Shadow of Mordor's Nemesis system is amazing--here's how it works

Thrak Pot-Licker. That stupid, ugly, idiotic idiot orc must die. Why? Because he's killed me three times in a row--and I'm a sore loser. Thing is, Thrak's not some pre-made bad guy in Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor. You'll never encounter him when you play the game yourself because he's a villain of my own making. Not so long ago he was just a regular grunt whose name inspired no fear or burning desire for revenge. He was one orc in an army of thousands of orcs, and he just happened to land the killing blow on me once I got a little… overconfident in my abilities. Because of that, he was promoted--at which point I, and all his orc friends, came to know his name. 

This is all thanks to Shadow of Mordor's 'Nemesis' system, a genuinely refreshing feature that gives any run-of-the-mill enemy a shot at super-villain status. But there's much more at play here than bad guys simply getting promoted and becoming sub-bosses. Orc society, as it turns out, is built on the unstable foundation of backstabbing, manipulation, and in-fighting, all of which is present in Sauron's Army (the in-game name for the Nemesis system). You won't be the only one fighting these powerful orcs--they'll also challenge each other to a duel to the death in hope of rising through the ranks. And every time one of these powerful orcs dies, a new one steps up to fill the vacant spot. Meaning: you'll always have your hands full. So how does it all work?

Any orc enemy in the game--whether it wields a crossbow, spear and shield, an axe, whatever--has a chance to become a named villain within Sauron's Army. And once they've done so, they can move up through the ranks to become more powerful. Think of the Nemesis system as a sort of chess board. When you open its menu in-game, you get a top-down view of who the biggest, baddest orcs are. Newer recruits are like pawns; they're super weak. But once an orc reaches Captain status--or becomes a War Chief, the queens in this particular game of chess--it gains all sorts of benefits that make it harder to kill (more on that later). 

OK, how does an orc become a member of Sauron's Army? Just ask my pal Thrak Pot-Licker. All the bastard did was strike me down. See, because Talion (you) is linked to a wraith, he can never really die. So when you're defeated in combat, whichever orc landed the killing blow is rewarded for its efforts with a promotion. Orcs you've never seen will also join the army as spots are made vacant from in-fighting. Alternatively, you may light an orc on fire just for fun, or shoot one with a few arrows as it flees and decide it's not worth pursuing. These, too, may get promoted merely for surviving the encounter--and they'll retain all the burn / arrow scars you left 'em, as evidenced by a powerful War Chief in my particular demo: Humgrat the Unkillable, a horribly disfigured orc who is deathly afraid of fire. Not a joke--it's his primary weakness.

The cool thing is, he's afraid of it (and also disfigured) because I set him on fire the first time I met him. Rude, yes, but it's awesome that that encounter developed his character, both physically and mentally. In fact, every orc in Sauron's Army has a few weaknesses (vulnerability to stealth attacks, arrows to the head, etc.) and strengths (usually in the form of bodyguards or immunity to certain types of attacks). As I unfortunately learned during my third encounter with Thrak Pot-Licker, some even have hate triggers that--when activated--make them more powerful. Thrak, for example, hates losing a fight, so any time I whittle his health down to a certain threshold, the asshat enrages, gaining additional attack power and regenerating some HP. 

However, you don't automatically get to know every orc's strengths and weaknesses. The only way to learn these traits is by gathering intel. There's always the guns-blazing method of facing an orc leader in a battle to the death and figuring out how best to kill it on-the-fly. But these battles are hard:knowing how to defeat an enemy is almost a necessity. An easier way to obtain that info is to hunt down a lowly orc in Sauron's Army and use your badass wraith abilities to enter its mind and gather intel on one of the higher-ups that orc knows. A pretty neat tactic, but intel-gathering merely scratches the surface of the cool things you can do with wraith magic.

