2014 Recap: Middle-earth:  Shadow of Mordor's Nemesis System and the Illusion of Intelligence

2014 Recap: Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor's Nemesis System and the Illusion of Intelligence

The Nemesis system is partly smoke and mirrors, but it's nevertheless effective. Here's why.

If not for the Nemesis system, which randomly generates orc and gives them names and personalities, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor would probably have been dismissed as a simple Arkham City clone.

It's the Nemesis System that makes that game sing, moreso than the combat, the storytelling, or the exploration. For the first half of the game, it is genuinely thrilling to interrogate grunts for information, hunt Warchiefs, and develop rivalries with Captains who simply won't stay dead. That thrill wanes a bit in the back half of the game as Talion becomes overpowered and the process starts to become rote, but it's undeniably unique while it lasts.

I wrote about this a bit back in September, but it's worth revisiting now that I've spent a fair number of hours with the final release. As I've discovered, the charm of Shadow of Mordor isn't so much that the orcs are smart as that they seem smart. By being given a name, a face, a handful of traits, and a handful of algorithms that determine whether or not they remember Talion, they seem more real than they are.

Of course, you could say that about a lot of computer-controlled bad guys, but it's worth examining just how Warner Bros. Interactive accomplished their particular trick. The key to their approach is to essentially build each orc from a template containing a handful of characteristics, which are then attached to a character model. Traits like "Fear of Caragors" and "Hatred of Burning" determine their behavior in battle, as does whether or not they are immune to ranged, stealth, or other special attacks.

These charactertistics are partly where Shadow of Mordor derives its illusion. The other part is in the way that they reference previous encounters and injuries in their dialogue, occasionally reappearing from the dead with grievous wounds to taunt and threaten Talion during an encounter. Somewhat amusingly, each orc is also given a personality, which in turn informs their dialogue (though not their fighting style); some are dumb, some are terrifying, and some will snivel when you get hold of them. In a nice touch, a Captain's appearance will be highlighted by a titled introduction and a line of dialogue, thus guaranteeing that you will be aware of their presence on the battlefield at all times.

The orc creation is accomplished by what appears to be a fairly simple that pulls together the various traits into what passes for a personality, with a random number generator determining whether or not an orc comes back from the dead. I can see how all the different parts come together, but it's still undeniably cool when a grunt gets promoted to a Captain and then proceeds to haunt you throughout the rest of the game. It plays expertly into our innate desire to create narratives, thus filling in the storytelling gaps and lending weight to the individual encounters.

It works because it's all relatively seamless, but also because on some level we really want to believe that these enemies we're fighting have a personality and a story behind them. We want it to feel real and not contrived. When you get down to it, the orcs in Shadow of Mordor aren't actually that smart—whether or not they can counter certain attacks is a very mechanical process that has little to nothing to do with intelligence—but they seem smart. And for most people, that's enough to create a memorable experience.

With Shadow of Mordor 2 inevitable—Shadow of Mordor ends on a cliffhanger—I find myself wondering how Warner Bros. can build on the Nemesis System. One way, I think, is to have them learn from each encounter and develop tactics of their own. If you pick on them too much with arrows, maybe have them appear next time with a shield that can block projectiles, and so on. Maybe have the orcs develop rivalries with each other that can result in a full-on civil war. There are lots of little events that can be woven in to create a sense of emergent gameplay—a somewhat overused but nevertheless valuable buzzword that speaks to our desire for a sense of consequences and dynamism in our game worlds.

If Shadow of Mordor proves anything, it's that you don't need complex A.I. algorithms to make computer-controlled characters seem alive. In all honesty, Shadow of Mordor isn't that much different than a game like FIFA 15, where players will suddenly become homesick or angry because of triggers derived from not playing enough, from which a whole storyline can develop and greatly influence the season. The mechanics are surprisingly simple when you think about it, but the results are almost always memorable.

I don't think Shadow of Mordor is quite my favorite game of the year—Dragon Age: Inquisition holds that title for me, I think—but it will definitely stick in my mind for a long time to come, and the Nemesis System is a big reason why.

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Kat Bailey

Editor in Chief

Kat Bailey is a former freelance writer and contributor to publications including 1UP, IGN, GameSpot, GamesRadar, and EGM. Her fondest memories as a journalist are at GamePro, where she hosted RolePlayer's Realm and had legal access to the term "Protip." She is USgamer's resident mecha enthusiast, Pokemon Master, and Minnesota Vikings nut (skol).

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