Shadow of War has a lot of things going for it, but its real claim to fame is the improved Nemesis System. As you play through the game, you’ll fight and “dominate” a ton of orc captains, and each one of them has their own randomly generated traits and personality. If not for the dynamic nature of the NPCs the Shadow of War would get repetitive quickly, but seeing how the next captain will look, talk, and how they’ll fight keeps the experience fresh.
The most important thing the Nemesis System does though is to emotionally invest you in the soldiers that make up your army. You’ll inevitably have your favorites, and you’ll worry about them when they have to fight. Why then, if the game spends so much time getting you involved with the orcs, does Talion and Celebrimbor treat them like garbage the whole game?
(Minor spoilers for Middle-earth: Shadow of War below.)
Middle-earth: Shadow of War: Talion and Celebrimbor need to stop with the bigotry.
I’m not going to make any social allegories to Shadow of War, and I get within the context of the game that Talion and Celebrimbor are driven by the need for revenge. We’re role-playing Talion so to a degree it makes sense that he has a lot of contempt for the race that attacked his outpost and killed his family at the start of Shadow of Mordor. I typically don’t try to put too much of myself into such a distinct character. It’s not my story, it’s Talion’s, and I’m just along for the ride.
Talion and Celebrimbor’s relationship with the orcs is relatively one-sided. They need an army to take on Sauron, and the easiest way to get one is just to steal the one that’s in front of them. Talion can dominate orcs through magic and subvert them to his will, and a good part of Shadow of War is spent hunting down the powerful leaders of the orc armies and bringing them to heel under your banner.
The whole concept works in the context of the game for the most part, but the Nemesis System makes things a bit fuzzy. It’s Talion’s story, but it’s evident that the randomly created orc captains are there to affect the player. Talion doesn’t care if that orc you met is a poet or a singer, but it’s meant to make you laugh, just like meeting a captain who is kept alive by maggots eating the dead flesh off his many wounds is supposed to make you feel repulsed.
For the most part, the only comments Talion and Celebrimbor have to make about the orcs is how they’re disgusting, but useful creatures. Never is it brought to the forefront that what you’re doing for the whole game is akin to slavery. Even when an orc goes out of its way to help you, like Ratbag in the story, or the captains you fight alongside that can randomly deflect a killing blow, they’re treated as objects or creatures, not fellow warriors.
Middle-earth: Shadow of War: If you’re going to spend so much time crafting a fantastic NPC system, let me have more agency.
Again, I don’t have any issues with a game like Shadow of War being on rails to an extent. The way the plot develops in the game just doesn’t make a whole lot of decision-making on the player’s part feasible. I don’t mind playing the role of Talion, even if I wouldn’t make the same decisions he does.
The big issue though is that Nemesis System is mostly disconnected from the overarching story. No matter how much time you spend gathering, training, and fighting with your orc captains, there’s no real acknowledgment of any of it.
Rather than allowing us to have the freedom to learn more about the orcs under our command, and to spend time with them in more meaningful ways than just fighting or overhearing an idle conversation, a lot of their uniqueness is wasted after our initial meeting with them. It doesn’t matter if one of my orcs writes terrible songs if I can’t sit down by the campfire and listen to him now and again.
The ideal time for this to happen would be Act IV when you spend almost all of your time preparing your armies and fighting alongside them in defense of your fortresses. Since so little actual plot occurs in this section of Shadow of War, it would have been an excellent time for Talion to come to his senses over the fact that he’s forced thousands of orcs to be used as cannon fodder against their will and is basically as evil as Sauron at this point. It would have been a great turning point for him to release his armies from magical enslavement so that we could stand alongside all of the friends we’ve made over the course of the game as equals, but that doesn’t happen.
I still loved Middle-earth Shadow of War, and I think the Nemesis System is fantastic. My complaints about how we’re allowed to interact with the orcs might be caused more by computational issues than anything else. I know it would be difficult to make whole new systems for us to allow a more dynamic relationship with our orc pals, but it doesn’t keep me from wanting one.