Shadow of Mordor: Nemesis system

1.What is this all about?

If anybody tries to describe you the new Lord of the Rings game they would probably say that it’s all about killing orcs, and… that will be true. So how is it possible to develop an interesting game based around this simple concept?

Maybe a super enhanced combat mechanic will be a solution?

– But that’s not the case: the combat system is very similar to recent Arkham series.

Well then, maybe they will try to make a Dynasty Warrior spin-off and ask players to slaughter million orcs?

– Neither did that happen.

What developers at Monolith decided to do is to make orc killing into a tactical decision call and brought us a Nemesis system that feels fresh and creates a prolong sandbox experience.

2.Overview of the system/structure of the orcish army

At the core of the Nemesis system is a simple war concept of divide and conquer.

Player assumes a role as a lonely ranger, who is up against the orc army, which doesn’t allow physically matching against thousands of orcish troops scattered around the foothills of mount Doom. Thankfully, that’s not needed, as orcish hordes don’t act as a unified force and their constant struggle for power makes them easy to manipulate which is the core goal of the protagonist.

Orcish army is being led by numerous Captains. They are like mini-bosses who you can randomly find while traveling the world. Each Captain has his own level, weapon type, strengths and weaknesses. Now, should that be an Assassin’s Creed, player would be progressing through the story by eliminating them one by one: from bottom to the top, but that’s not the case here. What we have instead is a living orcish society that follows its own rules and regulations and reacts to player actions.


Captains aren’t just sitting there waiting to be slaughtered by the player, they have their own ambitions and are constantly challenging their colleagues for a higher spot in the rankings. Overthrowing each other, destroying the competition or simply killing the main protagonist will boost their level which may promote them to the highest ranking in the orcish army and make them one of the Warchiefs. Naturally, the higher the level, the stronger the orc will become, he will gain more strengths, improve in HP, damage and get rid of some of its weaknesses up to point where he will become almost impossible to kill.


3.How does the simulation work

Essentially we have 25 characters aka orcish captains divided into four categories, or rankings if I may, each have their unique characteristics, character types and levels. And essentially what is happening is: they battle each other in order to get higher rank in Sauron’s army. And this is a never-ending simulation of orcish society. The ultimate goal of each orc is to secure one of 5 Warchief spots by becoming current Warchief bodyguard and later betraying and killing in order to secure his spot. Battling each other gains them XP and Increase their Level (Power level 1 to 20).

Upon player’s death the game doesn’t just end, far from it, the time simply advances forward activating the simulation and showing us the changes that occurred:

  • Dead Captains are being replaced with fresh recruits
  • Orcs challenging each other to improve their standing
  • Those who dealt a finishing blow or assisted in killing the player will be promoted to Captains or, if they already are, become even stronger
  • Player’s orders are being executed (yes, player has multiple tools to influence the state of army, but we will get to it soon)


Player doesn’t have to die for say to make that happen, there is a way to advance time manually via towers, however, that will be forced upon death, creating a never-ending simulation: as Captains fall – newcomer to take their place.

This gives an entire process of killing orcs over and over again a great refreshment and when you’ve killed enough Captains you will be able to challenge even Warchiefs.

Depending on a story progression or even the mode player is engaged in the objectives can vary from getting rid of all the Warchiefs to getting a certain number of points by killing Captains without dying. One thing that game lacks, in my opinion, is an ability to challenge your friends to complete certain actions or create a certain situations, similar to how custom challenges in Hitman Absolution worked.

4.What are the primary tools player has to influence the state of Sauron’s army

One of the primary ways to influence the state of army is by going out and slaughtering each and every Captain, however, it’s not that simple.

Firstly, player has to locate the Captain. That can be done by receiving a piece of information from documents around the world or interrogating certain orcs/Captains for information on selected Captain’s identity. Or you can simply stumble upon them while trespassing on the enemy territory and go from there.

So now you’ve located your prey and received a mission for elimination. Player can race to its location and instantiate one of the random scenarios that can put player in significant advantage or disadvantage against a Captain he/she is about to face.


