In September 2014, Warner Bros released yet another licensed Lord of the Rings game. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor was a fun romp through Tolkien’s world, a loose prequel to Peter Jackson’s film trilogy. The story wasn’t very strong; Talion, the main character, was flat and shallow, seeking revenge for the murder of his family by Sauron’s elite uruk-hai. The gameplay was similar to titles in the Assassin’s Creed and the Batman Arkham series. There was nothing special there, aside from a greater level of polish. And yet, Shadow of Mordor received critical acclaim, winning multiple awards. What really made Shadow of Mordor stand out from the crowd of licensed titles, and indeed other generic third-person open world action games, was its Nemesis System.
The Nemesis System generates a random Orc hierarchy, essentially mini-bosses with randomized names, titles, personalities, strengths and weaknesses. One of the main goals of the game, aside from completing the storyline, is to destroy and corrupt Sauron’s armies from within. The nemeses are Sauron’s middle managers; if you destroy them, Sauron’s efforts will be hindered, or so goes the theory. The Nemesis System runs in the background even when you’re not directly engaging with these orcs; they will battle and fight with each other, gaining power and notoriety. Things get even more interesting when, about midway through the game’s story, Talion gains the ability to dominate the minds of the uruk horde. With that ability, you can turn captains against their warchiefs, leading to dramatic betrayals. Every single element of the Nemesis System was improved and expanded upon in Shadow of War, the sequel to Mordor. Subjugated orcs can now betray you in the middle of battle, often leading to intense situations, and there’s tons more depth and variety to the system, with different classes and tribes of uruk-hai to work your way through.
In Shadow of War, one of my favorite stories is still ongoing. Early on in the game I was ambushed by a fellow named Gund Caragor Tamer. While somewhat taken aback, I quickly managed to eviscerate his followers and cleaved the captain in half before continuing on my way, whistling. I thought nothing more of Gund until, halfway through a battle with another captain, he reappeared, metal plates over his skull and eye. He was now Gund the Machine, and every time I ‘kill’ him he comes back more machine than flesh, more body parts replaced with steel. It feels like I’m building my very own Vader. Another orc, Takra the Survivor, refused to die—and tracked me from one zone to another, until I subjugated him into my own army.
It’s these procedurally-generated tales, and the sense of enemy continuity, that make the recent Middle-earth games stand out, above many other open world action titles. Any artistic liberties taken with Tolkien’s work are forgiven, although I was never a super-fan to begin with. But, really, that begs the question; why, in over three years, has no other game attempted something like the Nemesis System? There’s plenty of scope for a system that randomizes personalities, traits and appearances and tracks interactions across multiple instances.
Imagine, for a second, a spiritual successor to L.A. Noire. You play as a hard boiled private eye in period New York City (’30s or ’50s, I’d say) and have to solve crimes that the police department just can’t solve, either due to incompetence or red tape. There’d be a strongly written narrative to follow, and links between each crime, but elements of each crime would be randomized, a bit like Cluedo; location, murder weapon, criminal. As you play through the game, you might come across the same, recurring criminal; perhaps in one encounter you shoot him in the knee but he escapes, and you next see him with a cane and a desire for vengeance. Even if you catch the criminals and get them locked up, they might break out of prison and come searching for you, or go back to a life of crime.
There’s another Warner Bros game, released in 2015, that could have hugely benefited from the Nemesis System; Mad Max. As a fan of the Mad Max films, I very much enjoyed what is, at its core, a very standard open world game in terms of its design; go to hot air balloon, reveal map, do side quests and missions, find collectables. The key redeeming features are the setting, the manic endless Australian desert of which I’m personally a fan, and the car combat and customisation, which is fairly unique for this style of open world fare.
Still, it would have really been elevated by a version of the Nemesis System. In fact, it feels like the game was setting up for it with the introductory cutscene; Max puts a chainsaw through the head of a vicious warlord, Scabrous Scrotus, who somehow survives the encounter—and now has a reason to pursue you across the ends of the earth… if this game used the Nemesis System. Such a system of enemy personalization would work wonders in the Mad Max setting; instead, every sub-boss is a slightly recolored version of the same character model. Disappointing.
The Nemesis System is a simple, effective method of adding value to sandbox video games. Versions of it could be used in everything from Rockstar games, such as Grand Theft Auto or Red Dead Redemption, or even to roleplaying games like The Elder Scrolls. In what games would you like to see systems of personalisation and continuity such as the Nemesis System?