Shadow of Mordor is one of the best open world action game we’ve seen in recent years. Although fluid combat mechanics, smart navigation, and a canon-bending narrative each have their part to play in this, the game’s Nemesis system is the real star of the show.
Scattered throughout Mordor are dozens of roving Uruk warbands. Much like in Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy, they’re a savage, brutish folk who lust only for power and the taste of man-flesh. However, in Shadow of Mordor, these Uruks aren’t just cannon fodder for Talion to hack and slash his way through. They are, dare I say, sophisticated to an extent, ascribing to hierarchy that only recognises strength and fearlessness. This social structure is woven into the game’s open world feature set, ultimately setting Shadow of Mordor apart from its contemporaries.
As players explore beyond the Black Gate, the Uruk captains and warchiefs roam freely, interacting with their surroundings as well as each other. These events range from hunting and feasting to internal power struggles, some of which are resolved through duels and even executions. Whenever an Uruk succeeds in one of these events, they gain Power, allowing them to climb the ranks and amass bodyguards.
Naturally, players will occasionally stumble into these AI simulations either randomly or through a mission marker. Although you can bypass them entirely, it’s hard to resist diving into these bite size chunks of gameplay, given their effect on the Uruk hierarchy. Stumbling upon an execution, for instance, gives you a variety of options. You can either let the weaker warchief die or step in and kill his would-be executioner or just slay them both.
Dead captains and warchiefs are effectively taken off the board, though more Uruk underlings eventually take their place to keep the wheels turning. Things won’t always go to plan, however. Even if you’re a veteran of the Arkham-style combat system, it can be easy to get overwhelmed, but falling in combat gives the Nemesis system yet another angle, granting your killer a promotion whether they were already a captain or just a regular grunt. Meanwhile, as Talion recovers, the game’s numerous AI simulations play out with Uruks moving up and down the food chain. Needless to say, tracking down captains who profit from your death is easily one of the most satisfying occurrences to be found in-game.
This is enhanced through an adaptive combat and dialogue system. When confronting an opponent for the second time, they will remember having already killed you, sparking a number of responses. The way they compose themselves in battle will also change too, becoming immune to tactics you may have employed the first time around.
Though a fairly ugly bunch, it’s great to see just how many Uruk variants there are. Skin hues, body builds, names, weapons, and other cosmetic elements appear to be completely randomised, meaning two captains are rarely ever the same. Having torn through some 30-40 captains, there was only one I recognised, and with good reason. With a metal plate covering one eye, the wounded warchief was actually an Uruk I had struck down hours ago, that had returned to the field of battle once more.
Though there is definitely some room for improvement, Monolith’s first version of the Nemesis system is stellar, providing a sub-layer of gameplay that just keeps on giving. Several hours after seeing the credits roll, I’m still in Mordor, hunting down the Uruk-Hai; killing them, confusing them, and pitting one against the other. It’s great fun and hopefully we’ll see similar features making their way into other games further down the line.