Confession time – when it was announced I didn’t give much hope to Shadow of Mordor, despite the cool premise that was being presented to me. “An Assassin’s Creed style game set in an open world Middle Earth? There have been worse ideas,” I thought to myself, but it was the reveal of the Nemesis system that piqued my interest. “If it’s exactly as they’re saying it will be, that could be very interesting” was my response. A game where your villains change every time you play or make a decision? I chalked it down to the overhyping of a system that created the illusion of choice and an elaborate AI army, and went about my business.
But then I went to Gamescom and saw the Nemesis system in action. It’s real folks. It actually works, and it’s going to be the stuff of YouTube gold.
Before we get into it though, here’s a quick round-up of everything else that was shown and told to us during the presentation. The game will take place directly after the third Hobbit film The Battle of Five Armies, filling the gap between the recent films and The Lord Of The Rings trilogy. As Sauron’s forces begin their invasion, they wipe out the Rangers of the North protecting Gondor, including Talion – the main character for the game. (Un)luckily for him, a wraith brings him back to life who turns out to be the spirit of Celebrimbor – the Elf king who forged the rings of power that led to this entire mess in the first place. As such, the player will assume control of both Talion and Celebrimbor in a quest for revenge against the Dark Lord’s forces.
We were shown an early level in an underground cavern that provides backstory for Celebrimbor and introduces the player to the wraith powers the undead elf provides. During this sequence another familiar face in the Middle-Earth lore appears – Gollum, who has only just recently had the Ring of Power taken from him. As the demo went on, we were introduced to a rather giant beast. With Talion not ready to take on the foe directly, we were shown how the wraith abilities can be used to lure in other creatures to distract the beast. This created an opportunity for Talion to get away, one of the many tactics available to the player.
As we moved on, we were told how places such as this cave would hide secrets and artefacts filled with lore for the player to find, giving the player reason to explore the open world beyond that or tracking enemies. It also acts as a way to unlock more of Celebrimbor’s memories, which in turn provides new wraith abilities such as Shadowstrike. That particular move allows Talion to quickly move towards enemies, which proves useful as the cavern was collapsing at this point. That was pretty much all of the early storyline that they wanted to show us, telling us that the main arc would revolve around the conflict between Sauron and Celebrimbor, but the team wanted to give players the ability to create unique playthroughs that were forged by the player’s actions and choices. For that, the developers created the Nemesis system.
The summary of this system is that it is a collection of features allowing the player to create unique bosses and boss fights in every playthrough. How this works is that there are no (to borrow some MMO terminology here) ‘trash mobs.’ By that I mean every enemy in the game has a name, a set of skills, and ambitions to rise to the top of Sauron’s army. Enemy NPCs can earn experience points and level up like the player, and can even get promoted if their superiors are killed by Talion or even assassinated by another NPC. In short, an orc you skirmished with at the very start could end up being your final boss, having encountered them several times along the way, remembered how you failed the kill them, perhaps how they killed you, or how you let them escape.
And to prove that they weren’t kidding about it, we were shown the system in action.
We were shown a screen of a pyramid of power comprising of prominent NPCs in Sauron’s army, along with their current experience level, while were some silhouetted because Talion had not encountered them yet. We were told that these NPCs would be randomised each time, which meant that each press demonstration had unique enemies. This means that finding enemy plans and interrogating foes was key to success, allowing the player to gain information on these important NPCs and how to beat them. All the while, these enemies would be completing missions themselves, backstabbing each other, and rising to become Warchiefs for the various areas in the game, and ultimately the final boss of the playthrough.
The aim of the demonstration was to choose a Warchief, bend them to the player’s will and take his forces to create an army with which to attack Sauron’s. It was at this point that we went along the line of Warchiefs to decide our target. First we had an assassin with a crossbow, making him stealthy with long-ranged attacks; the next one was a tiny orc who is paranoid of betrayal, so he would remain hidden until his forces were being slaughtered; next up was the Shaman, a commanding presence who barks orders at his minions and it quite a skilled fighter; the fourth one was responsible for providing the booze for the army, so burning the grog supplies would draw him out for a fight; the final one was a heavily armoured defender, making a frontal assault almost suicide. The press in the room voted to take on the shaman, much to the dismay of the developers who were hoping to fight the stealthy enemy, pointing out how the randomised nature of the game meant they might not see him again.
In order to encounter the Shaman, we first had to humiliate him by killing his supporters. Because he wouldn’t want to look weak, he would be forced to show himself, which would be the player’s opportunity to strike. Doing this without raising the alarm of the garrison was key, otherwise the player would be swarmed with not only enemies, but other Captains, each with their own abilities (and could potentially become a boss later in the game.) Despite the best efforts of the dev controlling the action, one of the Captains noticed the commotion, entering the fray and making a comment about a previous encounter with the player.
However, the supporters of the Shaman were slain, drawing out the main target to much fanfare. So began an encounter were the odds were against the player, with increasing numbers of orcs making it difficult to take out the Warchief. Of course, the player can use the environment to their advantage, setting off explosives or using verticality to gain the upper hand – case in point, one of the orcs was set on fire and fled in terror, meaning he’ll remember that and mention it next time Talion encounters him. This is thanks to the “thousands of hours of voice overs” that are included in the game, ensuring a truly tailored feel to the player’s actions.
Unfortunately, the numbers game got the better of the dev in control, and Talion fell in battle. What’s important here is that the player doesn’t get to retry the encounter. Instead, time moves forward as Talion resurrects like a wraith. What this means is that the world continues without the player, with orcs attempting to backstab each other to climb the ranks of the army, and the orc that killed the player – a humble bodyguard – gaining not only a huge chunk of experience but being promoted for their glorious deeds. So once they are back in the world, does the player attempt to seek revenge? Go after the same Warchief? Perhaps work on weakening their forces first? That’s down to the player to decide.
The message to take away from this is that the Nemesis system works. As long as the randomised creation of enemies is as great as it was made out to be, it will not only be a stage that YouTubers dreams of, but it will be an anecdotal goldmine among gamers. To me, the unique experience that the Nemesis system provides is the reason Shadow of Mordor will be one to watch when it comes out next month. Well, that and the rather slick combat (which I purposefully glossed over because there are trailers that show that in action.)
What I'm trying to say is that come October, I plan to travel light, and hunt some orc.