Middle-Earth: Shadow Of War shows that revenge is a dish best served re-heated

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Nothing does revenge quite like Middle-Earth: Shadow Of War [official site]. But more games really really should.

When Shadow Of Mordor came out in 2014, no one was really expecting it to be good. But it was great. And the greatest thing about it was its Nemesis system. Because your character is already dead, and possessed by a grey, grey ghost, getting killed by an enemy was not your end. Instead you woke up at a respawn tower, with vengeance on your mind. The orc that killed you would automatically be given a promotion, a ranking among the orc leadership in the area, and greater abilities. He’d also be given a personality, strengths and weaknesses, and most of all, a name.

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What made Shadow Of Mordor’s system quite so clever was that it made it seem as if those latter factors were in place before he killed you. It allowed the game to create the illusion of a world packed with uniquely identified enemies, despite their thousands, and convinced you that it mattered who chopped you to bits. Then, should they go on to kill you again, they’d climb higher in the ranks. Of course, by the second half of that game you were able to manipulate this, brainwash orcs onto your side, and then sneak them up through the ranks by killing their superiors. But even before it got this complicated, it felt so very different.

I predicted at the time that every other game would be copying this. Not perhaps the complexities of the whole Nemesis System, but at least the idea of offering the player revenge. Because let’s face it – outside of roguelikes (and not even roguelites) players are always immortal. Whether it’s thanks to quicksaves, checkpoints, or some other loophole, you can’t die in a game, you can only be temporarily set back. Try again, kill what killed you last time, carry on. Games are just ripe for “borrowing” this idea of revenge!

Straight away, Shadow Of War – for all its overly-busy approach and god-awful droning story interruptions – reminds you of this. If you can only get it to stop bloody interrupting you long enough to play for a moment, it’s from the very start that you can start creating your own little narratives of hate.

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For me, the first to stick in my memory was Narûg the Grim. Or Narûg Lucky Shot as he decided to rename himself after a period of umming and ahhing over my corpse. Level 15, he was a strong one with a mighty crossbow, and took me by surprise in a moment of having been greatly weakened. Immediately promoted, and cocksure, he strutted away from my body enormously proud of himself. So on reawakening I of course immediately abandoned all my quests to go kill the bastard.

He was level 16 now, made a Dark Tracker, so still a tough fight. But a fight I was prepared for. I’d killed a lot of orcs on my way toward him to fill my Elf Rage meter, such that I could unleash fury on the sod and see him grimly defeated. And so I did. And I gloated. Quietly to myself in my room. Revenge.

It meant a lot more thank killing just any old orc. It meant a lot more than killing even a named orc, with his own little cutscenes and rants. This was revenge. We had a relationship. It’s that meaning that I was certain other games would covet, would want to invent their own ways to realise. Three years on from SoM’s release, we’d surely have started seeing the games influenced by it already if we’re ever going to. And we’re not!

I’ll tell you what I did see in this sequel, though. Narûg Lucky Shot appear above me on the walls of a courtyard. I had, he snarled at me, “left him for dead”. But now he was back, a lot more alive, level 18, and particularly cross with me. Now, with his crossbow pointed at my face, he wanted his revenge.

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He didn’t get it. And rather unfortunately for the telling of this tale, the game rather let me down in his dying. For some reason it glitched out of giving me his slow-mo death sequence, his name crossed out in red on the screen. He just died in a heap with some others. And that was that from Narûg Lucky Shot. Which isn’t a great punchline.

But the point stands. And is even better emphasised by the sequel’s continuation of one of the strangest features in the original – the ability to jump into someone else’s game and get revenge for a stranger! Revenge, revenge, revenge. It’s what both these games are all about.

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That’s true of its story too, although it’s sadly one told seemingly by an author who was wholly unaware what game he was writing it for. The po-faced SEVERITY and CONCERNED FACES of the cutscenes are woefully out of place in a nonsense action brawler with enemies that shout silly jokes at you. But still, your character – I forget his name, being the blandest character in all of gaming history – is out to revenge his usefully murdered female relatives (thanks, ladies). And the ghostie that possesses him is out for revenge on Sauron, after the naughty wizard stole his pretty ring or somesuch. A storyline that one might just be able to guess doesn’t end in success – sorry if that’s a spoiler for those who haven’t read the first page of the Lord Of The Rings.

