There's Still Nothing Quite Like Shadow Of War's Nemesis System

Games love copying systems and mechanics from one another. But every now and again, a developer builds something that can't be replicated wholesale. And I've been thinking about that while replaying Shadow of War, Monolith's hack and slash sequel in Tolkien's world.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor came out of nowhere when it dropped in 2014. I don't remember hearing much fanfare before its release. No Man's Sky was revealed at the Sony press conference that year, and there were astronomical expectations for Turtle Rock's Evolve. Nintendo announced Splatoon, which thankfully got a sequel for everyone who had permanently shelved their Wii U.

People were probably excited for Cuphead. But then again, 1920s styled platformers don't come around that often.

When you break it down though, Shadow of Mordor and Shadow of War's best achievement is the AI. It's one of the most difficult features in a game to nail, and there are plenty of games where mediocre AI has ruined the experience.

But AI isn't a striking visual style, support for hundreds of players in multiplayer, or some other kind of grand feature that jumps out at punters from a poster or a box on the store shelf. It's something people expect, without really thinking too much about it.

Even today, marketing the Nemesis system isn't easy. If you put "Bringing orcs to life" on the back of a retail box or a Steam description, there's a high chance that users would immediately call bullshit and move onto something else.

And yet, it's not just the game's standout feature - it might be the sole reason to play Shadow of War and its predecessor.

It's not because Shadow of War, or Shadow of Mordor before it, aren't enjoyable games. It's that they're open-world adventures built off the same layers seen everywhere else. Batman's combat system. Assassin's Creed-esque towers. A variety of enemies that include trash mobs, blokes with shields, ranged attackers that always have to be dealt with first, beserkers that charge the player and try to limit their freedom to dodge, and a general willingness to surround at all times.

It works well enough. But what makes it worth it is the orcs that you keep running into, the special characters that give the game meaning between missions.

I killed this bloke SEVEN times during in the first few hours. Then he started following me out of Minas Ithil. I started to look forward to when I'd see him again.

Bruz the Chopper is the most obvious example, an Australian war troll that's only too eager to betray Sauron. But Bruz appears in every game, a fixture as reliable as Talion or Sauron. What's fun about the game is the procedurally generated NPCs, unique to your save, that just refuse to die.

And it's not even warchiefs or overlords of outposts that take prominence. It's always some random flunky, a lower-level captain that means nothing until they've come back for the seventh time and are now suddenly one of the strongest foes in all of Mordor.

It's that unique quality, where an Orc might be completely irrelevant or not even appear across thousands upon thousands of other save games. But your save game? That orc is going to come back to haunt you, over and over again, ambushing you at the most inopportune time. It's a feeling no other game, still, has come close to emulating.

Some of the orcs are just funny, even if your encounters with them are exceedingly brief in the grand scheme of things. One orc, Noruk the Agonizer, sounded reminded me a little of Tom from Parks and Recreation.

Noruk wondered: What was my problem with all orcs, anyway? Maybe I had an issue with one orc. Fine. A hundred orcs? That checks out.

"But all of us? Maybe the problem is with you," Noruk suggested.

I haven't seen Noruk since. But there's been Tugog, a survivor without any particularly special traits beyond the fact that he never seems to die. Gund was one of the first captains I ran into, who died thanks to a swarm of flies. That became his defining feature, and every time I ran into him since, he regaled me with a new tale of what it was like to wake up with flies burying into your skull.

Hoglik got infected by maggots after I executed him in the early hours. Somehow, the force of those maggots brought him back to life. Thankfully, Shadow of War's NPC models aren't detailed enough to animate the larvae and maggots visible through the holes of Hoglik's chest. His trippy dreams about maggots were creepy enough, though.

None of these orcs ever represent a genuine threat, of course. They're just string that ties Shadow of War between the story missions and the player's personal power fantasy, as you slowly level up more bullshit ways to deal with hordes of orcs in what starts as a one-sided battle, only to become hilariously one-sided by the end.

And that's fine. But it's that little touch of humanity for the orcs that really makes these games for me. It's very surface level, for sure, but it's also a degree of character that the orcs were never afforded in the Lord of the Rings movies to date. It'd be awesome to see this system bring other franchises that have huge amounts of nondescript characters to life - can you imagine running into slightly different Stormtroopers in a story-driven Star Wars game?

