Shadow of Mordor knows how to break you down to build you up

This week, we're highlighting the top five titles in our Game of the Year 2014 list. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor ranks at #4 - and here's Ashley Reed's take on what makes it so awesome.

It's funny how life can surprise you. Back in the ancient, bygone days of September 2014, I thought I knew what my immediate gaming future held: MMO shooters and heavily-anticipated horror games. Somewhere in my periphery, I was aware of a licensed Lord of the Rings title called Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, but given my lackluster experience with LotR tie-ins, I didn't give it much thought. Little did I know than in less than a month, I'd be admiring its Platinum Trophy in my collection.

I played it. I beat it. I got every collectible and side-quest it had to offer, and kept looking for new ways to claim total dominion over Sauron's Uruk army. I didn't want to stop, because there's something special about Shadow of Mordor - the way it slides effortlessly into the Middle-earth mythos; improves tried-and-true gaming mechanics; drives you to hate and mourn a bitter rival all in the same moment. And as frustrating as it can be when you're getting stomped into the mud while your enemies grow in power, it's all worth it to see your legend come to fruition.

Set in the crumbling land of Mordor between the events of The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring, Shadow of Mordor's status as a licensed game seems off-putting at first blush. But 2014 was a good year for tie-ins, including Alien: Isolation and the recent works of Telltale. Mordor fits well with that company, given how seamlessly it integrates into the story of Middle-earth.

Rather than hanging a bit of Tolkien-tinsel around an adventure title, developer Monolith planted Shadow of Mordor firmly in Middle-earth's fertile soil, tailoring every part to draw from that world. It isn't enough to make main character Talion a ranger of Gondor and be done with it. Everything from the industrial barrenness of the Udun region to the role of elf smith Celebrimbor (of Silmarillion fame, if you're geeky enough to know what that is) not only fits within Shadow of Mordor, but distinctly improves it. But you can also still enjoy Mordor without a degree in Elvish and a minor in Middle-earth history.

Mordor's strong and nuanced combat system is to thank for that. The game's core concept - get revenge - is simple and familiar enough, and its combat is designed with that feeling in mind. Kills are fast and brutal, creating an experience that's immediately and grotesquely satisfying. And things only get more viciously creative as you go along. I personally made a habit of combating Uruk hordes by picking a select few, literally blowing their minds, and using the resulting hit-chains to kill their friends with a single slash each. I felt goddamn invincible, and laughed diabolically at my TV more often than my roommates were probably comfortable with.

That said, Mordor's gameplay is actually at its best when your chance of failure is highest. In keeping with Talion's tragic origin story, you start out this tale broken, with little health and few abilities on your side. This got me thinking in terms more complex than 'stab here until dead', and I started being more thoughtful in how I confronted my enemies. Why bother with a messy frontal assault against a Captain when I could find him hunting ghul, shoot him in the back, and leave him to the mercy of his prey? Which I totally did, and it was amazing. This keeps encounters feeling fresh despite Mordor's simple concept, and though it's definitely fun to run roughshod over Uruk mooks, I never felt so accomplished as when I took down a tough enemy with the perfect plan.

But what really makes Mordor feel personal, bringing together all of its elements and topping it with a thoroughly bloody bow, is the Nemesis system. Whenever you're killed by an Uruk, he ascends through the ranks of the Uruk hierarchy, and you're encouraged to rip the badge off before he attains more power. And as I’m sure you’ll find, that’s easier said than done. I met my spear-throwing nemesis Lamlug so early in my playthrough that not only was he borderline unkillable - I couldn't run away fast enough to escape his range. Ouch. He remembered that, and continued to make pithy remarks about how weak and cowardly I was whenever I was stupid enough to challenge him again. As I ran into the meat-grinder over and over, he just got stronger, I got more obsessed, and somewhere along the way a weird kinship developed. Unlike with every other Uruk in Mordor, my conflict with Lamlug was personal.

That's what made it hard, even painful, to kill him. Since he was strong enough to murder my face more than once, he stuck around for a while, giving me time to obsess over how to defeat him. I learned his name, pored over his strengths and weaknesses, and listened carefully to what he said about me. We knew each other better than anyone else in Mordor, so when I was finally strong enough to put him in the ground where he belonged, it felt like losing a friend. The same thing happened when I started branding Uruks for my army and saw them die in my name (Uru the Meat-Lover, I miss you and your ridiculous bag of limbs) - but no one matched up to my jerkass nemesis. Sure, Lamlug was a wretched enemy, but he was my wretched enemy. Plunging my blade into his chest hurt me almost as much as it hurt him.

That sense of personal loss and ultimate gain is, in the end, why you should play Shadow of Mordor. You grow from a pitiful nobody to the legendary Gravewalker. There are challenges, and you will fail, but learn from it and move forward. Each victory is won by your own strength and cunning, and every choice is yours to make, whether that means slaughtering any Uruk that side-eyes you or turning Sauron's army into your shadow legion. The story of Mordor is the story of your fight, your nemesis, of you. It's your legend, and no one can make it but you.

(In loving memory of Lamlug, my most hated enemy)