It was the surprise of E3 2014. While I had heard some bits and pieces about Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, and had glanced over my Game Informer issue about the game ahead of the conference, I wasn’t prepared. For the first time in six years of attending, I actually lost track of time while playing a game at E3, making me late to my next appointment (sorry Capcom).
What was so engrossing? The Nemesis System, or at least one small part of it. In the game, your character, Talion, who happens to be possessed by/merged with a wraith, has the ability to forcefully take information from his enemies – directly from their minds. He can also conscript them into his service, helping him take down the Orc army from within. There’s intrigue, nearly infinite variables in how to play, and a much deeper relationship between player and enemy than seen in most video games.
That relationship was the focus of Director of Design Michael de Plater, who told us more about the Nemesis System, what makes it so special, and why it was an important part of capturing the feel of the Lord of the Rings franchise in this new game.
Newsarama: Hey Michael. The Nemesis System in Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is described as the “first true relationship between player and enemy.” Why is that an important thing to establish? What were the main goals behind making that relationship a reality?
Michael de Plater: Your enemies represent your most frequent and significant interactions in most action games, but they generally hadn't evolved much beyond waves of cannon fodder. So we thought this was an exciting opportunity to try and move the genre forward and do something new. The key goal was to put the player at the center of the experience, that meant we had to find the emotional triggers that can make you remember an encounter and "love to hate" your own personal Nemesis.
Revenge was an obvious place to start, but also playtesting kept showing us the other memorable moments that players would react to, from epic hunts and chases across Mordor, to giving enemies fears and hates to having an enemy just walk away. Then the key was bringing personality to every aspect of the Uruks, from the writing to the animation to the art. Finally ensuring that all the presentation and the gameplay supported each other, balancing the challenge of the enemies is very important to making you care and building towards the moment of ultimate satisfaction when you finally take down your own unique arch-enemy.
Nrama: As it’s been a little unclear so far – how integrated are the quests in the Nemesis system? Is it that some are part of the main story, but others are side quests (which can affect the main story)? How necessary is it for the player to go through and take over as much of the enemy army as possible?
Plater: There are key milestones in the story which you move forward by interacting with the Nemesis System. Early in the game you need to assassinate the Warchiefs of Udun in order to draw out the Black Captains. Later in the game you need to use Domination to build your personal army and take the fight to the Dark Lord. In each case, the Warchiefs you face and ultimately lead will be unique to your playthrough.
Nrama: The idea of adapting to play styles is something several games have tried. What’s the process of making sure the game not only plays well for the stealthy player and the “run in and create havoc” player, but also makes the adaptations to continue to challenge each of them?
Plater: There are a number of key things involved in balancing play styles and opportunities. Firstly we have a very dynamic environment, where it's possible to rapidly shift between styles on the fly, so getting detected in stealth and triggering combat isn't a fail state or a punishment. You can stand and fight or try to return to stealth. Secondly there's balancing and the way we handle death. One does not simply walk into Mordor, but when you die, time moves forward and the world evolves giving you fresh choices and opportunities.
Finally, we let players control difficulty within the game itself rather than just via menu options. If you want an insane challenge you can go after a Warchief and his bodyguards directly for an epic battle against multiple bosses simultaneously. And if it's too hard you can interrogate some worms, learn his weaknesses and fears, take down his bodyguards first or even turn them against him and then finish him off much more easily.
Nrama: What’s something in this system that’s brand-new, that you think gamers are going to be very surprised by?
Plater: From what we've heard, each time playtesters have got to experience the game, is that the Nemesis System is a surprise. It doesn't matter if they've seen videos or read interviews like this one, it's all about getting to play it and having their own unique personal experience and memorable moments.
Nrama: What’s something in this system that people have seen something similar before, but you have tweaked, and how did you?
Plater: What’s been fun about seeing people's reaction to the Nemesis System is that they think it sounds complex, and in some ways it is, but when they start playing it just feels natural. I think this is because it's delivered through the personality and reactions of the Uruks. Perhaps the most similar system and inspiration is from Sports games where players have unique stats and profiles and can build up a unique "story" over the course of a season.
Nrama: What about this uniquely fits the Lord of the Rings mythos? Why try it here instead of any other franchise?
Plater: We are enormous fans of Middle-earth and The Lord of the Rings was a key inspiration for the Nemesis System. In particular, from the way that the Orcs tear each other apart in Cirith Ungol when they start fighting over Frodo's mithril shirt. And also the way some "hero" Orcs stand out from the rank and file such as Lurtz and his epic one on one fight against Aragorn, Gothmog announcing "the age of men is over, the time of the Orc has come" and Azog’s bitter personal feud against Thorin in the Hobbit. They are so iconic, memorable and extreme.
Nrama: While games are certainly looking prettier on the new consoles, it seems like developers are having more fun expanding the games themselves – whether it’s having thousands of individually reacting AI like in Assassin’s Creed Unity on screen at once, or having offensive linemen that are actively taking in hundreds of small moments and using them to make decisions every down – what specifically were you able to do here with the new technology?
Plater: That reference to Sports AI and the concept of NPCs remembering and reacting more intelligently has a lot in common with us. The new technology has let us make smarter and more adaptive enemies, but that needs to be applied to more than just make them harder, we've tried to apply it to make them more personal and evoking more emotion from players.
Nrama: Spinning off of that, when first starting this game for new consoles, how open was everything to you as far as trying new things?
Plater: it was more than just open to us, it was a key goal to try and innovate and bring something new.
Nrama: Any specific part of Shadow of Mordor or the Nemesis System that you’re really excited for gamers to get their hands on?
Plater: We're really looking forward to reading and seeing players’ personal and unique stories. I'm really looking forward to my own pre-order turning up and getting to crack open the box, slip in the disc and watch my Trophies rack up at home.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor hits PS4, Xbox One, and PC on September 30, 2014; PS3 and Xbox 360 on November 18, 2014