Shadow Of War goes further in its attempts to make moments of revenge more meaningful, making mini-missions out of it, occasionally giving it more weight than just stumbling upon your old murderer and giving him some what-for. In this respect at least, it really understands what made the first game so richly rewarding. It proves that revenge is a dish best served reheated, frankly. And yet, still, we’re not seeing everyone else realise that they don’t need a ghostly gimmick to put revenge front and centre in their games, because almost everyone we play as is immortal.

Everyone else! Realise! Give your enemies something to live and die for!

20 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Wisq says:

    Looks like some of the article images are links to your admin interface, and are causing an HTTP authentication popup. (I was concerned it might be third party ad phishing at first, but thankfully not.)

    • Imperialist says:

      I liked the first game alot, despite its hilariously nonsensical fan-fiction storyline.
      I really rather like the second game too, despite the fact that it is essentially about superheroes fighting a shadow super war with Sauron, who has seemingly genetically engineered his Orcs to be on par with said superheroes, and then loses this ability when its time to invade Middle Earth later in the timeline. Its some pretty silly drivel that im sure is making Tolkien roll around in his grave. But the gameplay is excellent of course, with many more options to wage your super-war than before, not to mention they didnt needlessly strip you of the abilities it took the entire first game’s story to acquire. The Orcs are great, and some of the events are pretty random and surprising. More than once id been downed, awaiting revenge after a respawn, only to have an ally come out of nowhere to disembowel the Orc that was about to kill me. Good stuff.
      *whoops, wasnt meant to be a reply, but that aformentioned admin thing threw me off.

  2. Dominic Tarason says:

    I was playing the game most of yesterday, and I’ve already had an amazing story to tell.

    While goofing off very early on I died to a completely ordinary Orc grunt. He was just called Tarz, and he couldn’t believe his luck. Standing over my corpse, he was pacing back and forth coming up with possible nicknames for himself. He eventually settled on Tarz the Tark-Slayer.

    After several run-ins with Tarz, who was now genuinely dangerous, I eventually managed to corner him by himself and whittle him down to size. I got him on his knees and he taunted me one last time that if a lowly grunt like him could kill me, what chance would I have with anything else? I bisected him for his sass.

    Several hours later, I meet Tarz again. He says he’s a bit upset with being cut in two. He’s looking a bit different, on account of all the cyborg bits they’ve bolted onto him to hold his bits together. He is now known as Tarz The Machine, and he has vowed that ONLY he is allowed to kill me. I end up running.

    Hours later again, I get into an enormous fight somehow with SIX TROLLS, and they are kicking my arse all over the place. I’m down. I’m about to die. And then in come Tarz to save me because ONLY HE is allowed to kill me.

    This fight goes on about five more minutes, with the trolls frequently beating me up, and Tarz getting me back on my feet. With enemies like this, who needs friends?

    Eventually, I score a few lucky shots and kill Tarz with a headshot, and immediately regret it. With nobody to save me, one of the trolls kills me, earning himself a name, and a title; The Gluttonous. Apparently the promotion to captain comes with access to an all-you-can-eat buffet.

    I wonder if I’ll ever see Tarz again – I hope I didn’t hit anything too major in his skull.

    • Saarlaender39 says:

      This is one of the best stories I’ve ever read here!
      Thanks for sharing.
      :)

    • Ghostwise says:

      He’s looking a bit different, on account of all the cyborg bits they’ve bolted onto him to hold his bits together.

      In our technical jargon as expert specialists, we refer to these as a “cyborc”.

    • Minglefingler says:

      That’s a pretty cool story. I’m enjoying the game despite some weird UI issues such as if I turn off objective markers the game turns off enemy awareness indicators and counter prompts even though they’re all separate options and if I turn off the hud quest objectives I have no way of knowing what I have to do in quests where you have to kill enemies in specific ways, it’s not in the quest log or on the loading screen.
      I had one maggoty orc come back to life three times, he also had the lovely trait of needing a QTE to kill when he was at low health. Which of course I repeatedly fumbled due to how badly I wanted him dead because of his constant resurrections, at which point he’d run and quickly vanish. The tosser managed to get away from me in this manner twice I think so I hated the sight of him and despised the sound of his voice. He’s properly dead now and I miss the little prick.

