Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor was a rare thing for me this year: a total surprise.
For as much as I respect the seminal works of J.R.R. Tolkien, the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings have never quite been my cup of high fantasy. When Warner Bros. and Monolith Productions were promoting the game, it never fell to me, perhaps the editor most apathetic to Tolkien's works, to preview the game. I paid it little attention. Here was a licensed game that was oft-described as a mix of Rocksteady's Arkham games — great, but I'll wait for the real thing, thank you — and Assassin's Creed — a series I lost both the plot and interest in quite some time ago — set in Middle-earth, a location I had little attachment to.
It turned out to be the only other game outside of Dark Souls 2 that I invested 100 percent of my attention in this year. I wound up hunting down every single collectible and trophy over the course of some 40 hours with the game, exhausting it of virtually everything Monolith lets you do in Mordor.
Shadow of Mordor won me over almost immediately by appealing to my easily-distracted nature. The game thrusts you, as the Ranger Talion, into the action almost immediately. The game isn't front-loaded with long-winded exposition or lengthy tutorials that interfere with actually playing the thing. Mordor drops you into an open world that's begging to be explored and affords you the opportunities to do so.
Much has already been written about Shadow of Mordor's groundbreaking Nemesis system, an incredible magic trick that generates the game's Orc army and its leaders. Regardless of how celebrated it's become, it's an amazingly effective accomplishment and worth praising again. I still remember the spindly Orc that was armed with poisoned crossbow who one shot-killed me three times in a row, and mocked me for my quick death in each subsequent encounter. I came to despise (and avoid) that particular Orc, until Talion became powerful enough to take him down. I remember fearing a particularly resilient Orc who was gifted with almost no weaknesses, save for a phobia of Caragors, and a long list of invulnerabilities. And he remembered that I ran in fear, because I had no effective strategy against him.
The Nemesis system helped prop up Shadow of Mordor's sometimes forgettable narrative with dozens of side stories that I co-authored. The legend of Talion that I helped write — it culminated in him branding and enslaving a quintet of Orc bodyguards and unleashing them upon a raging asshole of a Warchief near the end of my trophy hunt — was more engrossing to me than the game's structured narrative.
And while I'm loath to speculate about what Monolith Productions can do with a possible sequel to the game — Mordor's only a few months old, anyway — the future possibilities of the Nemesis system are fascinating. There have been plenty of discussions about other games potentially adopting a similar mechanic, the prospect of which excites me. The Nemesis system is begging to be iterated upon, and not just within the confines of Middle-earth.
To its credit, Shadow of Mordor itself masterfully iterated upon the hand-to-hand combat mechanics of the Batman Arkham series. The melee battles of Mordor, which could have quickly turned to tedium when fighting 50 Orcs at a time, managed to feel fresh and exciting right through the end of the game. Thanks to a well paced progression system, Talion is regularly given new, interesting ways to take down Orcs. It's just as much fun to behead Orcs with your sword as it is to, later on, burst their skulls open with wraith powers or brand them mid-battle to turn them into allies.
Monolith managed to get a lot of other things right too, from Mordor's buttery smooth traversal system to its satisfying stealth mechanics to the broad set of strategies available to the player during missions. Yes, the game has a few faults — that final boss encounter, for example — but the fact that Monolith was able to get Shadow of Mordor's sundry components working in concert, and all within the restrictions of the Tolkien license, feels something like a game development miracle.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor was easily the most fun I had in a video game world this year. Its addictive gameplay loop, the lure of finding just one more hidden thing or seeking out one more Orc encounter, felt masterfully crafted. But the game's polish and innovation, particularly the Nemesis system, ensure that it deserves special attention on Polygon's 2014 game of the year list.
This piece is part of Polygon's 2014 in Review series. Throughout December we'll be exploring the games, people and events that shaped gaming in the past year. You can check out more 2014 in Review stories in our StoryStream.