Shadow of Mordor [official site] has one of the most satisfying combat moves in gaming. It’s a simple double counter, performed by tapping the counter button twice when separate enemies attack you at the same time. You, the ranger Talion, block one attack. To deal with the other you summon an undead elvish Lord called Celebrimbor, who springs out of your body in wraith form to parry the shocked orc’s sword and pummels them into the ground. Every time it happens part of me wants to jump from my seat and whoop.
It’s easy to dismiss the game's combat system as just another Arkham Asylum clone. It shares similarities with Batman's beat-em-up style, in that you’re bouncing between enemies, switching between attacking and parrying when the relevant button prompt appears. But it has enough variety, fluidity and – perhaps most importantly – gore to set itself apart.
Seriously, Batman is a wimp compared to Talion. Sure, Bruce Wayne can send a man flying with a single punch to the chest, but would he have the guts to plunge a dagger into an orc’s belly while looking the creature dead in the eye, wrench that dagger around a bit and then rip it back out again? Nope. The overblown lethality, in such an almost-cartoonish fantasy setting, means I’m never sure whether to smile or wince.
Shadow of Mordor is also far more forgiving than the Arkham games. You can interrupt your own attacks with counters, which you can’t in Arkham. Combo juggles are hard to drop – even if you press the counter button erroneously when nobody’s about to attack you, you can still keep your hit streak. Same for dodging enemies. Basically, it’s not hard to rack up a 60-70 hit streak, and you get a lethal, gruesome combat finisher on every 8th strike that you can unleash whenever you want.
But hang on, I hear you cry, doesn’t that sound a bit…easy? Well yes, it is easy, in that if a group of 10 grunts gang up on you you’ll have no problem taking them out. But that just means you get to enjoy roaming Mordor all the more, feeling like a virtual Aragorn as you flow in and out of counters, beheading Uruk left and right. And that’s probably how it should be, given what the heroes of the Lord of the Rings films are capable of.
And you'll soon come across hardier opponents. When that group of orcs is accompanied by archers, four-legged caragors, spearman, shielded Uruk, and Captains, things start to get interesting. The combat remains silky smooth, but you have to be more tactical. You need to take out the archers and spearman first. You need to roll out of the way of un-blockable attacks from Uruk war chiefs, and hurdle over shields to stab their wielders in the back.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed: if you plan your attack wrong you’ll soon be surrounded by 20 enemies, with a layer of ranged attackers behind them. One missed counter and you’ll be pounced on and killed. And, because of the game’s ‘Nemesis’ system, your deaths matter. They give the orc captains you’ve been killing a chance to regroup and replenish their numbers, potentially undoing hours of work.
This escalation is excellent. I'm always left wondering whether I should risk going for the next war chief or spend more time building up my skills and abilities. And there's plenty of those: you’re drip-fed a seemingly endless pipeline of tools and techniques. If you’re bored with a sword, switch to a bow and pop a few Uruk in the head in slow motion, or shoot their legs to pin them in place when they’re fleeing. If you’re tired of that, sneak around and ‘Brutalize’ an enemy with a violent stealth attack that sends other Uruk running a mile. Or simply slam down a wraith flash to stun any enemy in sight if you're caught in a crowd.
My favourite ability is one that doubles and later in the game triples your combo score if you time your strikes right. It's nothing flashy, but it turns Shadow of Mordor into a rhythm game where you’re expected to tap the attack button just as the last swipe connects while keeping an eye out for chances to counter attack.
I’m only a quarter of the way through the main story in my current replay but I’ve already cut down most of the war chiefs – think uber-orcs with massive clubs that hit really hard. I’ve given up on the plot, and left Gollum to wander through Mordor alone. Because all I want to do is stab waves and waves of orcs through the throat, and Shadow of Mordor lets me do that in style.