sit on a chessboard of wickedness. I'll get to that a little later.
Generally speaking, Shadow of Mordor is not unlike most open-world games. It's probably most similar to angame. Your map is broken into various sections anchored by a tower. Once a tower is activated, a set of collectibles and side missions is unlocked on the map -- pretty much standard operating procedure these days.
Excursions aside, the main objective in Shadow of Mordor is twofold. Talion must make his way through 20 main story missions, but he must also conquer Sauron's army of Captains and Warchiefs -- the most powerful minions under his rule. Plotting against these rabid characters is where I found myself having the most fun with Shadow of Mordor, not just because it's ultra-satisfying to slay one of these guys, but because they all have different names, personalities, unique behaviors and, get this, memories!
When you encounter a Captain or Warchief, the game interjects seamless exposition to acquaint you with the enemy. Warchiefs even have bodyguards that protect them inside a stronghold. When one emerges, the entire stronghold will chant his name (and you can hear it coming from the DualShock 4 speaker if you play on PS4). It's a great effect that reinforces the magnitude of your foes. When a clash doesn't go your way, meaning your opponent retreated or killed you, he'll remember the last time you battled and will likely reference it at the start of your next fight.
I approached an Uruk captain I had previously engaged with earlier in the game. He had retreated like a coward, likely because I blew up a nearby camp fire that burned him pretty badly. When our swords clanked again, he said something to the effect of, "That'll be the last time you set me aflame!" All I could do was think: "Oh man, this guy remembers I set him on fire the last time we met! He is clearly not happy about that at all!"