“The Lord of the Rings” has inspired hundreds of video games, but there’s never been a great one based directly on J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic. Until now.
“Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor” (Warner Bros., for the Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, $59.99) is the most satisfying virtual adventure ever set in Tolkien’s world. And one big reason it’s so successful is that it jettisons so much of what you might expect from a “Rings” game.
It’s not a “Dungeons & Dragons”-style role-playing game. There are no hobbits. Gandalf, Legolas and Gimli are nowhere to be seen (although Gollum plays a key role). Most of the time, you’re dealing with orcs — nasty, smelly, brutish orcs.
“Shadow of Mordor” takes place in between the events of “The Hobbit” and “The Fellowship of the Ring.” The protagonist, a ranger named Talion, is killed in the prologue, but his corpse is reanimated by an angry spirit named Celebrimbor. He’s the elf who forged the Rings of Power, including the One Ring that made the evil Sauron such a terror. Celebrimbor’s goal is to exact vengeance by using the now immortal ranger to tear apart Sauron’s army.
Talion is armed with a sword, dagger and bow and arrow, but he’s too weak initially to take on Sauron’s vicious Uruk war chiefs. Instead, he has to battle his way through their hierarchy, honing his skills by battling less powerful captains.
Combat in Mordor is mostly face to face, and will feel familiar to anyone who enjoyed the melees in WB’s Batman-starring “Arkham” games. Taking out one orc is easy enough, but the action gets frenetic when 20 or so of the beasts gang up on you. You can improve your odds before battle by sneaking up on enemies and taking them out quietly, or by shooting arrows into them from afar. But if you can’t get into the rhythm of attacking, dodging and deflecting up-close blows, you won’t last long.
What elevates “Mordor” above a generic hack-and-slash adventure is the Nemesis System created by developer Monolith Productions. The Uruk war chiefs and captains have personalities: Some are afraid of fire, for example, while others are impervious to long-distance arrow attacks. They have memories, too, so if you lose a fight to one it becomes more powerful and remembers you the next time you show up looking for trouble.
Halfway through the campaign, you gain a game-shifting power: the ability to “brand” Uruks so they do your bidding. It becomes much easier to topple a war chief when you have four or five of the big lugs on your side.
The missions are nicely varied: Sometimes you need to be stealthy, sometimes you need to be aggressive and sometimes you need to be able to tame wild animals. The result is an addictive mix of strategy and fast-paced action. It may not be everything you’d expect from a “Lord of the Rings” game, but it’s quite rewarding.