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.
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?