Saturday, December 20, 2014

#79: Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor: Knowing Thy Nemesis (System)

Often, I find myself taking a more critical look at games than I otherwise intend to when writing these articles. Typically, my mind tends to focus on what could have been improved, identifying positive aspects only in passing. In the spirit of the holidays, and in light of what I have been playing recently, I feel it is time to invert this. My topic for this week, Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, has much valid criticism that can be levied towards it. However, there is a lot of good that is worth discussing.

In particular, the Nemesis System has a lot of potential for improvement and reiteration. As one might expect from a game with “Middle-Earth” in the title, Shadow of Mordor takes place in the same world as Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series. Because of this, the game's enemies consist almost entirely of Sauron's Orc Army, including the Captains and Warchiefs. What is interesting about the Nemesis System is that it allows this army to change overtime in a more systematic nature than other video games have been able to do in the past.
Basically, every Captain or Warchief has a Power Rating and a list of combat traits. These traits can consists of strengths, such as bonus attack power or invulnerability to ranged attacks, and weaknesses, like instant death from stealth attacks or a fear of other creatures in the game world. Overtime, by performing feats and gaining recognition for other orcs, these leaders can increase in power. As they do, they will start to lose weaknesses and gain strengths. It is even possible for them to duel other bosses for promotions. Forcing the player to run away, or killing them (the protagonist is immortal, so he will just respawn) will also result in an increase in power. Further, the enemy leader in question will remember any confrontations players have had with them and comment on them in future encounters. Players can also sabotage a commander's attempt to gain power by completing optional side missions.

The most obvious positive of this mechanic is that it allows for storytelling born purely of the system itself, in an emergent manner. Out of all of my friends that also played Shadows of Mordor, many of them can recount the tales of their struggle against one or two particularly powerful orcs, which they know by name. Though my particular example's name has been forever lost, I can distinctly recall my struggles against a powerful orc captain and his poisoned weapon, with increased physical attack power. The more he killed me, the stronger he grew, eventually gaining immunity to both ranger attacks and close-quarters finishing moves.
Each time I fought him, he would mock me for my continuous losses against him and his forces. Eventually, these victories against me gained him the rank of warchief, and two loyal bodyguards. After my seventh attempt, I finally caught him by surprise, diving from my perch, shoving my dagger into his backside. A tense ten minute exchange of hit-and-run tactics eventually turned in my favor, as my final ambush resulted in his stinking head being ripped straight off of his cold, lifeless corpse. It is worth noting that this exchange between myself and the now nameless warchief was not part of the main campaign at all. This was entirely driven by the systems at work, created by my interactions with the game on the fly. Many other such stories were created with this system, and each of them were unique to the player involved.

Another advantage to this system is that it requires very little in terms of explanation. Though the game does tutorialize it during the main campaign, my experience with the game, and those of many others, demonstrates how unnecessary it was. Generally, most of us were already spending so much time fighting captains and warchiefs that we had already figured out the nuances of it before the point in the story where we were supposed to learn. Simply by interacting with the systems, we found that it was fairly easy to understand how these mechanics worked together and how we could interact with them. This is not to say that the tutorials should not exist, as obviously some gamers might take more time and/or teaching to understand what is going on. I am merely stating that the simplicity of the system itself makes achieving said understanding a less arduous task.

The last effect of the Nemesis System, and the most interesting in my opinion, is the ability it gives the player to manipulate and control, both directly and indirectly, the enemies they fight. Through the choices of which side missions to complete, leaders to go after, and how they approach encounters, the flow of power in Sauron's army will be altered. As a result, the player's actions shape what kind of forces they go against. Continuous failures (or inaction) and deaths will result in stronger enemy forces in the area. Conversely, taking out enemy captains and/or stopping them from gaining power will keep them weak and easy to kill. Worth mentioning is that there is no, “You chose X, so Y happened as a result,” like we find in many RPGs. Rather than doing this through some binary choice, is it done in a systematic manner. No one decision will have a dramatic effect, but the player's attitude towards completing objectives will affect how many opportunities the opposition has to grow, giving them indirect control over these leaders.
However, this is not the only way players can assert their influence over their foes. Very late in the game's main story, the protagonist gains the power to “Brand” orcs, giving him control over their thoughts and actions. When they are weakened or scared, it is even possible to do this to the captains and warchiefs in the army. In this way, players can insert spies and double agents into Sauron's army to gain control of portions of it. There is much potential to be had through this mechanic. For example, if a particular warchief is causing trouble, it is possible to brand one of their bodyguards, or get another one of the player's already-controlled captains into that position. When the time comes to strike, these “bodyguards” can be ordered to turn on their own commander, granting the player an extra advantage they may not otherwise have been given.
The addition of Branding also affects the flow of power. Since players do have a hand at indirectly influencing the flow of power, they can use this influence to funnel more of the power to the captains and warchiefs currently under their control. At the same time, they can starve the forces they want to take over or eliminate, by helping their allies get stronger. Instead of participating in side-missions, hoping to prevent the captain's success, they will be assisting him in completing his objective. Much like in Assassin's Creed: Rogue, this is a very interesting inversion of mechanics.

With this Nemesis System in place, Shadow of Mordor shows the power of systematizing elements in the game to give players their own opportunities to affect the game world. Though the game itself suffers from really bad writing, the mechanics are solid. I earnestly feel that given a different lore to work with, and more solid mission design and writing, these systems show great potential. Though fairly simple, I foresee a lot that could be done with this core.

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