There’s a sort of mini-genre of online stories, both in professional games media and on fan forums, where people share the sagas of their rivalries with the Nemesis orcs of Shadow of Mordor and Shadow of War.
I’ve played several dozen hours of Shadow of War, and I don’t really have the complex feelings about the game’s orcs that many writers seem to have. Where they see ethical quandaries, I just see game mechanics.
And I think I have figured out the problem many people seem to be having: Shadow of War is more fun if you kind of suck at it.
How the Nemesis system works
Monolith’s Middle-Earth games differ from other open-world games by their Nemesis system. The Nemesis mechanics are featured front-and-center in all the game’s advertising, and Shadow of War’s tagline, “Nothing is forgotten,” is a reference to the Nemesis mechanic.
Here’s how it works: The game’s various regions are populated by named orcs, or captains. The orcs each have an Orcish name, like Bagga or Khrosh, modified by an adjective, describing their personality. So you might have Bagga the Beastslayer or Mozu the Brutal. The personality modifier might suggest what kind of weapons or attacks the orc will use, and it also determines what he will say when you encounter him or when he interacts with another orc.
The modifiers and personalities range from straightforward to esoteric. Most of the orcs just talk about what kinds of weapons they have, or how they’re going to kill you. But there are a handful of weird ones and some jokes. One orc is obsessed with finding out what your insides smell like. One orc is covered in infected wounds that are full of maggots. One orc is called Giggles, and he giggles. One orc is a bard who carries a lute around and sings all his lines. And one orc is Kumail Nanjiani.
Additionally, the orcs’ interactions with you are modified by your previous experiences with them. If you run away from a fight with an orc, he’ll taunt you for your cowardice the next time he meets you. He’ll resent If you have previously shamed him. Orcs level up by killing you, and they’ll remember that as well.
An orc you’ve previously defeated might come back with a hook instead the arm you lopped off. Some orcs will repeatedly come back from death, and they’ll look progressively worse for the wear after each time you kill them.
The result is — at least in theory — a game world world populated by dynamic characters whose personalities are shaped by their history with you.
But here’s the catch
The problem is that, in most cases, the orcs have to survive their encounters with you for their character to adjust or adapt, and that’s only going to happen if you’re not very good at the game.
It’s no coincidence that the most elaborate Nemesis system stories you’ll read about require the player to fail often.
The most entertaining Shadow adventure dispatch comes from PC Gamer’s Tim Clark. Clark’s beat is generally Hearthstone, but he occasionally writes about other games he’s playing, and in this case he had a legendary orc that was killing him repeatedly at an early point in the game.
Due to the orc’s expansive list of immunities, Clark’s general go-to attack strategies were failing him. Each failure made the orc more powerful, so the problem quickly started to seem insurmountable.
Clark got so frustrated that he considered completely quitting the game, before he figured out that you can instruct multiple follower captains to ambush an enemy captain. Then, he rolled in with his posse and murdered the orc that had been giving him trouble. Armed with that knowledge, I doubt Clark ever had a similar problem again.
He probably also won’t have another story this good to tell.
You don’t even have to be that good to shut down Nemesis
Clark’s experience shows that getting good enough to shut down Nemesis isn’t really even an issue of mechanical skill. A little bit of game knowledge and a little strategic thinking is generally all you need. Shadow of War has a beat-em-up combat system similar to the one in Rocksteady’s Batman games, which requires players to execute quick-time counters to enemies approaching from behind, while also avoiding, parrying or countering the enemy they’re attacking.
There’s not a lot of incentive to hone your skills with the combat system — the only aspect of this game with a high mechanical skill-cap — beyond a basic level of competence.
I checked out some videos of very high-level online fortress sieges, the most hardcore activity in the game. Most successful players rarely hack their way through these with flawless combo chains; instead they exploit weaknesses and environment features like exploding grog barrels while using a lot of ranged abilities to minimize their risk of getting caught out by some of the dangerous legendary captains. Being good at Shadow of War is a matter of careful strategic play and good situational decision making, rather than insane mechanics
That’s true for the players attacking high-level online forts. That was true for Clark when he struggled with that difficult captain in the early game before learning to create a Nemesis mission that stacked the odds in his favor.
The Nemesis system remains one of the cooler recent innovations in gaming, and an early indicator of how games might build dynamic, procedurally-generated NPC interactions moving forward. But in its current incarnation, Nemesis is makes a strong first impression and provides a unique experience for very casual players or beginning players but, because its more complex interactions are premised on players failing, it shows its limitations as you become more proficient with the game.
This is your Nemesis story if you don’t die a lot
There seem to be randomly occurring Nemesis events that cause a captain to be promoted in quality. These are rare, since the game sells the highest-tier orcs in loot boxes for cash, but they do happen. This is where my story begins.
Talion lays his hand on orcs when you dominate or shame them, and it burns a hand-shaped scar in their skin.
Khrosh was a captain I shamed, but it was apparently a transformative, character-building experience for him, apparently. He came back, upgraded to Legendary quality, with handprints painted all over his body to match the one I had burned onto his face. Though I had shamed him, he was not ashamed. When you run into Khrosh the Unashamed, he stands before you unbowed, not with shame, but with pride.
Khrosh is body-positive, despite his deformity. He’s got a healthy self-image. He will not let others define him. He is living his best life. He is Khroshing it.
And this jerkoff wants to tell you all about his positive outlook, all the time. Every time he enters the fighting pits, every time he joins a Nemesis mission, every time he does anything ... he tells you his whole stupid backstory. Khrosh works for me now, so I’ve heard his spiel a bunch of times. He’s a useful follower because he’s immune to both frost and poison, but Orc Tony Robbins is so annoying that I’ve come very close to killing him several times, just because I am sick of listening to him.
Instead, I promoted him. I made him Overlord of Nurnen, so he could hang out by himself in a keep and I wouldn’t have to put up with his self-help nonsense anymore.
But then, I screwed up and died defending the fort in a Shadow Wars battle. I hit the wrong button during a last-chance quicktime event, and I got killed by an archer named Lorm, who got promoted to Legendary and became Lorm Lucky-Shot. And Lorm really was lucky, because that kind of thing does not happen to me very often. Without me to protect the fort, Sauron conquered it, and Khrosh was taken captive.
My failure is really what makes this a story, so even if this is a good story, it still shares the fundamental problem of all Nemesis stories, which is that they require the player to fail. I am telling you this because it’s kind of funny, but I am not proud this happened.
DO YOU HEAR ME, KHROSH? I DID BAD AND I FEEL BAD BECAUSE I AM NOT A GIANT ASSHOLE.
Chastened but resolute, I mustered my surviving crew, showed Lorm the limits of his luck, and retook my fort. And then I went to rescue Khrosh, because, as annoying as he is, he’s still a legendary orc, and this game doesn’t give you very many of those for free.
When I initiated Khrosh’s rescue mission, I found him tied to a stake and telling the orc who was about to execute him how proud he was of himself.
I saved him, but he’s not the Overlord anymore. Lorm Lucky-Shot, who showed moxie on the battlefield and groveled appropriately when I subdued him, now sits the throne in Nurnen.
Be a little bit ashamed, Khrosh, you dipshit. Be a little bit ashamed.