But nothing has come close to replicating what Monolith has done with their Middle-earth games. And there's been nothing on the horizon that has promised anything similar, either. Speaking of which, Shadow of War shipped in 2017. What is Monolith working on these days?


Comments

    I really liked it but ultimately some parts of it made playing feel so tiresome, and your game time ending up feeling futile. Much like the Odyssey version, the more you go into the game and the more you triumph, the more the foes you were fighting, never really stop. I would like it more if there was an end in sight. Maybe that is the completionist in me. I found in both games there was a point where I could easily fight a handful at a time without really looking at most of their weaknesses etc.

    That said i just recently found some of the great videos I made of some of my Mordor foes, each truly was brilliant and unique (until you get further in the game)

      This was my main issue with the nemesis system - the fact that a fight with them never really ended unless you lucked into the one execution animation that would put them down for good. There's something very tiring about knowing that, no matter if you win or lose, that orc will probably survive and get stronger. It saps any satisfaction out of killing them.

        I kinda liked cultivating powerful ones that had one fatal flaw I could exploit once I'd built them up to be especially rewarding, but it was a significantly less effective strategy than simply tearing through masses of orcs in a never-ending kill-streak massacre. It was like a trawler's fishing net compared to line fishing.

    For anyone interested, Shadow of War is AU$12 on cdkeys, (pc version) 100gb download though ????.

    Watched Lotr & planted the seed, so I Picked it up this weekend, has been really fun so far, only about 3/4hrs in though! They also removed all the microtransactions that put me off getting it at launch.

      It's great fun. My best tip for enjoying it is to consider the game over when it tells you that Shadow Wars is unlocked. I'm not saying stop playing, it's still enjoyable, just consider Shadow Wars the post-credits free-roam mode.

    Reminds me... Eventually, the Odyssey mercenary backstories start to repeat. You murder them by the droves for no reason other than you were wondering if there were any enemies left that you wouldn't one-shot (spoiler: there were not), and you eventually stop caring about their tragic backstory #147.

    Same as the orcs. The names, the voice-overs all start to blur. It takes a lot of repeated encounters with one or a particularly unique combination to really get them to stick in your mind, and in the end, all you can do is finish them off properly and never see them again, repeatedly murder their unrecruitable asses for another roll of the loot dice, or recruit them, only to have them shrink into obscurity owing to how many fucking strongholds you have to staff. At least the orcs can come back, unlike Odyssey's mercs... but sometimes it led to very awkward encounters.

    "REMEMBER ME?! I'M BACK FOR VENGEANCE!"
    "Sorry bro, I uh... I really don't remember you at all. Did I accidentally kill you in a combo-chain frenzy or something?"

    It's not Mordor's fault, of course.
    After all... The same thing happens if you go through too many interactions with real world humans.

    We had stats for how many calls we were meant to take from customers when I worked for Telstra. We had targets of 100-150 per day. We'd get their names, their dates of birth, their post-codes, we'd talk to the customer about what they use the phone for, who they call and why, how long they talk for, how often they talk... it can end up pretty personal, very revealing about their personal lives.

    But after a while the stories all start to blur. You can categorize and profile people. No-one is unique.

    Every personal story still fits a pattern, and you hear it over and over. People lose their individuality like a snowflake in a blizzard. It becomes a daily struggle to just... refocus yourself in the here and now, and connect with each person as an individual, keep your focus on the real human you're connecting with... but it's HARD.

    You categorize just based on "Oh yeah, another male with an anglo name born in the 1940s-50s with their wife as an authorized representative on their account who has an asian name, born in the 70s-80s. Account-holder is calling to find a way of reducing the cost of their partner's international calls to Thailand, which go for hours at a time, every few days."

    Or, "Person born in the 1920s-30s is comparing their phone bill to the meticulously-tended log book they keep next to the phone and wants to 'lodge a dispute' over a 20 second call that took place to a number that they call regularly, because they don't believe that anything at all can be said within 20 seconds, so it must be a mistake. (Until you ask them to sit in silence for 20 seconds and count how long it is and how long it feels)."

