A few months ago, my cousin explained to me that because I’m a Gemini, I have a greater appreciation for duality. I’ve never really been interested astrology or attributed any of my characteristics to the sign under which I was born. However, I do appreciate duality.
One particular duality that I appreciate in games—and this will come as no surprise to anyone who frequents the blog—is the relationship between focus and freedom. Most of my favorite games have a focused narrative structure with clearly defined objectives. Nothing will pull me out of an experience quicker than a critical path that veers wildly into utter absurdity (my recent attempt to play Earthbound ended like this).
At the same time, I take special pleasure in a game that allows me to deviate from the critical path to explore or complete side quests or tinker with a game’s mechanics.
Let me cut to the important part of this blog post. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is a game that gets this right. And that’s only part of why this game might possibly become one of my favorite games ever.
As I mentioned, the flow of quests in this game is only one part of a formula that seems to have been specifically engineered to captivate me. Add to that the free-running traversal of Assassin’s Creed. Put in the visceral, rhythmic combat of Batman: Arkham Asylum. Then set the events within the masterful world of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The resulting game is so addictive that it should probably be regulated by a government agency.
A half-hearted implementation of those elements would have resulted in a decent game. But Monolith took the time to make sure that came together to form an enjoyable experience. It would have been very easy for them to pander to fans of Lord of the Rings by including meaningless references to Frodo and the ring, but they treated the lore with the respect that it deserves. Does the story essentially boil down to generic fantasy with a grizzled protagonist? Sure, but the narrative is consistent with itself and the world that it is set in. And there is plenty of hidden rewards for fans of more obscure Middle-earth lore.
The most surprising element of the game is the Nemesis system. This is the hidden mechanic that makes the quest progression feel open ended. Nemesis provides the endless ebb and flow of orc captains that must be dispatched. Nameless orcs will climb the ranks, kill rival orcs, and become more powerful. In theory, you could play this game forever and always have a steady supply of enemies with slight variation.
I don’t remember the last time I was as infatuated with any game as I was with Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. Even now, I’m resisting the urge to jump back into the game and engage in glorious combat with a fresh batch of orc recruits. This is a wildly entertaining game, and quite possibly… one of my favorite games ever.
Now, I just need to spend some time praying to Eru Ilúvatar, creator of the sphere of Arda, that the publisher doesn’t turn this game into a homogenized yearly franchise.