British author J.R.R. Tolkien has been the alpha and omega of the fantasy genre since long before Peter Jackson's blockbusters began rolling off his New Zealand assembly line. Written in the wake of the world wars and rise of the nuclear age, his books were widely adopted by the '60s counterculture and later informed Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games, both tabletop and computer, and pretty much every other offshoot of fantasy fiction before going mainstream at the turn of the millennium.
This enduring impact of Tolkien's imagination has as much (or more) to do with his backstory skills as his epic Lord of the Rings saga or rollicking The Hobbit adventure, even if you never dug into the appendices or ephemera. Tolkien's greatest gift was his world-building, so that even if he spent most of his time tracking tiny, hairy-footed hobbits, it felt like there were endless other stories unfolding before, after and during the actual tale he was spinning. Thus, gaming would seem a perfect avenue to further explore Middle Earth's other myriad narratives, but too much focus on the established canon had thus far prevented most games from coming into their own — until now.
Shadow of Mordor, an open-world action RPG set between the movie trilogies in the orc-overrun homeland of the creepy flaming eyeball himself, Sauron, is one of the best Tolkien-inspired game yet. You play an Aragorn-like Gondor ranger named Talion who was stationed with his family at the Black Gate along the border of Mordor. When Sauron's army attacks the gateway as the evil overlord returns to his homeland, Talion's wife and son are slaughtered. He is, as well, until being mysteriously resurrected by an elf lord-turned-wraith who kind of possesses his body.
As crowded as one body may be, both are bent on revenge against the orcs, and thus the pair set off to murder their way through the evil masses of elite Uruk-hai warriors. What sets Shadow of Mordor apart from other RPGs is the Nemesis System, a groundbreaking gameplay model that allows your battle successes and failures to actually impact Mordor's internal politics which, in true Tolkien fashion, continue to unroll offscreen. Wreaking havoc, sowing fear and puppet-mastering the orcs can be addictive enough that you put off the actual storyline — think of it like the mayhem we all commit between story missions in the GTA games.
But it is worthwhile playing the original story — the ring is involved, Gollum is about and the tale woven between offing orcs does let fans delve deeply into the sort of backstory that Tolkien dabbled with in spinoffs like The Silmarillion, which just so happens to feature our vengeful spirit in his pre-wraith guise for you lore nerds. But be warned: the game's name is apt, as it begins darkly and its shadow only lengthens as you go. (Monolith/Warner)