Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor's moment-to-moment biffing is a trick we've seen before, but it's still impressive to watch your wraith-Ranger shift and flip with seamless animations between punching one gribbly uruk and gutting another. Yet it's the Nemesis system, which gives the action context within the larger army of Sauron and world of Mordor, that makes every assassination matter so much more and which makes Middle-earth the best action game of 2014.
John: The highest compliment I can pay Mordor is to say it was 2014's Kingdoms Of Amalur: Reckoning. Which is to say, the game I found the most enjoyable, the most effortlessly absorbing, this year. Yes, it's vapid, but that's part of its appeal.
As someone who finds The Lord Of The Rings as interesting as a cotton bud factory's annual tax returns, it certainly wasn't the bridging of the stories of Bilbo's Adventures In Dragonland and The Further Tales Of Some Ring that drew me in. In fact, it was purely bloody-mindedness that saw me stick past its first couple of dreadful hours. I could see the game it wanted to be, and I'd been pre-warned (mostly thanks to publishers Warner refusing to give us a copy before release, despite giving one to many others - great idea, Warner!) that it had a shaky start. I was infuriated by how needlessly difficult it was, and how the game seemed to abjectly refuse to let me play it how I wanted.
Eventually relenting and plodding through its main storyline for a few chapters, rather than running around and having fun as I'd wanted, the game unfurled like a weird black-petalled flower, and came alive. And running around and having fun became extremely possible. And indeed the game's wonderful nemesis system began to work properly.
Mordor's hook is some nice, sleek combat, combined with ample opportunity for entertaining stealth. Clearing out enemy bases feels much like Far Cry 3 and 4, but with far more baddies, and far more opportunities to do it. (And indeed also completely nicking the idea of letting you shoot the doors off animal cages and having them take care of the bads for you.) But mixed into this is the possibility of a boss-dude turning up in the fray, and then things get personal. With the game remembering how many times they've killed you, revenge becomes incredibly sweet. Then as you progress further, revenge can become much more elaborate. Rather than just killing them, you can mind control them over to your side, set them up to ambush their compatriots for you, or even organise coups.
If every other action-adventure doesn't copy the nemesis system, then the game won't deserve to live. It's a massive shame that Far Cry 4 came out too soon to rip it off, as it's hard not to find it lacking in the otherwise superb romp. Imagine how good it would be if those red blokes started to care who you were, and you cared about blowing them up with rockets and tigers!
Monolith, after a very long time of being distinctly dreary, came back to life with Shadow Of Mordor. I so hope it's something that sticks, that refreshes the team, reinvigorates them beyond gloomy grimdark horror. And just as Mordor copied so liberally from so many other games (Arkham and Assassin's Creed most especially), I really hope so many of those games will copy right back.
Alec: I've got this all figured out, right. It's a game about gardening, isn't it? You're hacking away at all these infinite orcs, these weeds, but they grow back faster than you can possibly scythe. Once in a while you clear enough of them away to attack the roots, but even so the choking undergrowth will return in no time at all. Famous gardening abilities such as psychically controlling the weeds to kill other weeds for you, or turning your trowel invisible so that you can remove some weeds without the rest of them noticing, come into play later on, and I for one found it to be a far more authentic experience from that point on.
I was particularly impressed that Mordor even went so far as to include a Gardener's Question Time character. Rather than a panel of nice middle-aged people in holey pullovers dispensing advice on how to grow bigger tomatoes, this is a sinister Elf spirit who mutters dark wisdom straight into your brain, but the concept is the same. I think we can all also agree that Caragor battle are the most realistic depiction of slug control techniques yet seen in a videogame.
Yes, my gardening analogy is perfect. Mordor isn't - I didn't much enjoy the characters, and the icon-hunt structure that's so in vogue increasingly saw me exhausted at the first sight of the game map - but its minute-to-minute combat is the best I've experienced this year. What Mordor does best is regularly drop you into situations which, by the standards of any other game, would be impossible to survive. You don't just survive - you thrive, growing in force and adrenaline as more and more Orcs wade into the bloody fray. It's exciting to have a fight, rather than anything like a chore to have a fight.
Apart from when three bosses turn up in quick succession and you have to pause your slaying to watch all their WWE intros, of course. That's not very exciting. It is jolly nice to have an honest-to-god enemy rather than just nameless henchmen, though. The Nemesis system needs more fleshing out, but I don't know that I can name a more successful new feature attempted by a big old mainstream game this year.
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