The dynamic nature of Uruk society; its clay-born sharp-toothed denizens; its hierarchy and its grog, is all a thing of unnatural beauty. How they go about being baddies isn’t something we’ve ever seen to this degree in videogames before, and the fact that life and death for us as the unlikely pairing of Talion the Ranger and the Elven wraith, Celebrimbor, helps shape their society… well, it’s really quite something.
Middle-earth: Shadow of War’s Nemesis System is
the game. It’s front and centre once you pass the awkward first act, and becomes your basic drive to keep playing. The quest for loot and level isn’t so much a cleverly designed gameplay loop, it’s now a necessity in order to keep up with the ever-changing face of enemy garrisons and the orcs who charge their way through their own ranks to Epic and Legendary status. It’s an odd place to be in as a gamer, because Shadow of War’s much more expansive Nemesis System is like an RTS come to life, where friendly and enemy units aren’t just crafted out of a resource hut, they’re a part of the NPC landscape, and come with unique personalities -- some that clash, and some that thrive, and all in variously unpredictable ways. Nothing else like this exists in videogames, which is why it’s a shame the rest of the game can’t keep up with it. In some ways, the Nemesis System might actually be too
While it’s clear Monolith Productions’ punt on the unique enemy AI system in the first game paid critical dividends, what they’ve managed to do here is brilliant. Dynamic and emergent (to a controlled degree) confrontations with orcs is almost never the same twice over, and their traits, strengths and weaknesses create a style of game that is rarely ever structured. It’s sort of at odds, in this way, to the rest of the game which follows seamlessly on from the structure of Shadow of Mordor. Missions are waiting for you out in the greater game via mission markers, engage in one of these and your new assignment begins. The ‘overworld’ then is simply teaming with sword, arrow and dagger fodder along with a number of collectibles in each region that work to unlock much of the game’s backstory. It’s all very checklisty
in design, and takes a lot away from the more emergent Nemesis side of the game, but in engagement, it still works.
What doesn’t really work is movement, combat and the game’s camera. Players have control over the camera, of course, but you’re often using your spare thumb for something else, and there’s no real smart camera system in place to help in these moments (well, there sort of is, but it’s not very good). Moreover, camera aside, the player movement system is largely forgettable with Talion often snagging various parts of the environment you had no intention of being snagged on at all. Button inputs aren’t up to scratch, either, and can leave you in a wake of frustration when all of the above combines to conspire against you. The number of times I died in combat due to a laggy input, or the camera taking an attacker out of my field of view unnecessarily, became too much to count. It’s a collection of less-than-prime systems that you can work with, but they don’t coalesce into the league of the Batman: Arkham series -- where all of this has been heavily borrowed from.
And so while the game presents itself as a complete half with what feels like an unpolished other half, the two combined still do make for decent orc lodging fellows. Once you get past the first act as well, the game opens up in bigger and better ways with the in-depth and ever-changing garrison system. Essentially, one of the key gameplay components is taking over fortresses already garrisoned with Sauron’s orc armies. You’re also attempting to build an army so as to better take on the Witch King, and rather than asking humans, elves, dwarves and hobbitses for help, why not just dominate the weak and feeble minds of Sauron’s baddies, and turn them to the side of the Bright Lord -- AKA you
But this isn’t always as easy as it seems, with Bruz the Chopper -- arguably the best Aussie orc. Ever -- about your only loyalty lock once you’ve turned him against Sauron. In fact, playing the game on the hardest setting was making it very difficult to both get any kind of orc commander down to an owes me money beating, in order to turn him to my side, because I was getting mobbed by every NPC in the area. Every time. So when I finally got my third follower, my second (Bruz is technically the first) literally ambushed us just after I’d converted my new guy. He decided he’d had enough and killed my new recruit while then taking a stab at me. It was a vexing situation I barely escaped from, and the rotten sod had lost so much respect for me, I couldn’t re-recruit him, and so had to kill him instead. And that’s just one example of the sort of dynamism that awaits with the game’s AI and Nemesis System.
The problem is, for all its net dynamic worth, after a while, even taking on fortresses and warchiefs just gets a bit grindy. The game lacks a definitive narrative structure, and while there’s something to be said about being able to pick and choose your missions as you see fit, they don’t all sit and play nicely together. The world consistently resets at the close of most missions, leaving only orc personalities, and your own leveling and gear collection as tangible visual and gameplay rewards for progression. At its close, everything does coalesce, but the game suffers from running out of progressive ideas and tends to sit on a cycle of rinse-repeat once you’ve sort of done it all. It could have been expedited a bit more, and while there’s plenty out there for the completionists in terms of collectibles, after a while it sort of all becomes empty.
And adding to this is the feature creep problem. In-game purchases allow for gamers to gain advanced equipment early, but as a premium product it’s a bit alarming. We saw what this did to the likes of Dead Space by way Dead Space 3 and Turtle Rock’s Evolve, as well as countless other games. It’s not a requirement to throw down any more cash than what you paid for it up front, but its very existence as a ‘pay-to-win’ model detracts from the safer aesthetic-only in-game purchase model others tend to adopt. We’re pretty cautious around this inclusion, to be honest.
Middle-earth: Shadow of War is a serviceable game that gives us something utterly unique in its Nemesis System, but the advances there appear to have been at the detriment of advancing the other pillars of the game, specifically in player-movement, combat and the game’s camera. A better structuring of mission and narrative delivery would also be welcome, and the first act really should have been shortened, and just tied somewhere into the second act as a series of missions with a race against time.
There’s plenty here to love, but you will need patience and you will need resolve, because the orcs and their player-defined society is a thing of, as I said earlier, unnatural beauty, it’s just a shame the rest of the game suffers in their expanded development wake.