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Mordor casts a shadow over the open world genre

Up your game, open worlds

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Open worlds are dynamic. Sometimes they live and breathe. Occasionally they are systemic. Their stories and incidents are emergent.

That’s what the voices say, from stages and in trailers, but the pictures tell a different tale. Anthem‘s big reveal felt like a series of echoes rather than a glimpse of the future, Assassin’s Creed: Origins is sprinkling loot and stats across Egypt, and even Metro has sandbox ambitions now that it’s making an Exodus to the surface. But what we’ve seen is more scripted than the teleprompted speakers at one of these E3 press conferences.

Putting the witty, system-led smarts of a Middle-earth: Shadow of War video on the same stage as the rest almost seemed cruel.

They’re important, words like ‘dynamic’ and ‘systemic’. They suggest precisely the sort of unexpected overlap of rules and behaviours that are unique to gaming. It’s entirely possible that Anthem’s ferocious storms will have a real and unpredictable impact on play sessions, or that Assassin’s Creed will meaningfully connect its larger world to the tighter focus of its scouting and stealth missions, but no other game shown so far this year has been able to communicate the genius at the core of its design quite as efficiently and effectively as Shadow of War.

That’s partly because the Nemesis System is a known concept. It’s also because it’s a brilliant concept and one that developers Monolith are expanding rather than simply iterating on the foundation. Cut an orc in two and he might be fused back together, half-orc half-machine, and then he might hunt you across the map. Beat him again, in his Robostrop form, and you have three options. Kill him, shame him (reducing his level) or break him, forcing him to become an ally in the war.

And what a war it is. At times it’s as if somebody bolted Total War or Mount and Blade onto Shadow of Mordor, and while the tactical depth is probably more paddling pool than Mariana Trench, it’s the interlocking of ideas that’s so appealing. You build an army by making enemies, watching them grow in strength, getting to know their character and traits, and then beating them into submission.

Everything begins with fisticuffs and threats, but from there on in all bets are off.

After Shadow of Mordor’s release, I had lots of conversations about the Nemesis System, and where it might fit. I was convinced it’d be copied in everything from a Rocksteady Arkham game (still holding out hope for that) to an urban GTA-like, or maybe even Red Dead Redemption 2.

In fact, my main frustration with Mordor was that I loved the system but didn’t care all that much for the setting. Fantasy, broadly speaking, isn’t my preferred genre, and the sheer grimy orciness felt more like watered down Warhammer than Tolkien, and ended up feeling a little vague, tonally. I’m wondering if I didn’t give it a fair chance now though, because either the humour has become much stronger, or I was being a grump last time around. It’s charming, which is something I didn’t expect to be saying about a game that features this many decapitations and disembowellings.

There was a moment when I thought Anthem might be similarly charming. It’s a multiplayer game and the trailer has two characters chatting to one another. Because the voices were professionally recorded and written rather than genuine in-game chatter, I’d assumed they were the voices of the actual characters rather than the people supposedly playing those characters. They exchange compliments about new pieces of gear and cosmetic changes to their Javelin powersuits, and that seemed like a fun way for these Freelancer mercs to alleviate the stress of the job. And then one of them mentions a friend “needing the XP” from a zone they pass by.

Would it be brilliant or obnoxious if characters in the game talked about getting XP and grinding for lootboxes? I’m tempted to go with brillant – or maybe just ‘quite good’ – because it’d give Anthem a distinct voice that was otherwise lacking.

It wouldn’t give it an equivalent of the Nemesis System though. Systemic, emergent, dynamic, living, breathing. Big words for big games. Only one game at Microsoft’s big event showed that it’s confronting the meaning of those words head-on though, and that’s Shadow of War.

Or maybe we should be talking about Rare’s Sea of Thieves in this context as well, but that shall have to wait until later in the week.

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