On lower levels Captains don’t pose much of a challenge for the player and can be easily dealt with without much effort, however, at certain Power Level, player may find himself facing an opponent who is completely immune to attacks, abilities and simply one shots him. As mentioned before, all Captains have their own set of strengths and weaknesses (the higher the Power Level the more strengths and less weaknesses the Captain will have). So the player can choose to go blindly into the fight and discover them by trial and error or further investigate the Captain, just the way he/she did to find its location to discover all useful details. Knowing these details is half the battle as you may plan how you are going to assassinate the opponent beforehand:

  • Captain is afraid of Caragors – ride one into battle
  • Can be injured by ranged attacks – shoot him from the distance
  • Vulnerable to air attacks – assassinate them from above


This is exactly what first Assassin’s Creed was trying to accomplish: give us a sandbox to plan and execute our missions the way we wanted, giving us a choice in how much preparation we wanted to do in order to increase our chances of success – sounds like a dream come true and it is. And that’s not even the whole story. There are two main features that further extend that feel of adventure that players create for themselves.

Primary, the means that player uses to execute the assassination do matter, as they will determine the type of an upgrade that the Captain will drop upon death. It’s quite simple:

  • Dealing finishing blow with a sword gives a sword upgrade
  • Headshot with an arrow – bow upgrade
  • Stealth of clever use of boss weaknesses will award player with a dagger upgrade

That adds a little bit more depth as players will sometimes choose a more difficult approach in order to get more needed rewards.


Second factor is discovered upon failure. like: if a player ran away from battle, allowed Captain to escape or fell from his hand. Upon every encounter with a Captain camera shifts into a cinematic mode and shows a two-shot of a player clashing swords with an orc saying a line or two as a greeting upon first encounter. Upon any consecutive encounter that greeting will be substituted with a taunt or another line in which orc will remind player about their past encounter. Should you have died or fled, you will hear a taunt; made him run for his life or used his weaknesses against him – an angry threat. It sounds small and insignificant, however, the impact that this single line has on the player is immense. You know that he knows he bested you last time, became stronger and perhaps even received a promotion. Now you wait for a loading to finish and dash towards that orc to take your revenge. The game doesn’t force to kill the guy, you might have just accidentally met him in the forest and now he is your nemesis and you have all motivation you need in order to track orc down and finish what you’ve started before. No other game made me feel that way about virtual opponent and if you’ve played it – surely you know what I’m talking about.

5.Branding and it’s uses

This unique feature allows player to turn enemies into permanent allies, when used in combat or combined with stealth, this becomes a very fun mechanic to play with, but, it also plays a huge part in the orcish power struggle, as it allows players to turn a defeated enemy Captain into an obedient pawn.


Player can order a pawn to challenge other captains who will trigger a new mission to appear where a player may assist his pawn to raise its Power Level and eliminate the target at the same time. Players can then further order their pawns into becoming one of two Warchief’s bodyguards and use them in a order to take down a more powerful opponent (betrayal can also be a weakness of a Captain/Warchief). And even if players feel like orcs pose no challenge they can further improve their power level (up to a cap of level 20) by making their pawns threat the selected enemy, increasing their power level and making them drop a more powerful weapon upgrade.

When facing Warchiefs, players have to be especially wary about their two bodyguards, who will accompany Warchief, making it a 3v1 fight. This, however, can be avoided by assassinating bodyguards prior to challenging the Warchief himself or branding them and reversing the situation.


Warchief can have more than 2 bodyguards.

Just imagine: you approach Warchief’s location, complete a small mission in order to summon him and a cinematic plays showing his entrance and orcs shouting his name with two most trusted Captains obediently following in his heels. And then you appear challenging the Warchief head on, he rushes towards you and immediately being backstabbed by his bodyguards: his confidence is dead, now he is surrounded.

Pulling off a stunt like that really makes you feel like a mastermind who carefully plotted this genius plan and executed it perfectly – priceless.

6.Why is this important?

Nemesis mechanics can be reused in a lot of other games, like Assassin’s Creed or Arkham series. It brings meaning and diversity to a normally grinding parts of the game and gives players a sandbox where they can play the way they want instead of following a linear path of mission based design that we are so used to. Going through a 25 heavily scripted and cinematic missions or playing in a sandbox with a way to control your objectives, rewards and challenges – it’s purely a preference, but I do believe that most gamers are sick of first and will appreciate the second more at this point. With a Shadow of Mordor release and audience reaction we can definitely say that this mechanic works and can study why exactly that is the case to reduce the risks of implementing it into other games and reducing development cost.


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