If not for the Nemesis system, Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor would have been a decent but ultimately unremarkable game. An open world action title with combat similar to the Arkham series and parkour similar to Assassin’s Creed game wouldn’t have grabbed an awful lot of headlines, even if it did carry the Lord of the Rings license. In 2014, though, for a good few months after it came out, Shadow of Mordor was on everybody’s lips and minds, and it was almost entirely thanks to the revolutionary Nemesis system that the game was lifted up from being solid but unremarkable to being the next big thing.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call the Nemesis system one of the best new gameplay systems introduced in the eighth console generation- but what exactly made it work so well? Like any other excellent mechanic that manages to stand out, it managed to strike the perfect balance between simplicity and complexity. Behind the scenes, the Nemesis system was built on two or three systems at most, but they constantly interacted with each other in ways that yielded dynamic, unpredictable results that added unbelievable complexity to the entire experience.
If you want to be really reductive about it, the Nemesis system is all about emergent storytelling. Your actions as Talion in the game’s world have a direct impact on enemy NPCs, whether they live or die, whether they prosper or flounder, and that, in turn, affects you. Kill an enemy, however, and they make room for a newcomer to begin their descent at the bottom of Mordor’s military ladder- and on and on and on the cycle goes. And that’s exactly why that feels like such a reductive description- because that loop repeats unto itself again and again, constantly growing and expanding rapidly, and the escalation that it inherent to the concept ensures that in spite of that repetition, it never gets stale.
Things start out simple- you get killed by an Orc, and that Orc gets promoted within Sauron’s army. But once you kick things into motion, the Nemesis system takes control. A promoted Orc is given his own name, voice, look, and personality. If you see them again, they will taunt you about how they bested you the last time you met. If you lose to them again, they will become cockier and more confident in their abilities. Grunts become Captains, Captains become Warchiefs, and in Shadow of War, Warchiefs become Overlords, and as they are promoted, with each promotion, they become legitimately stronger. Their traits change, their strengths increase, their weaknesses fade away. They even start wearing better armour, head into battles with better weapons, and look progressively more fearsome.
And it’s not just you that these procedurally generated NPCs interact with- no, once the wheels are in motion, how they fare in Sauron’s armies also depends on interactions they have with each other. Two rival Orcs might be going at each other, and these rivalries can also have a major impact on their progression. For instance, in a duel between two Captains, the one that proves himself worthy can become an Overlord orc’s bodyguard- and you can, in turn, then track down that bodyguard and dominate him, making him your puppet and bringing you one step closer to toppling the master he serves. Shadow of War, in fact, adds even more layers to this- for instance, relationships between Orcs can be positive ones as well, so if you kill an Orc, it’s entirely possible that one of their blood-brothers might decide to track you down to seek out revenge.
In fact, whether or not you choose to interfere with these emergent systems and how you choose to interfere with them is something that actively becomes a crucial part of progression. You can interfere with rivalries or missions that orcs are undertaking to ensure that they become Captains, for instance, so that you can them dominate them later on, because dominating a Captain is the only way to issue a death threat to a Warchief and bring them out of hiding. Or maybe you you can get a Captain who’s under your control to take part in an initiation that, if successfully done, will make them a Warchief’s bodyguard. Manipulate this intricate web long enough and smartly enough, and eventually, there’ll be a number of high-ranking Orcs in Sauron’s armies who will owe their allegiance to you.
And really, that’s still only just scratching the surface. That’s the beauty of the Nemesis system. In Shadow of Mordor, it was already a complex web of interacting mechanics, which was then taken even further in Shadow of War. There’s so much going on, so much that you can poke your finger into and manipulate, so much that you can use to your advantage to essentially bend the game to your will. It’s designed to make you feel like an overpowered badass who is toppling an insurmountable army from the inside out, piece by piece.
It’s not just an excellent gameplay system, it’s also a fantastic tool of emergent storytelling. An orc may have started out as a lowly grunt, but got promoted to the rank of Captain when he bested Talion in combat. Talion took him on again, and after being reminded of his failure with taunts and jabs, he manages to dominate the orc and turn him into one of his followers. Through Talion’s interference, that orc rises through the army’s ranks, becoming a captain, and then a Warchief’s bodyguard, eventually helping Talion kill that Warchief. And you made that all happen. You had complete control of how all of that went down. None of that was scripted storytelling, but you will always remember that story- and it played out the way it did because you were interacting with mechanics and systems baked into the gameplay.
Warner Bros. recently managed to snag a patent for the Nemesis system, which is a real disappointment, because seeing something like it adapted and applied to different games by different developers is something we have all been wanting to see for years, but now will never be able to. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey sort of did something similar with its mercenaries, but that was a pale imitation at best- a shallow puddle compared to the oceanic Nemesis system in the Middle-Earth games. That said, maybe WB will decide to implement the Nemesis system in its own games down the line- for instance, something like Gotham Knights seems perfectly suited for something like that. We definitely hope we get to see more of this in other games in the future, because the Nemesis system is too good to be used as sparingly as it has been up until now.
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