Shadow of War will incorporate the Nemesis System on a whole new level
“Astronomical number. Zillions.”
That’s Bob Roberts there, Lead Designer at Monolith telling us how many different orcs there are in Middle-Earth: Shadow of War. Not only does that answer our question, as you find, dominate and convert any of the zillion orcs to fight alongside you in a growing army, but it means God Is A Geek can also use the classic dramatic-out-of-context-quote to open this preview with.
Thank you Bob. A true gentleman and a scholar in this day and age where they are so rare.
“There are so many different angles on it,” he continues. “Between the first name and his role and his title, if he has one, visual decoration and his class and his advanced class and his tribes and his traits and fears and hates and we’ve got all these different personalities and unique bits of dialogues… it’s just crazy.”
Having that many different orcs matters too. If you’re new to this series, Shadow of Mordor’s best gameplay trick was the Nemesis system, which allowed you to dominate enemies in combat and convert them into your foot soldiers who would follow you into battle.
It’s been expanded for the sequel, as you can now build a hulking army of nasties to fight alongside you rather than just a few stragglers reluctantly poking and prodding at enemies while you sliced the battlefield to shreds.
It’s thanks to Monolith being more familiar with the hardware that Shadow of War now has these enormous battles erupt, as your army marches onto a fortress to conquer it.
“We get these optimisations to expand the AI count, expand the diversity of characters that can be onscreen, all these the technical constraints that players don’t usually like to think about,” Bob explains. “It’s not really part of the fantasy to think about how many characters can be onscreen at the same time [laughs]. But the fact we get to blow that up is because of all these investments and optimisations and things. This is a scale we just couldn’t have dreamed of last time. The fort assaults, they’re epic battles with hundreds of enemies throughout. Last time, we just couldn’t have got to that scale of AI simultaneously with path-finding and fighting and all of that stuff.”
You have to consider the Orcs you dominate and what traits they bring to each battle, as you’ll want to match those strengths against the weaknesses of the captains inside the fort too. Will you go for stealth? Pick enemies that can crack down fortress walls? Select an army of giant spiders or a drake flying overhead, which you can even ride on yourself?
As you become more familiar with your move set and how you can carve up the battlefield, you can build an army that backs up your gameplay approach, weakening enemies and dominating them to join your ranks and making the most of their skills.
It quietly nudges the gameplay from mindless hack and slash into something that encroaches on action-RPG territory. The priority during battle becomes looking out for enemies with traits that sync up with the vision for your army which direction to hold the right analogue stick while button mashing. It’s strange how excited you’ll become when you discover a captain or chieftain that has the traits you want, as you shove other orcs and trolls out of the way to get to him.
It’s not just the traits of each creature you dominate that makes them fun either. It’s the weird lines of dialogue, the unique scars slashed across their face, the way they react to odd things in battle like orcs being on fire or drakes flying overhead. They’re bubbling hotpots of charisma, firing off one-liners that will stir you up for battle or laugh at them for how ridiculous they’re being.
This personality runs through from the minions to the boss battles, with each fortress being guarded by an overlord who has to be defeated in a small sealed-off arena within the fortress itself. The overlords are a perfect example of Shadow of War’s attempt to crank up the personality and your love/hate relationship with each enemy. One fortress siege opens with the overlord walking out to taunt us his from his lofty tower, showing off a spy he had killed and tossing the corpse down below. When finally confronting him in his throne room, he slowly rises while growling that he’ll kill our hero “a thousand times.”
It’s in those moments that it’s easy to forget these are randomly-generated enemies and not individually crafted by the Dorito-dusted hands of a developer at 2am.
“We had a bunch of full-time writers where last time, we were kind of figuring it out as we went, a bit,” Bob reveals. “We had a bunch of really cool folks contribute on contracts, writing certain orc personalities. This time, we still did that, but we had a group of dedicated in-house writers to really go at those things. They wrote tons and we recorded tons more dialogue this time. There are so many more personalities to begin with and there are also a ton of dynamic cases they can react to.
