Have You Played… Middle-Earth: Shadow Of Mordor?

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives and PC miscellany. One a day, every day, perhaps for all time.

Remember when Middle-Earth: Shadow Of Mordor [official site] came out, and everyone was all, “WOW! Everyone’s going to be copying the Nemesis system! Hooray!” and then no one has?

It is such a completely splendid idea. Because your Ranger in Mordor cannot die (he’s eaten a ghost or something), when you’re killed by a generic orc enemy it gets upgraded to a Captain. It gets a name, attributes, and thus marked for revenge. He’s tougher to kill now, but oh my goodness, so much more satisfying.

It was so tremendously simple, and so completely brilliant. It made player deaths more meaningful, but it also embellished the game, made enemies more personal and less generic. Then at the mid-point you could start to influence that orc hierarchy even further, taking over their minds and then deliberately getting them promoted up the ranks until they were bodyguards for Warchiefs you wanted them to betray, and eventually Warchiefs themselves under your control. Oh gosh, it was so smart. “Every game will be doing it!” we excitedly announced.

No games are doing it.

This keeps happening with gaming’s best ideas. I remember as far back as Prince Of Persia: Sands Of Time’s amazing idea of letting you rewind time after a death, and being certain this was a gimmick we’d see implemented everywhere. It appeared nowhere, with third-person action games still needlessly punishing player deaths with shitty checkpoint systems.

It’s all the more silly since Mordor so liberally – er – “borrowed” so many ideas itself, Assassin’s Creed presumably feeling rather violated when it sort just how much. It’s the best idea! Why is no one stealing it?

Developers! Steal it!


  1. Mungrul says:

    I really liked it, and a lot more than I thought I would.
    I only wish the Nemesis system had been more real-time, with events happening independently of you rather than requiring you to step in to the scripted area.

    BTW John, hate to be this person, but could you tidy up the last paragraph?
    I’m having a problem parsing your meaning here:
    “Assassin’s Creed presumably feeling rather violated when it sort just how much”

    • ldemon says:

      Final paragraph I presume should read “Assassin’s Creed presumably feeling rather violated when it sees just how much”

    • Cinek says:

      I wish the ending wouldn’t be as horrible QTE disappointment as it was…

  2. Wulfram says:

    The Nemesis system seems to create the wrong sort of feedback loop. If you’re good at the game then the whole thing is pretty irrelevant. If you’re bad at the game, then the game gets steadily harder.

    It should have been more like killing Orc bosses successfully without dying yourself calls in bigger and badder enemies (with higher rewards for killing those, so its not a punishment) while dying actually lets the heat off for a bit

    The rewind system showed up in driving games

    • Dewal says:

      In the hierarchy, the number of “captains” is fixed. So if a random Orc kills you, he will either take an empty place (of a previous captain that you defeated) or kill another captain to take his place. Hence the game doesn’t get “harder”, at worst you’re just not progressing.

      And even when you’re good, empty captain places will eventualy get filled by an unknown new captain.

      So no, the system worked quite well ;)

      • jonahcutter says:

        Actually, it could indeed become essentially inconsequential.It happened in my first playthrough.

        Because you could easily run away from danger and become vastly OP with some of the later powers, it was rather easy to not die. I think I died once or twice early in my first playthrough and then never again. My “nemesis” orc that killed me early on I literally never saw again until he showed up at the very end of the game declaring it was time for our big showdown. I had forgotten about him completely by that point, and I basically facerolled him as he was weak as hell and hadn’t gained much power.

        The nemesis system rarely got advanced as I rarely rested at forges or died, so the orc captains were hardly ever a threat. And in the few times I got in serious trouble I just legged it to the nearest healing herb or stealth bush.

        I didn’t even realize I was cheesing the nemesis system this way until the end of the game. I was just playing to not die. But the system can fail to work well, even if unintentionally made to do so by the player.

        The game is an incredible power fantasy. But it plays much better if you die repeatedly. On my second playthrough I played with a few house rules: No running from fights, win or die. No healing in fights from herbs. And I didn’t unlock some of the more powerful abilities, and no extra health, etc. This allowed captains to gain power and my “nemesis” to become formidable by the end of the game. But I had to deliberately limit my use of some of the game systems to make it work well.

