The Nemesis system, Shadow of Mordor’s key creative feature, is one of modern gaming’s great triumphs. Never bettered by any other studio (or, bafflingly, even copied), it’s up to developers Monolith to expand and improve upon it for sequel Middle-earth: Shadow of War. Suitably for a mechanic so sophisticated, the new system’s ambitions are wonderfully lofty and just a little dazzling. This year Nemesis will affect not only your enemies, but the literal landscape of Mordor itself.
Cause chaos in other ways in the best sandbox games on PC.
“What we've done in Shadows of War is take the [Nemesis system] concept of unique personal stories and transferred them to the environment,” begins Michael de Plater, creative VP at Monolith, during a presentation at GDC 2017. “The way that comes through is with these Nemesis Fortresses. Each region is controlled by one of these fortresses, and each one will represent the variety and personality of the Overlord who is ruling them.”
Nemesis Fortresses are the crown of each of the game’s regions, which are now both more numerous and larger than Shadow of Mordor’s two zones. You can expect to see much more interesting landscapes too, thanks to a variety of different ecosystems. Playing once more as Talion, you’ll be able to explore from the slopes of Mount Doom, right out to the border between Mordor and neighbouring Gondor. The city of Minas Ithil - Gondor’s most eastern defence - will be visitable, and several hours into the game it will be besieged by the Nazgul and Sauron’s forces. It’s a key historic event in Tolkien lore, leading to the creation of Minas Morgul: the headquarters of the Ringwraiths. While the plots of both Shadow games more than dip their toes in fan fiction, it’s exciting to see such major moments from Middle-earth history being incorporated.
Each region’s fortress is procedurally generated, much like the system’s orc soldiers, and will be unique for every player. A fortress’s structure and defences will depend upon the orc who runs it. Mordor’s population is now split into various tribes, each with their own distinct culture. Among them is the Feral tribe, experts in hunting and taming beasts, and the dark sorcery-dabbling Mystic tribe. The look of the local environment and fortress itself will change depending on which tribe the ruling orc Overlord belongs to.
Overlords are the new top-tier uruk class, and killing them will allow you to seize their fortress for yourself. When a fortress is in your possession you can upgrade it to increase its size, add garrisons and defences, and enable it to house more Warchiefs.
Before you get that far, however, you’ll need to besiege whoever the Dark Lord has put in control of the region. “In order to help you take on the Warchiefs you have your own army of followers,” explains de Plater. Where Shadow of Mordor allowed you to brand orcs in order to have spies within the ranks of the enemy, Shadow of War outright allows you to recruit and amass a military. This can be made up of foot soldiers, bodyguards, caragor-mounted cavalry units, and even your own Warchiefs.
This seems the most natural extension the Nemesis system could have taken. In the first game you could become obsessive over the structure of the enemy ranks, with the system encouraging you to plan your next target in order to upset the orc hierarchy in just the right way. The followers system promises that same level of reactivity but among a collection of uruks that are yours to command and cause devastation with. It’ll be interesting to see if players develop ties with their hideous warchiefs, akin to the bonds forged with XCOM soldiers, and how these ties produce even more varied personal stories told over Twitter and enthusiastically around coffee tables.
“In Shadow of Mordor the Nemesis system was very focused on creating these visceral, memorable stories of death and revenge,” de Plater says. “Of course it still has that, but now we have followers we can also expand the types of stories that we can tell. So now we can have stories of saviours, of loyalty or betrayal, and stories of friendship.”
The GDC gameplay demo reveals just how deep these relationships can go. The garrison being assaulted is led by an orc called Stormbringer. “He actually used to be part of our army before we left him to die,” recounts de Plater. “He bled out on the battlefield during a previous mission. But he was revived and saved by the Dark Lord, so not only has he changed sides, but he's also got this burning hatred for us. For him this really is personal.”
Going up against any of your enemies will require thought and tactical choices. The Fort Conquest mission demoed at GDC saw Talion lead his army against a Nemesis Fortress captained by an orc called The Flame of War. “The warchiefs can actually change the defences that you’ll be facing in the fort,” reveals de Plater. “So because of [The Flame of War’s] abilities with fire, you’re going to be facing flaming catapults, fire archers, and boiling oil. The interactions between the different orcs and the fortresses makes each conquest mission a unique experience.”
With knowledge of your enemy, you can then tailor your siege army to ensure victory. For example, in this case you’d use armoured caragor cavalry units, who have a strong defence against fire.
Expanding the Nemesis system to incorporate buildings is not the direction I’d ever expect the Shadow games to go in, but it’s more exciting than anything I’d previously thought of. While open-world games are rife with opportunities that are different for every player, there’s always one constant: the world itself. While I can’t foresee the Nemesis Fortress system being more than variations on specific building locations around Mordor, it’ll still be a fresh experience to hike a mountain only to find the fort you saw three days ago now looks entirely different thanks to a new orc Overlord taking power.
Conquering a Nemesis Fortress rewards you with not only the fort itself, but also a variety of more RPG-centric benefits. Money and XP will help you upgrade Talion’s skills, and new followers will bolster your army. There’s also loot now, and you can customise Talion with new weapons and armour. In the situation shown in the demo, defeating Stormbringer provides Talion with a suit of epic Rohirrim armour that buffs health and provides perks.
Considering the surprise quality and subsequent success of Shadow of Mordor, Monolith could easily have just focused on the ‘more’ sequel path; more orc types, more regions, more abilities. But by evolving the Nemesis system in two ways with fortresses and followers, Shadows of War is starting to feel as excitingly ambitious as its predecessor did. Looks like orc’s back on the menu, boys.