“I think that’s a really important aspect to letting your narrative with that randomly-rolled guy build naturally. Sometimes you get lucky and the stars just align, but a lot of times, it’s having enough edge cases covered that whatever you happen to do, we can react to in a way that seems narratively appropriate. It’s a crazy challenge. We see a lot of people asking ‘why aren’t more people doing the Nemesis system?’ For us, it’s like… it’s incredibly hard and expensive and challenging.”
As the Nemesis system has been expanded, this has given Monolith more tools to address an unusual problem with the game’s difficulty from Shadow of Mordor.
“There was kind of a spectrum of… some people thought Shadow of Mordor was punishingly difficult and they couldn’t get through it. And some people thought it was trivially easy, so they breezed through it. Actually, because of the Nemesis system where death is a mechanic means fun and weird stories emerge, people who died a lot had a better time [laughs].
“We got our hardest criticism from those who never died, those who were so good at the game. So we simultaneously wanted to push the hard end a lot without crushing the majority of players who actually had a pretty good time and died an appropriate amount. We put a lot of effort into tweaking the Nemesis captain’s strengths and skills and weaknesses to provide this more dynamic ramp where if you are kicking ass, things will adapt to put more and more pressure on you.
“The high end is a lot higher this time. At the same time, we also added discrete difficulty modes this time. Some players wanted to put it on Hard mode but we didn’t have a Hard more last time. We just let them go ahead and right out of the gate say I want this to be challenging. And so the people who just want to play a cinematic story and slash their way through things and switch it to Easy mode and have an easier time with it.”
Shadow of Mordor worked because the Nemesis system worked perfectly alongside the hack and slash gameplay. You could run into an army of orcs, slice through them, dominate the weaker ones and have them fight alongside you. It wasn’t particularly complicated but offered just enough depth to keep players happy.
Shadow of War goes all in on the Nemesis side of things, allowing you to tinker with your army, choose strategies to attack forts, promote captains to look after conquered fortresses, and so on. It even has an in-depth loot system to tinker around and play with. How has Monolith kept the pace high without keeping it from becoming a game of poking around menus? How does it make sure the game makes you want to poke around the menus? HOW DOES EVERYTHING WORK BOB??
“Yeah, that’s real challenging,” Bob answers, slightly afraid at the questions now being shouted rather than awkwardly mumbled. “The guiding philosophy has been adding those layers in ways that are detailed options for those who are into that, but aren’t requirements for people who want to play a fun action game and just cruise through at that level.”
“One of the things is just giving better feedback in the moment when you’re fighting, instead of having to dig through the menus for everything. But there are also softer edges. Last time we were super binary about ‘guys are immune to this thing’ or ‘dies in one shot’. One of those things is true. And now there’s a little more well, maybe he’s not entirely immune, he just takes a chunk of damage. And maybe instead of dying in one shot it makes him vulnerable for 30 seconds. So it’s more of a classic boss fight thing to use his weak point to make him more vulnerable for a while and then he’ll toughen up again. So there’s a little more swish in the spectrum that lets us be a lot gentler in certain ways.
“We added a lot more things on the other side that’s player driven. I invest in learning about this stuff and I capitalise on it. There’s also the angle of making boss battles more interesting from the aspect of them being enemies and what their skillset is and what they do. Having special moves more baked in, such as here’s the weak point after he’s done his special move, he’s stuck for a second, get behind the shield, that kind of stuff. We try to push all those dimensions at the same time. And then at that point, it’s fairly high level – so it becomes play test and iterate, play test and iterate. Just put new people in front of it constantly and watch what happens to make sure the difficulty is about right.”
And the difficulty does feel right. It’s challenging without being overbearing and it’s fun crafting your own personalised strategy as you dominate new enemies, slowly shaping your vision of a giant, enormous and smelly orc army to conquer Sauron’s forces.
It might be disappointing this isn’t called Shadow of More-dor, but in everything other aspect, Shadow of War is shaping up to be a bloody awesome sequel.