      • pelwl says:

        Dewal, from what I remember the Orcs level up in strength whenever they defeat you. This is separate from the hierarchial chain of command. Different captains can have different strength levels. So Wulfram is correct – the game would get harder if the same Orcs kept defeating you.

        Of course after the first couple of hours the game gets way too easy and you have to deliberately die to really feel the Nemesis system at work on a personal vengeance level. I would have preferred some kind of clan system where if you kill an Orc then members of his clan seek their revenge on their fallen comrade – something like that.

    • Shinard says:

      I’m not sure I agree. I think it creates a brilliant difficulty curve – the problem is, it doesn’t match the game’s intended difficulty curve in the slightest.

      If you start dying to a particular captain (and first time through, odds are you are going to do that), it comes back stronger and the fights get harder, but running away is always a valid option. The game forces you to get good, pick your battles, take on smaller captains, gradually learning to utilise the environment and building up skills. You finally work your way up through all the other dangerous captains, each one providing a more intense and personal battle (I still remember taking on Golm Neck-Snapper, who was probably my third or fourth most dangerous orc – he’d only killed me once before, but he’d built up a lot of power through feasts and battles that I was honestly scared to show up for. When I faced him again, suddenly using stuns in combat really clicked and I utterly annihilated him – incredibly satisfying). And then, finally, beaten and bruised but a master of all the game’s systems, you face your ultimate nemesis (Dush Frog-Blood, and yes, the pronunciation was embarassing, no, it didn’t stop him being a serious nemesis), who at this point is near unstoppable, and after a long and hard fought battle, finally behead him once and for all.

      Then you discover you’re only halfway through the first world. And from that point on, nothing else will even lightly trouble you til you get to the end, and even then that’s only because your nemesis pops back up. It’s very hard to get invested in a fight between you and the big bad warlords when you’ve already defeated an enemy more powerful than all five put together.

      Still, 10 hours of brilliance followed by 20 of mild enjoyment is still a good deal.

    • Sigwolf says:

      “The rewind system showed up in driving games”

      …uhh ,no, the rewind system has been in driving games many, many years before Shadow of Mordor was ever conceived.

      • Wulfram says:

        The rewind system referred to is in Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, not Shadow of Mordor. Was the mechanic used in racing games before 2003?

  3. Freud says:

    I loved Shadows of Mordor. Great mix of action and the strategic element of orc grooming. I’m looking forward to the sequel.

    The last DLC (The Bright Lord) was rubbish though. They removed your self sustain in fights so fighting became very tedious instead of something that had a great flow.

  4. Kefren says:

    The problem with rewinding time as a mechanic is that it needs an in-game explanation. And it becomes a tired cliche quickly if a load of games all include the super-ability to control time. Whereas other ideas that verged on over-use managed to survive because they made a sort-of sense (e.g. recharging shields).

    • pH101 says:

      Not sure that’s true (although a belief in that might account for the lack of uptake). After all, do we have in-game explanations for quick saves, multiple lives, checkpoints or restarts? Really it’s just another way of dealing with a fail state. But an (arguably) better one that breaks flow less. It would be especially good for stealth games to break the quick save spamming. One thing though – it’s much harder to develop so I think that’s the true reason we don’t see it so much.

    • Xocrates says:

      In addition to what pH101 said, you also need to deal on how to limit your use of it.
      Sands of Time had a limit on how often you could use it, Braid had unlimited rewinding but the game was designed around it to the point the game would be straight up unfair without it. Which means that now you need to either take it into account as a base mechanic, or find the delicate balance of it being generous enough that the player will use it, but not so generous as to remove all challenge from the game.

      Or, you know… make a much easier to implement checkpoint system (which you would need to have anyway) which gives you much more control on how much a player is punished when they screw up.

      • Premium User Badge

        subdog says:

        I think Braid is actually the reason why the mechanic didn’t take hold. That game definitively explored the potential of its core mechanic, same with other gimmick platformers like VVVVVVV and Fez. There’s just not much left to say about that mechanic.

        If rewind has a future, I think it’s going to be in more narrative heavy games. Life Is Strange did a watered down version that left out a lot of its potential. I think a fully real-time narrative game like Consortium would benefit from a rewind mechanic, allowing the “world goes on without you” simulation while still making sure important events are available to the player even if they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.

        • poliovaccine says:

          Completely agree w that assessment – this is why one of my dream games lately has been a murder mystery blend between the style and presentation of Consortium and the time-shifting of The Sexy Brutale.