    Or, "Person born in the 60s-70s who wants to make a complaint about their home phone service being out, which is affecting their home business, because the queue on the faults number (the correct number, which is where they're going to be redirected to shortly, anyway) is too bloody long... so they're trying their luck with the wrong department and trying to get a credit equivalent to the thousands of dollars worth of business they're losing because they decided to run a business on a residential consumer-grade service level agreement because 'Small to Medium Business' plans - which offer better fault restoration times - are too expensive. They feel they deserve SMB-level service, at residential consumer prices and want to speak to a manager immediately without bothering with 1st-level peons who aren't authorized to grant them hundreds of dollars in credits."

    In the years I worked at Telstra, I must have spoken to hundreds of thousands of unique individuals. At least 1-3 times a day, every category of person repeats. Every day. Every day. EVERY DAY. Must. Not. Generalize. Real. Human. Beings. But they're the same. They're all the same person.

    Does your fucking head in. It's not healthy.

      I've been doing debt collection for about 4 years and it does get like this.

      That would be an amazing (but horrifying) freelance pitch.

        Hm? Freelance pitch? I'm not familiar with this.

        (You mean like this? https://www.thebalancecareers.com/what-is-a-pitch-and-how-do-you-approach-editors-with-it-2316036 - a taster intro to a potential story to get hired to write a bigger piece of something?)

        Last edited 24/04/19 3:01 pm

          Haha, just thinking out loud. Although if I ever get asked what a good pitch is I might refer back to parts of this. Been having an influx of questions in my DMs lately.

            Well, thanks! I'll take that as a compliment. I don't envy being on either side of the need to hustle for a gig.

              It's a rough, shitty life, although I do miss the midnight shifts. Still do a lot more

              Speaking of which, have you played Orwell?

                I did! Or at least... most of the first episode? It was one of those unfortunate attention casualties, contending with bigger things every time I installed it then uninstalled to make room.

                But I liked what I played. I could see where it was going, appreciated what it was trying to do... but didn’t expect I’d be too surprised by whichever twists it was waiting to deliver. It’s possible I need to have another crack and give it more hours to get past the hand-holding stages and start working those detective muscles, drawing inferences from data that aren’t spelled out so much... much like I used to when examining all that meta-data from customers (though my goal there was mostly to see if I could match their communication patterns to better plans so they spend less money, or provide solutions to problems - like PIN-based call control to rein in chatty teens).

                What brought Orwell to mind? It’s interesting that it’s almost the opposite of that sense of detachment I got from pattern-matching hundreds of thousands of individuals, I guess. The real contrast was in how it was more intimate, exploring just the one suspect, with such a sustained focus.

                Side note, I also miss the midnight shifts sometimes. Whether it was call centers, driving, programming, writing/proofing, security, or bartending... It was just something about working in that strangely different ‘night’ world; a different pace with different people, personalities, perspectives, and priorities.

                Going outside in the hours between midnight and dawn to clear my head in the near-empty neon-lit centres of the city always reminded me of cyberpunk or noir. The impression was probably no small part aided by the transient nature of whatever work it was at the time.

                  There's a clarity, a silence even, about the night that I still really miss.

                  As for Orwell, the categorisation and dehumanisation of people you mention at work made me think of it. Or at least what I remembered of it (I watched Tegan play through both games).

    I was playing The Division 2 last night and mentioned at the time that the nemesis system is exactly what this game needs. Thousands of faceless bad guys constantly capturing back what you captured from them gets old... Giving them some personality and desires beyond being shot at would go a long way to fixing that.

    In particular killing a boss and having a named second in command take his place would make it feel less treadmilly.

    There must be something in the air or in the water, as I was just thinking about Shadow Of series again, with the nemesis system, went on a great hunt to see if Mono were working on a third title or something else with the system, only to be disappointed and start a third play through of Shadow of War.

    With what they did with the DLC in Shadow Of War, where it works with humans and the mention of the job offer working in fantasy and sci-fi, I would like them to apply this to another series.
    But willing to accept a third.

    I just recently played Shadow of War, plus the DLC's, I skipped the end-game 10 hour grind though and watched the second ending on youtube, screw that lol. Overall I greatly enjoyed it, and as a whole it improved almost every aspect of the first game. Including making the default difficulty harder and tweaking the nemesis system, I only died once in Mordor and that actually meant I didn't get to experience much of the system, but it wasn't an issue with War as the gameplay was both more challenging, tactical and rewarding. I also really want to watch the LOTR extended trilogy again now, which is always worthwhile.

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