Which brings me to one of the late-game objectives of the whole Nemesis system: turning your enemies against one another. Late in the game, you'll gain the ability to brand orcs--meaning, you influence them with your wraith skillz so hard that they permanently join your team. As you start branding lowly orcs (who are far more susceptible to it than the more powerful leaders)  in Sauron's Army, they become moles that do your bidding. From there, you can command them to supplant leaders through betrayal. Or, you can have orcs under your command join you in a fight to even the odds against a particularly challenging enemy--an enemy like Thrak Pot-Licker, whose head I finally removed with my sword once a couple of dozen branded orcs helped me take out his mini-army. 

Shadow of Mordor's Nemesis system is truly exciting; Thrak was only one of the self-made villains I encountered, many of whom--not all, but most--were created because of something I had done. The result? Shadow of Mordor's villains aren't hit-or-miss characters that are forced upon you. More often than not, they're the embodiment of memorable encounters; facing them down almost always feels personal.  


  • Timstertimster - September 2, 2014 1:02 p.m.

    Holy gob-smacking shite, I had no idea that finally some devs are again actually innovating. I had no intention of buyin thi game but this article changed my mind. If the final product bears even just a sliver of semblance of this truly immersive sounding system, I will be buying the full retail priced copy, if for no other reason than to reward game devs who actually do something new and interesting and immersive. Now hopefully it's all as cool as it sounds and if it is, I hope it becomes a sleeper hit the way Skyrim did in 2011. I'm desperate to find new gameplay. More immersive and responsive and persistent environments and characters. That's what next gen is about for me: taking advantage of so much more than the GPU. I'm looking forward to games with deep AI or whatever you wanna call it.
  • Cruddi - August 31, 2014 2:04 p.m.

    My only worries are... how long will the game be and how big is the map? I have this preordered so i will be getting it but I am worried it will be short
  • winner2 - August 30, 2014 3:46 p.m.

    This sounds better and better with every preview.
  • Sjoeki - August 30, 2014 6:47 a.m.

    This sounds amazing! How many of those orcs can be out there, roaming the fields, working with or against you? Did you name thrak pot-licker or is that random? Pretty excited about this game.
  • GR_RyanTaljonick - August 30, 2014 7:49 a.m.

    You don't name them - they're named randomly. Sometimes their names even coincide with how they got promoted.
  • AngelsandDemons1 - August 30, 2014 5:13 a.m.

    When I started reading this, it seemed intriguing. But, by the time I got to the end, it seemed like this feature will only be interesting if its mastery is needed to defeat the game; otherwise, if you can just slash your way through everything like Assassin's Creed games, you may eventually ignore the Nemesis system.
  • somedude - August 30, 2014 3:14 p.m.

    Don't worry, developers will "realize" that players don't pay too much attention to it, and integrate the nemesis system more deep in the core for the sequel: Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor 2 - Nemesis
  • GOD - August 29, 2014 11:34 p.m.

    1. Sounds interesting. Even if it fails to deliver, I applaud the persistence that they are trying to innovate. 2. I though there were only the ring wraiths that were the previous kings under Sauron. So how did he get to not only be a wraith with it's immortal benefits, but also be one and have his free will remain?
  • dexter-rei-maynard - August 30, 2014 3:28 a.m.

    The RingWraiths or Nazgul are the men that were cursed by the rings of Power. There are other wraiths like the Dead Men that fight for Aragorn in Return of the King. Talion's wraith is Celebrimbor, the elven smith that created some of the rings(i think he made the ones that the elven leaders have). He isn't a ring wraith, but a different wraith connected to Sauron
  • GR_RyanTaljonick - August 30, 2014 7:49 a.m.

  • AgentSmith2518 - August 29, 2014 2:51 p.m.

    This is good to hear, I'm really looking forward to this game, and hoping this system or something like it starts getting used more often. Too many games these days have write-off bosses or bosses you don't get to see enough of. It's nice to know that now you'll get to see some folks over and over again.

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