  5. Keios says:

    What I would love to play is a superhero game with a Nemesis system, where you start out as an inexperienced, slightly crap hero going out beating up thugs and work your way up to being the terror of evildoers. But with villains created by how you defeat them through the game. So that guy you throw into a transformer by accident your second week in reappears as a gang leader with weird electrical powers, then he adds a dinosaur gimmick after you foil his plan at the natural history museum and drop a T-Rex skull on him, that sort of thing, only spread out across a bunch of gangs all fighting against each other as well as you.

    I know it’s far too complicated and nebulous an idea to actually become a game, but I can dream.

    • jonahcutter says:

      It would. I’d love a Daredevil game that gave us this.

    • Jeremy says:

      I think attaching it to a superhero game would be brilliant. It would also make sense in a (sorry) rogue-like. The problem with Shadow or Mordor, is that it’s really difficult to die, so the system falls a little flat once you get past a certain point. In a game where death or failure is more regular, it can add a lot of depth and complexity, and that sense of “FINALLY!” that we find in Dark Souls (or games like it) after wiping a boss.

    • draglikepull says:

      I love this idea.

    • April March says:

      That is brilliant. The only way I’d like that game even more would be if you were playing the villain…

    • Sandro says:

      I really REALLY love this idea. It would be amazing, but it would require that the villains couldn’t die in order to make the rivality more epic. In any case, heroes don’t kill ;)

  6. DuncUK says:

    Is it that surprising the Nemesis system has not been replicated since?

    The main issue with it is that it requires an in-game, narratively supported reason to exist. That immediately creates issues for any game with a fixed, named protagonist unless they also want to introduce resurrection or similar. Admittedly a few games (i.e. GTA) have you ‘respawn’ at a hospital but the only other reason that I can think of that makes sense is if the player character is one of a horde of disposable soldiers… but very few games do that.

    Now a GTA-like is a prime candidate for a nemesis system with its street gangs and the like. In fact if you play a generic gang-banger this could be used as a mechanism to promote and improve your own gangsters as well. Come to think of it, somebody please make that game… I want to play it.

  7. Junkenstein says:

    I thought it was Orcs who YOU maimed but didn’t outright ‘kill’ with a beheading that kept coming back stronger as a Nemesis. Hence why they get progressively more mutilated and have things like fear of fire if you ‘killed’ them with fire.

    • Shinard says:

      Both! If a generic Orc kills you, it gets a name and a few quirks, if a captain kills you, it gets a promotion, if you kill a captain and don’t behead him, he comes back pissed off.

      • Obi-Sean says:

        They had specific ways to be killed. I beheaded a few captains only to have him come back later (somehow) because I can only kill him with fire or something.

        • dare says:

          I absolutely loved the nemesis system, warts and all. It was utterly hilarious when an orc captain I’d beheaded earlier returned, claiming it was just a flesh wound. It wasn’t even that immersion-breaking. Hell, if I keep coming back, it stands to reason the orcs might as well.

    • Sandro says:

      I loved the Nemesis system. The problem is that the game was too easy to beat. I used to kill all the captains at the first encounter so I didn’t saw the system in action very often. But when it happened, boy, it was EPIC.

  8. Gothnak says:

    I only finished it on my Xbox last month. The problem was it started off (for me at least) too bloody tough so i gave up after dying and seeing the hordes of orcs get replaced.

    Then i realised it’s one of those games that gets WAY easier the more you play, so when i went back to it earlier this year, i don’t think i died in the last 2/3rds of the game, except while trying to get on those bloody Caragors.

  9. grimdanfango says:

    I’d say it doesn’t get copied because it’s not an especially visible feature, it’s an underlying system. Compare that to something like Minecraft knockoffs… in the majority of cases, they boil down entirely to replicating the blocky visuals as closely as possible, without bothering to consider what about the underlying mechanics worked well.

    The other side is that many innovative underlying systems take a lot of skill, creativity, tuning and balancing to get right, or to even make functional. It’s always easier (to do and to market) to knock off a game’s aesthetic than what actually makes it a good game.

    Take something like Factorio – absolutely sublime at a systemic level, massively satisfying to play, addictive to a Civ-beating degree, and pretty damned successful… yet we see pretty much zero games even bothering to try copying its formula… at best there’s a couple knocking around with a vastly simplified faximile of it, tucked inside some minecraft-clone voxel engine.
    It’s because something like Factorio is just stupendously hard to design.

