Let’s not beat around the bush: you’re interested in the Nemesis system. Without wishing to sound harsh, I can’t say I’m surprised; it really is the one unique and special thing that Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor has going for it. This is the system that means the mini-bosses you’ll face throughout the game grow and evolve based on your actions, gaining in power and becoming more lethal if they escape your assaults or defeat you themselves.
It’s a clever system, and it is absolutely the lynchpin of Shadow of Mordor. I cannot overstate that enough: without that system and the way it impacts the game, this would otherwise be an adequate but uninspired Lord of the Rings-themed take on Assassin’s Creed.
You play as Talion, a deceased ranger made immortal by an elven wraith. After his family was butchered by the Black Hand of Sauron, Talion woke up to find himself bound to a wraith, and – as seems sensible in the situation – he’s now roaming Mordor in search of both revenge, and a means of breaking the curse so that he can finally die. All of which is done via the same free-roaming pseudo-stealth as Assassin’s Creed.
The fact that Talion cannot die, though, plays heavily into the game’s mechanics. If you’re “killed” then you wake up at the nearest fast travel point (Assassin’s Creed-like giant towers, and yes, they reveal the surrounding area and the quests within)… but it’s not an undo button. Things change when you die. Time passes.
The enemy that killed you? Well, they probably just became a captain. If they were a captain already, then they’ve become stronger and more powerful. If other captains were getting on with other events, like recruitment or hunting, then they’ll either have died or also become stronger. Even failing changes the way the world works.
There’s a lot of fun you can have with this system, too. Talion has three fighting styles: there’s his skill with a sword in direct combat, his archery, and his stealth. Sword combat is basically Batman: Mordor Asylum, insofar as you try to build up a big hit chain, and enemies have giant COUNTER-ATTACK NOW prompts above their heads. Archery temporarily slows everything to a crawl so that you can aim properly on a gamepad. Stealth lets you instantly kill a target either by sneaking up behind them, or dropping onto them from above, or dragging them off a ledge, or whatever.
But the different captains and warchiefs you face have different resistances, different weaknesses, different abilities, and different fears. This guy might be completely immune to stealth and ranged, so you’ve got no choice but to face him in direct combat… but he’s also scared of fire, so you can use that knowledge to turn him into a quivering, whimpering, fleeing wreck. This other guy’s a complete monster in a direct fight, taking no damage from your counter-attacks and immune to most of your other little tricks, but a single attack from stealth will instantly kill him.
So you learn. You wait for the appropriate opportunity to strike, and then you descend in a storm of blood and swords, and tick off another target from your handy Uruk-hai Organisational Chart. Or something goes horribly, horribly wrong, and you’ve just made your opponent tougher to take on the next time.
Shadow of Mordor thrives on unexpected shit ruining your plans. You might’ve spent a few minutes moving steadily and stealthily into position to assassinate an unaware captain, and then suddenly a pack of murdercats (sorry; I mean “Caragor”) leap into the fray, start slaughtering Uruk-hai left and right, and then sniff you out and come for you. If you’re infiltrating a stronghold, then an alarm might get tripped and suddenly you’re not just taking on one guy and his guards; you’re taking on a continually-spawning set of very angry green men. You can’t plan for everything.
If you played the first Assassin’s Creed, the easiest way I can sum up the open-world Orc-murdering is to say it’s basically what that should have been. You can interrogate captains and “worms” to get details on where to find others and what their strengths and weaknesses are, but you don’t have to. When assassinating a warchief (the biggest and baddest enemies, aside from the game’s scripted bosses) you can deal with their bodyguard captains first to make things easier, but you don’t have to. It’s your choice whether you want to find information and make things easier for yourself, or just recklessly hurl yourself into danger.
It’s an excellent system, and when it works, it’s glorious and spectacular and emergent, which is easily one of my favourite adjectives. Unfortunately, that’s when it works, and there are problems. Quite a few of them, in fact.
For one thing, there’s all the fluff surrounding the Nemesis system. The voice-acting is great, but the story itself is uninteresting drivel and there are maybe two likeable characters throughout the entire game. The boss battles are pants, and the story missions themselves tend to be a tad repetitive. The game also visibly shoehorns you into playing with the Nemesis system, insofar as you have to interact with it in order to finish each of the game’s two major areas. I like the system, but I don’t like being roadblocked until I’ve messed with it in a game-required way.
There’s the upgrade system, which is a little overcomplicated. You obtain upgrades through experience (which unlocks new abilities), Mirian (which generally improves Talion’s attributes, like maximum health) and Runes (which are affixed to your weapons and provide various buffs). A random rune is dropped every time you kill a captain or warchief, and the theory is that they let you customise your playstyle how you like.
The problem is that they rapidly become confusing. This rune gives you a 27% chance to gain +5 health on a critical hit, while this one offers a 40% chance to regain 30% Focus on a headshot from your bow, and this other one offers you a 72% chance to get two extra arrows when you perform a Brutalise stealth kill, and this fourth rune gives a 17% chance for Talion to dance the fandango when you successfully complete a quicktime event. I may have made one of those up, but… uh, wait, how do I get my health back again?
With each weapon able to hold five runes – for a total of fifteen equipped runes at once, if you fully upgrade your rune slots – you will very, very quickly forget which action triggers what buff. Which is a bit of a problem when you’re in the midst of an all-out brawl with 20 Uruk-hai and you really need to regain some Focus so that you can snap off a few arrows.
The final big issue is actually the Nemesis system itself, insofar as you actually have to put in quite a lot of effort to make it work the way it’s supposed to. Early on, I encountered the same captain three or four times, and I could never quite kill the bastard.
Then I killed the bastard, and while every captain from then on was a unique little snowflake with their own stats and attributes, none of them really stuck in my mind. They were just a target who had to be killed in a different way.
This reached its head towards the end of the storyline, when I had a climactic showdown with my own unique, personalised Nemesis! Who was someone I don’t think I’d ever actually met before, because I’d become sufficiently skilled by that point that no captain ever survived an encounter with me. Deflated the situation somewhat, that.
Which is sort of the problem. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is a game with a lot of clever ideas and fun systems, but they don’t quite mesh together to form a cohesive game, nor do they work tremendously well on their own unless you’re willing to put in quite a lot of effort to, say, deliberately not kill your Nemesis. You don’t unlock the really entertaining powers (which let you bend Uruks to your will and really screw with their army composition) until about 60% through the story, and that’s also around the time you’ll probably have figured out enough of the systems that the game stops presenting any real sort of challenge.
But… I don’t really want to leave it like that, because Shadow of Mordor is a tremendously polished game which occasionally hits moments of genuine greatness. It’s got better stealth than Assassin’s Creed, some fun lore points, entertainingly brutal combat, and a lot of really good ideas. (It’s also one of the finest PC ports in recent memory; seriously, the porting job here is really, really good.) It’s just that most of those ideas need a bit more work to actually form something spectacular, because as it stands, Shadow of Mordor feels a little bit… empty. It’s popcorn gaming: entertaining, but not even remotely filling. Fingers crossed for these ideas to coalesce better in a sequel or another title, basically.