  3. Blastaz says:

    One thing I haven’t really seen mentioned much is how good the traversal feels.

    It still gets the fidly bits wrong, and you can get stuck manoeuvring a Caragor, but with the double jump, the super hero landing, the elf speed, the super fast climbing and the floating archery it can be a joy to bounce up and down. If you start getting creative with your fighting and add real verticality to the battlefield it’s awesome. You can climb a cathedral in about three bounds and then slow mow float down nailing nine orcs in the head as you do.

  4. Morcane says:

    What’s even better is when you setup this nice infiltration, and the Orc fuckers betray you. I’ve also seen the same Orc coming back 3 times to kill me and he became this unkillable fortress on his own.

    Aside from the outrage about the loot boxes and the fact this might not all be really LOTRO’ey story wise, they really nailed the epic feel behind this game. It’s dark; you really have to embrace your inner sadist.

    I’d love to see this kind of system appearing in other games.

  5. Horg says:

    I like that SoW has defeated orcs return for revenge against the player. The major flaw with SoM’s nemesis system was, that if you had played the Arkham games, combat was immediately intuitive and you didn’t die. Therefore, no nemesis. I’ve just started my first SoM playthrough this week and captains are dropping like flies. At some point i’m going to have to feed myself to the orcs to get some replacements powered up, and that feels….awkward.

  6. sagredo1632 says:

    Seems like this kind of system would have been a great fit for XCOM. Instead of pre-fab alien bosses, you could have sectoids being promoted to commanders, or significant variants being promoted to boss-level nuisances after they spoil a mission or off a beloved colonel named after your family/friends/pets. It would be a nice “reward” for failure that would help offset the urge to save scum away losses.

    • icarussc says:

      Yes, that is exactly what I thought!

    • cpt_freakout says:

      Yeah, this mechanic would be grand on many games, starting with XCOM. You can already establish those kinds of relationships in Grand Strategies and 4X games, but it would be great to see them too in smaller scale tactical and strategy games. Sims like Prey could use them to great effect, too. At first I wondered if the Nightmare that hunted me a second time was the one I killed first, but then realized it was just another spawn like Phantoms with no name and stuff. It would’ve been great to fight this same monster that wants you dead so much it’ll come back however many times necessary to kill you.

    • Herring says:

      They specifically named the Nemesis system as one of the inspirations for the Chosen in WOTC.

      It (kind of) works for them as they’re not trying to kill you AND they’re effectively immortal. They can capture your troops and torture them for information so you can develop you’re own little storylines with them.

      For the grunts it’d be harder as either they’re never left alive OR you’ve failed the mission (with a few exceptions). It’d be cool if they did it though.

  7. Chentzilla says:

    >Try again, kill what killed you last time, carry on.
    Looks like revenge to me.

  8. eljueta says:

    What Shadow of War made me do was reinstall Shadow of Mordor as it seems it is basically the same game. I never finished the first one because I got to the end of black Mordor and entered green Mordor and I really didn’t want to do everything all over again. But gave it a one or two year pause and now I think I can take it to the end. Not sure I’ll get SoW to do it a 3rd time though.

  9. Premium User Badge

    GornValim says:

    I misread the article at first and thought that you had encountered Narûg Lucky-Shot in the first game, and he was getting back into the sequel to get his revenge. Now, that would be some reheated dish !

    • Captain Narol says:

      If I remember well, they offered the possibility to import one nemesis from the first game, so that would have been possible.

  10. SP1041TKE says:

    I got killed by an orc named Dush (pronounced douche). He chanted his name at me so as I died it was “Douche, douche, douuuuuuuche!” I love this game.

  11. amit797 says:

    >Try again, kill what killed you last time, carry on.
    Looks like revenge to me. let see
    link to ultimate-tech-news.com

  12. Carcer says:

    Just noting that Bland Talion’s murdered relatives, unless he’s somehow managed to gain some more between the games, are only 50% female. The distribution skews 2/3rds male if you include everyone whose death he is upset about, given that he is also avenging his *own* murder.