Shadow of Mordor: Focus in games and downsides of the Nemesis system
I’ve beaten recently Shadow of Mordor. It’s pretty damn good. Tolkien-wise, dig deep enough and you’ll find contradictions to the lore (though, considering that it’s in the universe of the movie, one might argue that doesn’t necessarily count), but it’s a fun and visceral open-world game. And I think it’s a perfect example for a topic I wanted to talk about: focus in games.
Shadow of Mordor is very, very focused. At its core, it’s a game about killing orcs. Be it stealthily or in open combat, manipulating orcs to kill orcs, freeing slaves so they’d help you kill orcs, collecting items that give you points that enhance your attributes that help you kill orcs. Sure, those collectibles give you lore information, but in terms of systemic gameplay – you collect them to, essentially, be better at killing orcs.
The overarching loop of the game – the Nemesis system, is about making personal connections to the orcs you kill so killing them would be more satisfying. They have different traits, they remember what they have done to you, what you have done to them, and interestingly enough, when insulting us they also reference things that are happening nearby right now (which, by the way, is awesome attention to detail). Okay, you don’t necessarily have to kill orcs, you can brand them and take under your control, but that’s only so you could find better ways of killing other orcs, including the Big Bad orcs – the warchiefs. And I specifically mention the word ‘kill’ a lot to make a point just how focused Shadow of Mordor is.
And, you know, at first I was pretty excited about that prospect. That there was no pointless fluff, that the game knows what it’s about and does it good. On more than one occasion I’d mention that I prefer when games have a clear focus, especially when it concerns more open-ended games, like RPGs or open-world ones. But can there be such a thing as too much focus? And the answer to that, I think, is… yes.
Shadow of Mordor is not a linear (or semi-linear) game that even if allows extensive exploration still controls the general pacing of the game, providing different enough situations within the core game mechanics to keep things interesting. It’s a much more free-form game in nature that revels in how systemic it is. And, you know, sometimes I think… Maybe it wouldn’t be bad had Shadows of Mordor been slightly less focused. After a few hours of uninterrupted gameplay centered around orc-killing, it can become tiring to kill orcs, regardless of how much variety there is in our ways of accomplishing that. Maybe it wouldn’t be bad had there been some kind of a tabletop mini-game with Hirgon, for example (even in such stressful times, those Outcasts have to relax, right?), or a caragor race with Torvin. Something that sticks to the core gameplay loop generally speaking, but provides more variation to the activities we do in the game.
Compare Shadow of Mordor to what I’d call its closest counterpart – Batman: Arkham City. In Batman, bosses require different use of the combat mechanic, there are a lot of situations based on using our abilities and gadgets in numerous ways, and the side missions vary from tracking phone calls to hallucinations to searching for clues to a bunch of different puzzles in forms of riddles. Yes, the focus of Arkham City is a bit more broad – it’s about being Batman rather than just beating thugs to a pulp. It also doesn’t have an overarching systemic game mechanic like Shadow of Mordor does, everything’s specifically designed.
But despite being so focused on systemic gameplay, one of the biggest issues with Shadow of Mordor is that it’s not systemic enough. The Nemesis system has a couple big flaws, that are pretty specific and don’t affect everyone, but they have affected me.
The Nemesis system is very failure-based. As a player, you start building a relationship with an orc if he kills you or escapes from you. Yes, if you defeat an orc without decapitating him, he’s got a chance to survive the wounds and eventually come back, but it happens so rarely that it barely matters. I remember only one orc captain: his name was Grisha. He killed me two times, escaped from me once, kept hunting me in the region of Udun (and usually forced me to run away), but eventually I killed him. It felt satisfying. But it was an experience just for the first hours of the game, then I didn’t get to have any connection with other orcs – I upgraded enough so none would survive any kind of encounter with me (didn’t help that I was very keen on constantly getting intel about the captains). And if they did survive, that’s only because I took control of them. The enemies don’t power up fast enough to keep up the pace with player’s upgrades. After Grisha I only died twice, and that’s only because I was overwhelmed by Ghuls which in the context of the game are just wild animals. Sure, you can make things more challenging by dying on purpose or using the ‘advance time’ option (every time one of these happens, all events in the world are resolved and uruks become more powerful), but in the context of the Nemesis system, that just feels forced – like it’s cheating.
Which leads to the second big flaw of the Nemesis system: it’s not self-balancing enough. I would defeat every orc captain and warchief that crossed my path, the game doesn’t make things more challenging for me by giving a boost of power to somebody. The opposite is a problem as well: if you keep dying, then the game just keeps getting harder and harder – this is something a lot of people encountered in the Nemesis system. I didn’t. I was very good at killing orcs. So good, that at the very end of the game when it wants you to face your greatest Nemesis, for me it was some random orc captain that made me go, ‘huh’? Apparently he wasn’t happy that I slashed his face with a sword. I didn’t even remember when I did that. So when the Nemesis system works, it does wonders. But when it doesn’t… well, there’s always room for improvement. But this improvement is possibly what’s needed to keep the game always fresh.
Ultimately, I guess when it comes to focused gameplay, the most important thing is balance (in terms of mechanics, not difficulty). And that depends on the scope of the project. A well-made very small and very focused project will always look and feel great. A well-made very big and very focused project needs to make sure that the focus is reinforced from different sides so it wouldn’t be tiresome for the player after a while.
Still, I enjoyed my time with Shadow of Mordor. It’s sad, though, that the experience that started out as ‘HOLY HELL THIS GAME IS AWESOME!!!!!’, with the help of a story that’s just serviceable enough to provide context for the main game loop that’s exceptionally great unless you happen to encounter its specific downfalls, has transformed into ‘Yep, this game is pretty damn good.’ Make no mistake, though: the Nemesis system is still an awesome concept that’s well-designed (with lots of attention to details), and Shadow of Mordor is a quality title with very well-implemented core mechanics. Except for the very last boss fight. No clue what’s up with that.
Anyway, thanks for reading, be sure to check the game out, and if you’ve got any comments or points of discussion I’ll be glad to hear them!