By Neil Merrett
Middle-earth: Shadow of War, released on PS4 in 2017, developed by Monolith Productions and IUGO
From its name, down to its packaging – not to mention the use of somewhat clunky Elven poetry – Middle-earth: Shadow of War is very much a Lord of the Rings game.
It pits the moral righteousness of humanity and the slightly prettier human-like Elves, against the slobbering evil of monstrous orcs and the flaming, all seeing eye of Sauron.
Anyone who has seen one of Peter Jackson’s seminal and not so seminal takes on J. R. R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy stories will know the basic set-up of Shadow of War.
Great fortress cities under siege, brutish monsters of all shapes and sizes – although usually with cockney accents – noble warrior women, and macho men with strangely luxuriant hair are all realised in the game’s unique story. Granted, it’s a plot that serves largely as a means to creatively get the player beating up monsters in different locales.
Despite the onus on Tolkien’s works, the real meat of Shadow of War’s gameplay could fit into just about any form of mystical, supernatural or fantasy setting.
It could function equally as well as some kind of satisfying open-world vampire simulator, where you stalk the streets and rooftops of castle towns to drain and murder your victims. Equally, the mechanics could also work in a more straightforward superhero adventure where the player leaps entire buildings in on or two bounds, or travels undetected at superhuman speeds to protect cities against wrongdoers.
Perhaps it is no surprise that the game is published by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, the same company that counts the developer Rocksteady Studios among its subsidiaries. Rocksteady is the developer is behind the phenomenally successful Batman-themed Arkham Games that lend some of their combat mechanics to Shadow of the War.
The Lords of the Rings setting is basically a nice garnish then for Tolkien fans to engage with – with its giant spider-themed puzzle minigames and treasure hunts intended to pad out the stealth and stabfoonery of the core game.
However, even if you were to strip Shadow of War of its Tolkien skin, what you have is a fully functioning and mostly unique three-dimensional spite simulator.
A fully-functioning spite simulator
Whether using stealth, precision timed combat, or strategy to cause confusion and disarray by setting giant beasts, stampedes or insect plagues on a built-up enemy camp, the game tries to give you a creative outlet to make the lives of digital orcs as miserable as possible.
Just with Shadow of War’s predecessor ‘Shadow of Mordor’, the game makes use of a mechanic called the ‘Nemesis System’, whereby its endless hordes of orcs are led by a dozen or so generals with various approaches to combat, as well as unique weaknesses and strengths.
The player is given the option of hunting down these generals and lieutenants as much, or as little as they want. A successful assassination is met with the potential reward of experience points, in-game currency or more powerful weapons and loot.
The reality of the Nemesis system is probably a lot cooler to play than it sounds in the developer’s promotional material.
Videogame bosses are probably as old as the medium itself, but Shadow of War’s system creates a kind of personal narrative around your successes and failures in trying to hunt down these generals.
In the case of successes, you get that little bit stronger to hunt down increasing more powerful figures in the sprawling army of bud guys that frequent the expansive different levels of the game. But in the case of failure, an orc suddenly finds themselves growing in stature and strength, in some cases getting deputies of their own and battalions to battle alongside them as a penance for the player’s failure.
It becomes almost a kind of sports game with heroes and villains on either side. Successful orcs even get bragging rights in the game to further demoralise a player that they have previously felled.
Should the player brutalise a high rank orc in front of its underlings, they will run in fear from the player and the remaining baddies will talk in fearful tones of your character’s ability and stature.
Meanwhile, even a basic level opponent that may have got to land a killing blow on the player – either via their programmed skill, blind luck, or a mistimed button press, -will be levelled up and given an elite rank and increased abilities. This results in basic enemies also getting a randomly generated designation such as ‘Grunk the Defiler’, or ’Babbage the ever living’ – in effect becoming a boss character in themselves.
First it giveths, than you taketh away
Most egregiously, these newly promoted in-game characters will feel entitled to mock the player for their previous failure, making hunting them down an entirely ego-based, but vital sense of progression in the game.
It is a system that is intensely cinematic, while almost organically passive aggressive in terms of its appeal.
After several hours of play, strategy is also rewarded by encouraging the player to hunt down and interrogate certain orcs that have intel on a specific general that you can use to more strategically humiliate and dominate a hated rival. This can be played out through an opponent having a susceptibility to flame, or a fear of bees. More skilled players must just prefer using basic sword skills and quick reactions to beat down an entire encampment in hand to hand combat.
At the same time as the player is attempting to bring down a creature that may previously have beaten them in battle – perhaps some elite-level general with flaming hooks and an eye patch – they are likewise being hunted by high level monsters that may suddenly appear for a spot of randomly generated revenge.
Sometimes just at the critical moment of performing a carefully timed rooftop assassination, a being impervious to frontal attacks and twice your level may pounce upon the player’s character as part of a disconcerting ambush.
In another part of the level, several generals in the same area may team up to make combat increasingly dangerous, as a well as chaotic, raising the increased likelihood of the player being overwhelmed, or bringing down another general in the crossfire.
Some creatures have themselves a unique tracking scheme where they can trace and follow the player across the streets and rooftops of a level seeking a battle. Other missions included in the game can provide the player the chance to sabotage a turf war between two generals that could see a hated foe level up further, or otherwise grant an opportunity to dispatch two sassy algorithms in a single attack.
The longer these ranked generals are left to their own devices, the greater chance there is of some arrow carrying-swine getting an increasingly deadly mutated form that sees them growing into a mutated orc with a wasp nest growing in its head and a penchant for making your plans fall apart.
Knowing when a player is unmatched can become an important part of strategy, especially when the AI learns to adapt, either by shrugging off continued use of a stealthy leaping attacks from roofs or towers, or by healing if not quickly dispatched in hand to hand combat.
If you are already struggling with some shield-carrying orc, failing to topple them and their goons in battle risks the creature getting even stronger. This creates a good incentive to balance brutal sword hackery with strategic cowardice and well-timed explosive traps.
Outside of this escalating cycle of spite and violence, the linear story-missions offer a chance to unlock new abilities, techniques and weapons to make a revenge-fuelled return to a previous level rewarding.
In this sense, the game’s main plot and missions serve as an occasional distraction or side-quest from your increasingly personal, escalating war of grudges against a seemingly indestructible orc general.
As an open-world game, Shadow of War makes use of some well refined, but generic action adventure game mechanics you may well have played in various other games.
But as a thrilling and satisfyingly simulator about spite and supernatural grudges, is it a relatively unparalleled experience in virtual schadenfreude – either by letting you fell an opponent through an intense moment of skill or strategy, or simply through clumsy and chaotic guerrilla warfare.
Lessons in pettyness
At a time when it feels more important than ever to call out the futile and reductive drive to turn to spite, anger and vengeance as a means of addressing life’s complex and unjust nature – it is important to accept that these urges are a very real part of human nature.
There is perhaps something to be said then for losing oneself in a fantastical setting where unequivocally monstrous beings get a well-deserved hiding by the righteous, bearded face of divine goodness.
Mahatma Gandhi famously noted that the principle of ceaseless retribution would serve no other purpose than to ultimately doom humanity. “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind”, he was quoted as saying, turning a well worn biblical phrase about perceived justice on its head.
In accepting the weight of those words, do they still apply in a case where a world itself is just series of complex algorithms intended to provide an escapist fantasy in which to indulge in our most petty, basest behaviours?
Your answer may determine just how much you get out of the nemesis system.