    Good ideas only get copied if they’re easy to copy.

  10. EvilMonkeyPL says:

    I think not implementing some kind of Nemesis in latest Mad Max game was a huge mistake. Would have eleveted it from a ‘meh, I might get it for cheap in a few years’ game to a ‘ohmygod,here’s me monies’ game. At least for me.

  11. Nauallis says:

    I played it for about a week (on xbox one), rather enjoyed it but didn’t finish it, and then a week after that Destiny came out, and Shadows of Mordor seems to have gone into my indefinite backlog, along with finishing Witcher 3 (which I also enjoyed), MGSV, and Dragon Age: Inquisition. Ah, well. It’s a good problem to have, too many very good games to play, not enough time.

  12. Chaoslord AJ says:

    On the one hand this whole nemesis business was glorious and added a strategic layer to the satisfying open world sneaking business.
    On the other hand the game had its shortcomings, bland visuals (mostly Mordor), small map, unengaging story and character (where I only liked the central twist about the canonic Tolkien character).
    …useless collectibles as in AC series, sudden death in missions when you venture two steps from the path and so on.
    Was entertaining but never touched it again later and not really thinking about returning to SoM 2.

  13. Zorrito says:

    Definitely intrigued to see how the updated version works. The idea of building up a band of complementary allies for sieges has got potential.

    (I’m naively hoping Elite Dangerous is going to to have a stab at a lite version, based on their old design docs. Not hierarchies to manipulate, but allies or foes being formed through interactions. Would add a ton to that proc gen world… Hey I can dream ;))

  14. SuddenSight says:

    While the game is very inventive and fun for the first 6-10 hours, it definitely dragged towards the end and I felt let down by the low end-game difficulty.

    I would love to see a game with less powers and more AI interaction (along the lines of this Nemesis system). Figuring out weaknesses and planning out how to exploit them was fun approximately once in the first game, but you just level up so fast (especially if you play any side quests at all) that you don’t need the combat advantage OR the experience bonus from weakness exploitation. Similarly, riding a big troll-beast is neat but you don’t get it until you have the much more powerful ability to mind-control orcs. And, of course, the mindcontrol powers are game-breakingly easy to use.

    I would love to see a game that depowers the main character in combat (forcing you to rely on stealth more) and expands on the weaknesses and traits of all the orcs, as well as the Nemesis system.

    It would also be nice if they kept to one map the second time, as the second map (though beautiful to look at and narratively interesting) played like a repeat of the first, including all the extra game length.

  15. ColeSeg says:

    I had a great time with the game, even though I never got around to finishing it. I think I just became distracted by other releases and forgot to get back into it.

    I’m very excited to play Shadow of War, though!

  16. Buggery says:

    A question: I have tried to play this a couple of times but get bogged down in the first couple of hours when I try to do a side mission and just give up after encountering a non-stop train of nemesiseseseseses. Is it worth it to just go hard on the story missions?

  17. poliovaccine says:

    I just wish the Nemesis system had been around in time to be lifted for Saints Row 2. Of all the games that have ever advertised to me the offer to “run a crew,” that’s the only one that ever really felt like it.

  18. eljueta says:

    I didn’t get this game at all. I played through half of it, because everyone was raving about the nemesis system which in my opinion is quite…well ok. Without it the game is an AssCreed/Batman hybrid where you go hacking and slashing your way through hordes of orcs. It looks good, it has some fun, but then you reach the middle point of the game and it asks you to start again in another area doing the exact same things. At which point I said nope, I was hoping for the end already, don’t feel like doing this all over again.

  19. ffordesoon says:

    I feel like people are missing John’s point. The Nemesis system was absolutely flawed, as was Shadow Of Mordor (though I remain baffled as to why its control scheme – which was vastly superior to that of any AssCreed to date – was not hailed as the utter curbstomping of AC it is). That’s exactly why the system needs to be shamelessly stolen and iterated upon relentlessly until it’s the new chest-high wall – because the Nemesis system perfected and tweaked into oblivion really will make games better.

    • Wulfram says:

      Even with its flaws fixed I don’t think it’d be a huge benefit to most games. Hardly any AAA games really.

      Though it could fit nicely into a roguelike(like) or something like Mount and Blade