The Unchained Chaos Of Middle-earth: Shadow Of War

by Brian Shea on Sep 22, 2017 at 02:00 PM

The Nemesis system was instrumental in providing a unique experience in Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. The ability to build antagonistic bonds with enemies over the course of a playthrough, all while seeing them rewarded for killing you, delivered surprises and thrills on a regular basis. The upgraded Nemesis system in Middle-earth: Shadow of War hopes to offer even more exciting and memorable moments by not only implementing more variables into the equation, but also embracing the chaos. It does so by giving you fortress assaults that apply so many elements simultaneously that they're practically begging disorder to descend upon the player. I recently had a chance to witness the chaos firsthand during a hands-on session with the game.

As I approach the fortress in Gorgoroth, the magma-filled region of Mordor, I feel confident in my chances of success. I've done my homework in building up my army; I've established a strong front of orc allies to battle by my side as we storm the fortress, but I've also installed four spies within the walls of the fort to launch an unexpected attack from behind the enemy's back once the siege commences.

The assault begins and things start as well as expected. My wrecking crew of orcs is smashing through the defenses and distracting the defenders so Talion can flank them alongside the moles that infiltrated the base in the hours leading up to the charge. I lead Talion to the first capture point where I'm overwhelmed by not only high-level ologs and uruks, but also fire-breathing drakes, archers, and even a few caragors.

Rather than run, I trust in my team. I continue my progress of fighting through the horde, dismantling the defending overlord's troops one-by-one. However, one uruk with legendary skills and a higher level than me gets the better of me. Normally you have a chance to revive yourself by completing a timing-based button-press, but to my dismay, the uruk's execution has a "no chance" modifier, which negates the ability. I prepare to get cut down and gloated at in my final moments, but at the last second, one of my allies leaps to my side and decapitates my assailant, saving Talion's life and the fortress assault in the process.

The remainder of the fort assault carried on in this manner, delivering a rollercoaster's worth of highs and lows. This chunk of gameplay truly showcased the chaos that comes from the procedural elements at play in the upgraded Nemesis system. When so many disparate elements come together in one scenario, it can create a high level of chaos, something the team isn't shying away from.

Vice president of creative Mike de Plater says these scenarios are to be expected with how many elements are at play. "If you see a fort assault where we've got multiple drakes and catapults and all the captains and they've got their bodyguards and other orcs...we certainly try to think about that at various times, but basically because of how things work and almost anything can coexist with anything else at the same time with hundreds of guys, we can't [restrict it]," he says. "It's just stupid [laughs]."

De Plater says that this allows players to head into situations in different ways, meaning that even more variables are at play. "I think the general principle that we have that's fairly specific to us is just how much we embrace everything being available on any mission you go into," he says. "The spectrum of possible skills you can have is so enormous, and you can bring in followers and you can bring in creatures and things can be set on fire, so we give a lot of autonomy to the player to choose how to approach things."

According to Chris Hoge, lead designer of systems at Monolith, the team doesn't neuter the Nemesis system and its procedural elements, instead preferring to keep the more hectic moments in the game. "With diverse elements, we don't really limit that," Hoge says. "Some of the elements you can't predict, and that's okay. Therefore, their novel nature is, 'Isn't that cool? This weird thing happened!' And they're not going to happen too often, but we like unusual things happening every once in a while."

We witnessed an example of this firsthand in one of our playthroughs. Our fortress assault was going reasonably well until we killed an orc who happened to be a blood brother of one of our high-level allies. The ally saw this happen and immediately turned on Talion, honoring the oath he made to avenge his blood brother. From there, our assault went from manageable to downright hellacious as one of Talion's most powerful friends fell into an all-out rage against him mid-assault.

Despite the high number of procedural elements at play, the situations presented by the Nemesis system feel handcrafted. Hoge attributes this to curation done by Monolith. In addition to removing the boring and bad scenarios that might happen, the team also handcrafts various stories they want to happen within the procedural generation. "We take the best situations, like what if a guy betrays you because he feels like he's gotten too powerful? So we find the specific story that we think will be excellent," Hoge says. "So now, here's an orc who has grown to such a high level that he can't get any higher because of your own limitation. Then we say, 'Let's identify this moment. We found an orc who's a candidate and he's perfect for this. Now he's going to ambush you.' So he shows up and he gives that line: 'I can't follow you anymore! You're holding me back!' Of course, that shouldn't happen much, but if it does happen, it now feels highly crafted."

Because of this, the level of intentionality in how the procedural elements are presented is evident throughout the game. "People often think of procedural generation as sticking things together, but we've taken bits of glory and thrown them in as highlights as opposed to kind of making things work en masse," Hoge says. "It only works if the game is fun. So here you are enjoying combat, exploring the world, doing missions, then all of a sudden... 'Wow! That's really interesting! This really unusual thing happened to me!' We have a lot of those kinds of stories."

Those kinds of stories are why people enjoyed the gameplay loop of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor so much. With such a wide array of improvements coming with the second version of the Nemesis system, Shadow of War looks to improve over its predecessor in myriad ways to create these watercooler moments that are unique to each player.

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