The Nemesis system will be what people remember this year. It turns a competent, open-world action game into one of my favorite games of the year.

What is it? It’s a dynamic AI system that is populated by randomly generated enemies (each one being a nemesis). Typically, Uruk Captains and Warchiefs make up the foes found in the Nemesis system. But, a lowly grunt can also be promoted if he kills you. Each time you die, the Uruk that kills you levels up. One particular Uruk gave me a hell of a time. He started at level 10, and managed to get to level 22 before I finally killed him.

Each Captain and Warchief has a unique name, look and other characteristics. The depth is surprising as you rarely see two similar looking Uruks Captains. Fighting styles are also randomized. Swords, spear and shield, and throwing spears are some of the types you’ll see in your adventure. Toss in unique intros, and all-together, the Nemesis system becomes one of the best new features added to a title in years. It never gets old hearing all the different intros. ‘Man-Filth!’ gets tossed your way in copious amounts, but some of the other ones are crazy. One Uruk told me he could ‘smell the sun’ before he attacked. Another just stared and clicked his teeth at me. The Nemesis system gives each character its own, unique personality.

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Each Nemesis has its own strength and weaknesses. Some are afraid of fire, while others become enraged when caught on fire. One Captain might flee in terror at the sight of caragors. On the flip side, another will dive right and kill them.

The Nemesis system shines in the second half of the game as ‘branding’ is introduced. Instead of killing Uruk Captains, you can brand them and turn them into your own personal army. It’s incredibly handy when going up against Warchiefs who have several bodyguards. Why stop at one. Brand each bodyguard to make the fight against the Warchief infinitely easier.

You can also brand grunts to make fights against captains easier. Done with your personal army? Hit down on the D-Pad to kill them all.

Branding adds another layer to the game, and keeps it fresh for 20 or so hours you’ll end up putting in.

The Nemesis system also tells its own mini-stories. You can shape which Uruks become the strongest in various side-missions. One Uruk might be about to execute another. Jump on in and save the Uruk that’s about to die. Or, just watch it play out. Another side-mission might show an Uruk Captain hunting, or having a feast. There are tons of side-missions that lets you influence how the Uruk hierarchy fleshes out.

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Shadow of Mordor’s Nemesis system finally shows us what ‘next-gen’ is all about. It’s features like this that will differentiate games today, from games over the past 10 years. It’s not prettier graphics. I want completely new experiences, and Shadow of Mordor delivers.

You play as Talion, a ranger of Gondor defending the Black Gate of Mordor

Things quickly head south as the Black Hand of Sauron ritually sacrifices Talion and his family. Instead of dying, an Elf wraith mergers with your body. The rest of the game revolves around figuring out the identity of the Elf wraith and avenging your family. Needless to say, there will be plenty of vengeance had in your time in Mordor.

The story is serviceable for the most part, but the ending – like in a lot of videogames – is lacking. And, the last boss battle is a joke. It’s a QTE. After all the build-up of the Nemesis system, the last boss battle involves mashing buttons. Talk about anti-climatic.

Combat is heavily influenced by recent Batman titles

The fantastic group fighting from the Batman series makes its way to Middle Earth. You’ll be butchering your way through scores of orcs like a knife through butter. Just like the Batman titles, Shadow of Mordor’s combat system also sees a heavy use of counters.

Shadow of Mordor also features a ‘down, but not out’ system. Once your out of health, you fall to your knees and will have two opportunities to defend a killing blow. You’ll automatically die the third time you get knocked down.

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One complaint I do have is that combat can be too easy. Monolith balances this by tossing dozens of enemies your way. You’ll be quickly overwhelmed if you try to take out a Warchief with all of his bodyguards still alive. But, take out his bodyguards one-by-one, and the fight becomes incredibly easy.

Shadow of Mordor does feature a semi-loot system. Fallen Captains and Warchiefs drop various runes that augment your three weapons. Through the Nemesis system you can increase the odds of an epic rune drop. Take control of a captain and issue a death threat to another Captain or Warchief. The death threat target’s level will automatically increase by five and you’ll have a better chance at an epic rune dropping.

Runes come with dozens of various stats ranging from health recovery after an execution, refilling arrows after a stealth kill or increased damage once you reach a certain hit combo (ex. 20 hits). Each weapon can have up to five runes inserted.

Shadow of Mordor also includes an upgrade system. Upgrades include lowering the amount of hits necessary to perform executions, a special power that enables 20 seconds of unlimited executions and others. Fighting captains and warchiefs gets a whole lot easier once you have several upgrades and runes for your character.

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Combat in Shadow of Mordor is tight and fluid. It can be a bit too easy, but I had a blast. I would have liked to see adjustable difficulties, but who knows how that would have affected the Nemesis system.

Keep on playing with Trials of War

Most single player games tend not to have a lot of replay value. Especially when your game doesn’t have harder difficulty modes. Monolith addresses this with the Trials of War mode. Compete with your friends and others as you complete various challenges. There are several different challenges in Trials of War, but I played Test of Power the most. Your main objective is killing 3 Warchiefs and 10 Captains. Upon completion your score will be added to the general leaderboard. Bonus objectives are available (earn 8,000 points, complete in 30 minutes and complete with 2 or fewer deaths) and completing those will save your score on the Elite leaderboards.

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It’s similar to the challenge maps from the Batman: Arkham series, and will keep the game fresh for many hours after beating the story.

It won’t blow your socks off visually

Shadow of Mordor isn’t the game to throw in to showoff the power of new systems. That’s not to say it looks bad,. It doesn’t. But, cross-platform development reared its head again. (Note: Monolith handled Xbox One, PS4, PC. Behaviour Interactive handled PS3 and Xbox 360) Still, it looks good on PS4. Frame-rate was surprisingly steady even when having dozens of enemies on-screen at once.

Until publishers move completely away from Xbox 360 and PS3, exclusives will showcase the Xbox One and PS4.

The extremely well-done Nemesis system turns Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor into a must own holiday game

I didn’t really know what to expect going into Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor. I had heard about the Nemesis system and thought it sounded cool, but wasn’t sure how well implemented it would be. Monolith knocked it out of the park. Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is one of the best open-world titles to release in the past few years. The Nemesis system is a fantastic addition to the genre, and one that we will probably see replicated by developers in the coming years.

Those of you who wait for the inevitable Black Friday sale will be in for a treat.

Played Middle-Earth: Shadow of Modor on PS4 for 20+ hours.

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