Games based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings universe have consistently disappointed, but that trend finally changes with the release of the excellent action RPG Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. A gripping, lavishly told revenge tale, the writing and cinematic presentation meshes well with Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of Tolkien’s work. It’s also a big week for basketball fans, with the always-stunning Visual Concepts release of NBA 2K15. A pair of oddball Japanese releases round out the new offerings on the table, with the interactive novel-fighting game hybrid Persona 4 Arena Ultimax and the fantasy RPG Natural Doctrine.
Middle-earth; Shadow of Mordor
(PS4, Xbox One, $60, Mature)
Developer Monolith Productions, the studio behind the Condemned and F.E.A.R. franchises, shatters the curse of Sauron by finally making the first decent non-Lego Tolkien adaptation. Set at the point in which the dark lord Sauron returns to the realm to rebuild his empire. One of his first tasks is to massacre the rangers and their families. One of his victims is Talion, who returns from death thanks to help from a spirit of vengeance who wants to take down the dark forces of Mordor. You start from nothing and work to amass forces and win power struggles over land and resources, building up Talion’s campaign to get back at the evil forces that robbed him of everything.
The main innovation is the Nemesis system, which lets you capture and interrogate enemies, shaking them down for information. Humiliated foes may hold grudges against you like yours against Sauron, tracking you down to exact retribution. The feature turns what could be a solid but unspectacular hack-and-slash into something with considerably more depth. If you interrogate an enemy you learn his name and gain the ability to track him, using him as something like a double agent to help you infiltrate the enemy. The storytelling may be somewhat slow, but the combat and strategy are rich enough to keep things gripping. Customization, leveling and attribute distribution are all there to tinker with, letting you customize Talion to your style. The ability to tweak everything and screw around with your enemies ups the replayability to Diablo-style levels, making Shadows of Mordor a game to buy rather than rent.
(PS4, Xbox One, PS3, Xbox 360, $60, Everyone)
Last year’s NBA 2K14 was a showcase for current-gen hardware, depicting the game with lifelike visuals and smooth gameplay. With a year to settle in with the new hardware, developer Visual Concepts sprints off to yet another rim-rocking fast break, remaining neck-and-neck with the FIFA series at the razor’s edge of the sports genre. The most impressive alteration comes to the MyCareer mode, which eschews the lottery pick protagonists to have you follow an undrafted free agent as he scraps his way through a series of tryouts, tries to hang on at the end of a roster, then work his way into the starting lineup.
There are a few changes to the gameplay, but nothing that stands out. Last year’s product was such and impressive leap forward that treading water is understandable. Visual Concepts has added a ton of new animations to the mix, and the fact that they flow so seamlessly into the gameplay without drawing attention to themselves is a credit to the game’s naturalism. The MyTeam feature echoes the Ultimate Team mode from EA Sports games, letting you piece together a fantasy squad based on blind packaages of cards you earn and buy. Online modes are numerous and comprehensive, and there’s a colossal community of players to give you some action at any hour of the day. Whether you feel like throwing down with a preset roster, over the length of a season as a GM or in one-on-one streetball, NBA 2K15 has your game. I missed the Jordan and LeBron-centered historical modes from recent years, but there is more than enough to play here for any hoops junkie.
Persona 4 Arena Ultimax
(PS3, $60, Teen)