With the resounding success of Monolith game’s Middle Earth adventure/decapitation simulator epic Shadow of Mordor in September of 2014, it was only a matter of time until Warner Bros dipped their dirty mitts into the violated cash cow that is J.R.R Tolkien’s fantasy universe for another poke at a AAA blockbuster.
In many ways, they succeeded with this year’s Shadow of War. It boasts satisfying Batman Arkham City-style combat (but with swords and shit) and finally a more well-rounded story that didn’t make the game’s protagonist (Talion generic-pants) feel like so much of a personality-starved ken doll without the good looks. Disregarding however the monumental mistake of adding crippling micro-transactions that are bordering on game-breaking at worst and are certainly an annoyance at best, Shadow of War’s defining trait by far is the revolutionary Nemesis system.
The Nemesis system in Shadow of War is at its core an arrangement of the Orc hierarchy. Captains are selected to lead packs of weaker “grunts” and Warchiefs to control the captains. Each explorable region contains a fortress, which you will take over and defend throughout the course of the game’s main story. Each of these strongholds also contain a mini boss called an Overlord to kick your teeth further down your throat after all his minions have done the same. The first instalment of the series (Shadow of Mordor) did include a Nemesis system but it didn’t offer anything close to the degree of detail and diversity shown in its successor.
SoW’s main premise is recruiting Orcs to join your army and pitting them against enemy Orcs in some kind of twisted, green civil war. This would be a pretty simple concept if not for the aforementioned Nemesis system allowing your allies to betray you, become enraged at you killing one of their not-yet-recruited buddies or even being near a scary looking doggo (Caragor, but you get the point). Enemy grunts can also be promoted through the ranks by killing you, going from a lonely no name NPC to Tügog the Gut-Fucker all with their own rich backstory and personality depending on how they killed you.
Nowadays, games are expected to have rich and engaging stories without sacrificing gameplay, graphics or even voice-acting. Monolith have created a game with fantastic gameplay, pretty good-looking graphics (with everything being ‘next gen’ nowadays nothing truly amazes anymore graphics-wise) and even hilarious voice-acting. There is an improvement in the linear storyline department in the sequel but nothing to write home to your mum about. Through the use of the Nemesis system, Orcs have personality and wit that more than makes up for any shortcomings the main campaign has in its storytelling.
So why haven’t more games gone down a similar path? If done correctly it would take a huge weight off game developers backs to create memorable stories in the moment-to-moment gameplay because the game mechanics do it for them. For example – in my own playthrough, I had an Orc on my side who spoke with a Scottish accent which was amazing (for meme reasons), then some other asshole Orc killed him while I was busy doing something else. I didn’t rest until I had hunted down his killer and cleaved him right in half. I was fully invested in what I was doing because the game gave me freedom to make my own way and create my own character in that Scottish Orc that I grew to care about because I MADE HIM.
This whole concept opens up avenues in this genre of games that are more or less unlimited. Say a Psycho in Borderlands kills you and he becomes a Badass in control of a camp with his own custom dialogue when he sees you? You’d inevitably feel more invested in killing him because he’s more than just some lines of code; this nonce killed your dumb ass and now you want revenge! It would add a whole other dimension to a game that already has fantastic voice acting and memorable characters and it would undoubtedly improve the player’s experience.
The bottom line here is that if more companies could learn from this innovation, more releases would feel legitimately new and engaging. Instead of the swill bucket of brown and grey FPS games and a beach-worth of sandboxes with pretty boring and unimaginative plot lines, we would have a blank canvas just urging us to paint it and see what art we can make on our own.