At one point while I was watching Monolith's demo of Middle-earth: Shadow of War, I wrote "Could this shit really be that dynamic??" in my notes. Yes, with two question marks. It felt warranted. In the span of 10 minutes, I'd watched someone controlling Talion decapitate an Uruk warchief who'd once been in his army, nearly die at the hands of another until a spy intervened with a crossbow bolt headshot, and ride a dragon above a sprawling fortress battlefield, raining fire down on Uruks scattered across parapets and courtyards. And then, as Talion nearly died at the hands of the fortress's towering, flamethrower-wielding overlord Ur-Hakon the Dragon, one of his own warchiefs burst into the room on an armored beast mount, leaping on Ur-Hakon's back and stabbing him enough to create an opening for a cinematic finisher.
It was a perfect way to show off Shadow of War's new fortress assaults, shifting from dramatic one moment to stealthy the next, sometimes especially violent and occasionally funny, with a sense of history behind the relationship between Talion and the Uruks he's leading and fighting against. You can see almost exactly the same demonstration in the video released today--the same story beats and characters I saw in a live playthrough of a carefully choreographed demo battle. But Shadow of Mordor and Shadow of War aren't linear, heavily scripted adventures in the Call of Duty vein. They're full of procedurally generated characters thanks to the Nemesis system, which makes your stories with AI enemies feel personal.
So if we've all seen essentially the same demo, the question stands: could this shit really be that dynamic?
"All of those elements: so the lines, speaking to what's happening, the animation being synced with that, all of the presentation, unleashing the dragon, all of those things are systemic," said Monolith VP Michael de Plater (Mordor's creative director), who I spoke with after the demo. "Obviously, because we're trying to pack in and show as many things as we can, we choreographed 'this is the run through, these are the particular enemies.' I think in the full game, when you play it, there's a little more chaos than this. It's definitely less predictable of who's going to turn up, and why and when, and how they're going to fight. This was us choosing to fire or select actual events that would happen."
So, in this case, a very convenient selection of awesome moments have been strung together to create a memorable battle. But the potential is there for Shadow of War to dynamically create these kinds of moments for you and me, and everything new Monolith showed spirals out of the untapped potential of the Nemesis system. Or, as de Plater jokingly called it when I asked if it's still the Nemesis system when the Uruks are your friends, the Bro system.
Like Shadow of Mordor, Shadow of War retains its open world action-RPG structure, with Batman: Arkham-inspired combat and missions that will take you across Mordor and Gondor to kill a few thousand Uruks. But now Talion can recruit a whole army of Uruks loyal to him, and take those Uruks into battle to assault Sauron's warchiefs in fortresses spread across Mordor. The Nemesis system encompasses your enemies and your own army, and the diversity of Uruks has been increased tremendously, with new abilities, cavalry, and tribes.
"A huge area we've tried to focus on is creating massively more variety in how they fight, so as you go through they get tougher and more diverse," de Plater said. "So we have the tribes, and different tribes have different special abilities they can use in combat or different weapons. We also have advanced classes now, which affects the AI, their behavior, their fighting style. So we have Uruk assassins and Uruk trackers and Uruk tanks and Uruk combat masters and Uruk demolishers that specialize in blowing shit up. So we much more strongly differentiate how they fight, so we'll have continuous variety and challenge in the combat."
I asked de Plater about how Monolith tackled the job of expanding the Nemesis system after it was such a hit in Shadow of Mordor. He said that some of their ideas had been left over from plans for the first game that they'd been "over-ambitious" about and never implemented. Others came from studying fan reactions to the first game, and seeing that the stories people told about their nemeses usually fell into two camps. Half were comments on how tough an enemy was after leveling up and accruing a laundry list of invulnerabilities. The other half were about the personality of a nemesis--a nasty scar or other feature that made a showdown with them especially memorable.
"What we really tried hard to do was make those two components speak to each other more. Now the guy you've had the interactions and stories with is probably also going to grow to become the guy that's tough and memorable. So as well as trying to make them all different from each other, we're trying to identify by tracking all the data and interactions, who are the most important and meaningful, and turn those guys into full-on supervillains. We'll say what's a good story: does that begin with burning someone to death, or failing to rescue them in a mission so it makes for a betrayal, or you revive them so they feel loyal? What's a good story? From that story we can mix and match different elements, whether it's the writing, or what his fighting style is, or if he's going to betray you. We're always trying to make these really emotional, powerful stories."
Convert an Uruk to your army, and you may eventually be able to call them in at a pivotal moment while fighting an Overlord, taking them on missions to level them up and make them more powerful. But if you die on one of those missions while they're accompanying you, they could be killed. Or they could cheat death and return to your side with a battle scar to show for it. Or they could turn traitor. And as they did in the demo, one of those traitors can show up as a war chief defending an overlord's fortress.
De Plater called the demo we saw a "relatively small fort" with three warchiefs, but assaulting even small forts will be significant events. "They're capstones. They might be after four, five, six, seven hours of gameplay," de Plater said. "We really want players to be able to mix and match and do whatever they feel like doing at a particular moment, so we've got a much bigger story than we had last time... All of our side missions now are much more fully-featured character stories, and crafting stories, and missions with cinematics and everything as well. Then there's all of the exploration of the world and the collectibles and upgrades, things around that. Then there's the general Uruk society and nemesis missions, training your guys, or ambushing their feasts, and everything. As you build up your army or weaken the enemy, there's a capper within that that becomes taking down the fortress. But once you've taken them, there can also be cases where it's going to be counter-attacked and you'll need to defend it."
Forts can have as many as six warchiefs defending the overlord, and you could send in up to six of your own spies to infiltrate the ranks of the warchiefs' men. Spies will help intervene when you fight, but they can also be found out and potentially rat on your other spies, too. In those cases, you'll begin a fort assault by seeing your spy executed. If the Nemesis system pays off as intended, I expect to feel pretty damn sad about losing a loyal spy.
One manicured battle isn't enough to know how unique the stories created by the expanded Nemesis system will feel--how quickly the component parts of the procedural generation will stand out, how long it will be able to maintain surprise over predictability. The dialogue and dramatic interruptions I found so cool and cinematic in the demo might be obnoxious interruptions when I've seen slight variations of the same basic scene thirty times.
But the focus on creating more of those kinds of stories has Shadow of War near the top of my most-anticipated games list this year. I've had my fill of stories about the One Ring. The power to make stories my own, with an army of Uruks at my back, is what has me ready to march into Mordor.