It's tempting to compare "Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor" to "Batman: Arkham Asylum."
Both are Warner Bros.-published games that rely on rhythmic, puzzle-like combat to rejuvenate popular licenses with poor histories in interactive media (then nearly ruin everything with garbage endgames that make little to no use of those core mechanics).
For all "Shadow of Mordor" culls from "Arkham Asylum," though, its most winning trait is a simple cue from "Tetris": It never ends.
As Talion, a Gondorian ranger avenging his family's execution by Sauron's forces, you're fighting behind enemy lines in the "Shadow of Mordor," an open-world action RPG set between "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings" in J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy kingdom.
Remember that scene in "The Return of the King" where thousands of orcs and other beastly, iron-plated things poured out of the Black Gate? And how the army of hundreds of good guys looked hopelessly dwarfed by them? Well, it's just you staring down all those minions in "Mordor."
Thus, rare is the fight that ends with a final orc's death rattle. There are always more, and new-gen machines do justice to the odds by hounding you with dozens at a time.
Sure, you can sneak across the mud pits under Mordor's wooden scaffolds and atop the stone ruins under its fleshy sunsets, using the game's serviceable stealth to whittle down the numbers. But it's an Aragornian kind of thrill to barrel right into the danger zone and try to defuse the living, grunting bomb surrounding you with the correct sequence of Talion's offense.
Like "Arkham," hacking away at basic enemies is complicated when a shielded defender or dual-wielding berserker enters the fray. The former can only be attacked from behind, the latter only when stunned. If you get one of those deadly snowflakes alone the kill comes easy, but if you're juggling him with a never-ending supply of a dozen others? Not so much.
So the hits chip at Talion, and with no end in sight, you risk crossing that old line between bravery and stupidity. Most fights end one of two ways: You either smarten up and scamper away, the screen framed with crimson, in search of a plant to heal you — or you die.
Death, however, is not the end. It's just when "Shadow of Mordor" begins to really get good.
Talion is cursed out of dying (and given a nifty ghost bow) by the possession of a wraith who's on his own warpath against Sauron. But that doesn't mean the ranger can play Kenny from "South Park" without consequence: Each death strengthens the orc who killed him — and sometimes puts him in line for a promotion.
You can watch this grog-to-riches story via the game's Nemesis System, through which developer Monolith Productions reshapes open-world action like a master smith.
The system revolves around a hierarchy of uniquely named, skilled and armored orcs roaming Mordor that you can hunt for sport, or just stumble upon haphazardly. Each of these captains carries strengths (immunity to stealth) and weaknesses (fear of fire) you can exploit after learning them by interrogating underlings.
Halfway through the game, you can also enslave those captives or the captains themselves, push them through Sauron's ranks by helping them win power struggles against rival orcs, and position them as bodyguards to the five warchiefs that sit atop the totem pole.
Puppeteering subterfuge is a blast and all — I put up my feet and savored the mafioso melodrama when I called out a warchief whose five bodyguards were in my thrall — but it's still only half the fun. What's most exhilarating about "Mordor" is how the Nemesis System serializes the action, weaving a story where there'd otherwise be none.
The names may change, but for many players, the moments will be the same:
• The horror-movie redux when the orc officer (Orc-ficer?) you thought you killed comes back wearing an oval wound around the eye you stuck with your dagger, or a burlap sack covering the bludgeoned half of his face. For me, his name was Horhog the Rhymer.
• The "oh crap" panic when that captain — the one who's executed you twice, the one who seems invulnerable to everything, the one you still haven't scouted — saunters into a battle you have well in hand, ready to ruin your day again. For me, his name was Ushbak the Prickler.
• The satisfaction of beheading Horhog on your third go-round to end him for good, or mauling Ushbak as he flees in terror from your feral caragor (imagine a lion with the hide of an armadillo), and finally moving on with Talion's mission.
The Nemesis System digs its hooks in most when you die a lot. Before that happens you fall to your knees, where the game's legitimately difficult second-chance quick-time event gives you a shot at blocking the death blow. If you succeed, it's a spirited rebuttal to a captain's boast that this is twice, now, that he's stuck you. (Ushbak never spoke, he just clucked like Hannibal Lecter — the bastard.) But you reach that fatal position less as you unlock crowd control upgrades like instant executions and the ability to absorb a hit without interrupting Talion's combos.
Still, the stories never end. My most memorable Nemesis System moment happened in the game's waning hours, actually. It was nighttime. I rounded up a warchief, his three bodyguards and about 20 orcs near a campfire deep in their fort. One incendiary arrow later an inferno had claimed half the crowd, and for 10 minutes I chased the frightened honcho up ladders, across parapets and through the discombobulated survivors like something out of "The Bourne Identity."
The Nemesis System and the emergent stories it produces stand out so much in part because the actual plot of "Shadow of Mordor" is so tired. A Troy Baker-voiced, square-jawed white romance novel cover model loses his wife and has to save everyone? Gee, get Peter Jackson on that one.
Throw in the ethical stickiness of enslaving your enemies, an absolute joke of a final boss and some Tolkien blasphemy — Gollum had no business being in Mordor at this point in time — and you have one forgettable, atonal entry in the "Lord of the Rings" wiki.
However, "Shadow of Mordor" finds eternal life in a revolutionary system that could herald an exciting new age for the action game.