Monolith on What Makes Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor a Force to be Reckoned With

While it initially flew under the radar, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is one of the best games of 2014. Its Nemesis System allows its storytelling to dynamically evolve over time, and its environment feels like it lives and breathes on its own. Fans and non-fans of Lord of the Rings lore should find themselves fully immersed in Shadlow of Mordor’s unique world. I recently conversed with Michael de Plater, Monolith Production’s Director of Design on Shadow of Mordor, to find out exactly what makes Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor so excellent.

[Hardcore Gamer] There’s obviously a heavy Arkham influence in Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, you can feel it in the combat. What about the Arkham games, specifically, did you want to implement, and what did you do to make Shadow of Mordor feel like its own game, despite those influences?

[Michael de Plater] I think what we wanted to take from Arkham, as a reference point for a third-person open-world sandbox style of combat, was that feeling of being able to fight against large groups of enemies and sort of control that. Then, I think, where we sort-of evolved and wanted to feel quite different is firstly, obviously, that [Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor] is weapon-based. The sword gives you a very different reach, a very different feel. The scale: we get pretty intense with the chaos and the number of enemies. Then we put in the Nemesis system, so enemies are constantly introducing different abilities and kind of changing things up. Also, the ecosystem and everything comes into it, with the wildlife and so on. So not really as crafted an experience but a bit more, sort of, chaotic.

One of the things I noticed is how easy it is to get distracted. I’d be getting instructions on what to do, but then I’d see hanging meat and I’d watch Orcs get eaten by Caradors. Is this a game where you could essentially keep playing endlessly, or is there a defined “you’ve completed 100% of everything” point?

We really want people to be able to keep playing it, and this is something we’ve found as we’ve gotten close to the end. People will be playing through their tenth time and it’s more fun than the previous times. There’s always new stuff to discover. So, the thing is, you can play to the completion of the story, which will take thirty hours or whatever it takes for you, but after that you can come back and keep playing around within the sandbox in the Nemesis System. We also have a Challenge Mode, Test of Power, so then you can actually play within the sandbox and the system as a Challenge Mode. How fast can you beat it? What score can you get? Can you do it without dying? So we really want you to be playing that endlessly as well.

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“We’re trying to bring interesting stuff to you, as the player, and actually let you create these stories. Ultimately, it’s a villain creator.”

I noticed that Shadow of Mordor falls into that generational theme of building the world and basically just dropping the player in, rather than building the entire world around the player. There’s small examples of this everywhere, like Orcs becoming scared when their leader dies, showing that they have tangible emotions. Could you talk about the world design and the AI design? 

Yeah, that’s been a huge focus for us. That’s interesting actually. We want the world to exist, and the player to simply be in it, but, of course, we’re a single-player focused game, so we want the player to sort of be the center of the world as well. So there’s a simulation going on, you could just watch [wildlife and enemies] go about their daily lives, but a lot of the things: their reactions, their fears, their hates, their missions, some of the traits they have to hunt you or ambush you, are all kind of centered around the player, as well.

It’s almost like a hybrid of creating The Sims, an Orc Sim, and an AI director. We’re trying to bring interesting stuff to you, as the player, and actually let you create these stories. Ultimately, it’s a villain creator. In a twenty minute slice of game players won’t see as much, but over the course of dozens of hours, this you met six, seven, eight, nine times who’s hunting you, running away from you, you’re killing his friends, allows players to build up stories and relationships. Obviously, you’ll face hundreds of Orcs, any one of them could become the boss, but most of them won’t. It’s not about remembering all of them, it’s about having four, or five, or six that are, hopefully, the most memorable enemies you’ve had in an action-adventure game.

What are you doing, specifically, to attract people who aren’t necessarily fans of Lord of the Rings? Obviously, people who are fans are going to love being in that world, but what are you putting in place for players who might be turned off by Lord of the Rings, in general?

I think there’s two main things. One, is that we just want to make the core gameplay really solid. When we say “combat,” we really mean our melee combat and our stealth and our ranged combat and all the other tools you have in your toolbox to turn your enemies against each other. So it’s important to make that core gameplay really solid and really fun.

The other thing is that we’ve really tried hard to make enemies that are more varied and more interesting and more personal than, hopefully, any that players will have played with before. Obviously, the Nemesis System in this here is really tied to Orc society and to Lord of the Rings, but even aside from that, it should be a way to make really cool, very fun, memorable enemies. I also think that some of the RPG elements [will help] as well. The fact that your power-growth is really strong, like when you first go into Mordor, where it’s really tense, really dangerous, you’re gonna die, but, with the power-growth that you have, you can get really dominant by the end of the game. You can really start to play around with the sandbox, with the living world, and really sort of toy with it.

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“I think that Nemesis System is kind of pushing forward in every direction. The AI is really ambitious, we have to put a lot of enemies on screen.”

Clearly Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is gorgeous. What has the new generation of hardware given you the opportunity to do with the game? What have you been able to do now that you wouldn’t have been able to dream of doing if you made this last generation?

I think that Nemesis System is kind of pushing forward in every direction. The AI is really ambitious, we have to put a lot of enemies on screen. We have to get right in their faces, so the detail is incredibly high, as well as the animation on [the enemies]. The volume of animation is high. So it’s a combination of performance, and AI, and the volume of content that’s really enabled us to take advantage of it. It’s required a lot of teamwork and a lot of collaboration to use all the different parts of the team to come together and really push these features to make something new.