After all the leak shenanigans, the build up to Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is underway. A big gameplay demonstration dropped on the game’s official YouTube hub this week. It looks incredible; it really does. Fire seems to be a big deal this time around, because it is everywhere in that video. The environment is ablaze, weapons are covered in flames, it’s just all over the place. If this and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild are any indication, fire is the new way to show off your tech. Anyway, the Nemesis System is back and bigger, with new functions such as betrayal, demonstrated when an enemy orc’s henchman turns on him in the middle of a skirmish.
The Nemesis System is cool. It’s a great tool that makes each player’s game feel unique and personal, even if it boils down to algorithms and procedurally-generated text. It made Shadow of Mordor what it is, and it will make Shadow of War what it is. Nobody else does this thing that these games do, which sets them apart from the competition. But wait, does nobody else do the Nemesis System? The AAA video game space is all about each new game taking elements from everything before it. Shadow of Mordor itself is a mix between Assassin’s Creed and Batman: Arkham City. It’s all the same little bits and pieces of what have come to be AAA gaming, plus all the Nemesis stuff.
I wonder why I haven’t seen this copied yet, and it could be that it’s such a specific kind of system. Nemesis is large and somewhat complex, but it also is the core of these games, what everything is sort of built around. Maybe that’s why other developers haven’t jumped on creating derivatives yet. That’s the simple answer, but there’s something else to consider. The news cycle, the hype train of a new release, often has a shelf-life. Most super popular games stick around, floating in the mindshare, perhaps through merchandise or people continuing to break the game, finding hidden secrets or alternative ways to play.
Another factor is one of the most enduring aspects of any form of media, the most effective way to draw a human into a creative work: storytelling. Shadow of Mordor is not a source of good storytelling. It leans hard on its Lord of the Rings license to capture the look and feel of the characters and world. But what’s the story? Revenge. It’s all about a sad dude who’s sad because the bad guy murdered his family and he wants revenge. There’s also a ghost more or less possessing the man, which could be interesting, but really just exists to explain the mechanics and add a bunch of lore gobbledygook to the proceedings.
Lore is not a substitute for telling a story, it’s just a bunch of pronouns and jargon (poorly) masking a very basic, boilerplate story about a man wanting revenge for his dead family members, a setup nobody really cares about anymore. I feel like Shadow of Mordor's banal narrative exploits are to blame for it not being where it could be. It was a popular, well-received game. Shadow of War has the same kind of buzz and anticipation one would expect of a AAA game, but what else? What’s separating Shadow of Mordor from Ubisoft's non-Assassin’s Creed games? Will we be talking about it six months after it comes out? We didn’t with Shadow of Mordor. It’s just another game that shows up on Bundle Stars all the time.
Cool technical gimmicks alone don’t sell an experience in the long term. A game needs broad appeal, whether it’s some sort of longstanding multiplayer component like Call of Duty offers or excellent storytelling. The Last of Us is an all-timer, a game that will always be front and center in discussions. Did it play remarkably well? Not really, but it had an incredible story, one that continues to hang over people’s heads as we approach the sequel several years later.
The Nemesis System is a great hook. It got people talking about how cool it was to play Shadow of Mordor. It made the game a success and a valuable brand. But it won’t ever sit on the same pedestal as many of its peers, because it was ultimately an incredibly boring experience when it relied on that system to stay compelling over several hours of dull, lore-drenched plot. Shadow of War could be much more, but all I see so far is the same characters and the same situations with a bit more mechanical nuance. As fun as this game could be, I couldn’t stay engaged enough in the previous game to finish it. I can’t recall any details of the original's story. It’s the most “flash in the pan” style game on my shelf. It could have been better, and Shadow of War is an opportunity to make that happen. But if I still don’t care about why I’m participating in the Nemesis System, I’ll run out of steam much faster this time.