The best thing about Middle-earth: Shadow of War, like Shadow of Mordor before it, is the Nemesis System. But because the Nemesis System is so complicated, there are lot of ways for it to wobble off its axis a little bit. This is also entertaining.
Shadow of War is bigger and more detailed than the first Middle-earth game, so it answers many of the questions I raised in my examinations of Mordor’s imaginary economy. There are more signs of functioning industry in the relevant regions of Mordor: more piles of wooden logs for building structures, a huge mining pit, and unarmored working scrub orcs hacking morosely at things with pickaxes — although there still doesn’t seem to be any breweries producing the numerous jars of explosive mead littering the place. Yet, for as many questions as it answers, it raises more. For example, where does Talion’s army appear from? Even if they’re all mercenary orcs, there’s no sign of them until the time comes for a Fortress assault. They come from almost literally nowhere, only to disband again once the job’s done. Maybe they just all wander about looking for the nearest fight, like lads who find themselves at a loose end after chucking out time on Saturday nights. But the best one is the wobble on the Nemesis System.
One of the important bits of the Nemesis System is generating strengths and weaknesses for the orc captains it throws up. They might be vulnerable to stealth attacks but immune to execution finishers, and so on. Part of the fun of Shadow of War is coming up against an orc with a ludicrous number of immunities and strengths, and figuring out a way to exploit his one weakness. That your best laid plans may often go awry, resulting in you running away and desperately vaulting over low-level grunts because aforesaid orc is enraged and his health is regenerating and he’s got a flamethrower… Well, that just adds to the fun.
But the thing is that a lot of orcs have weaknesses that seem to directly contradict their strengths, and I do not understand this.
Initially I thought this was just a quirk of my playthrough, but having spoken to other people and seen other accounts I know this comes up for everyone. There are sharpshooters who are weak to arrow pins. There are beastmasters who hate caragors. PCGamer’s nemesis Mozû is an orc who fears poison but has a poisoned weapon, and uses poisoned bombs and mines. What is going on in Mordor?
Perhaps it’s a question of being pressured into following the family business. ‘No, pa!’ cries a defiant teenaged orc. ‘I don’t want to be a flayer! I hate flaying! It makes me sick! I want to join t’Royal Ballet instead!’ At which point his father flips the dinner table and storms down to the pub, because they’ve always been flayers; they’ve been flaying for centuries, before Sauron even thought to step foot in Mordor. ‘Do as your dad says, love, for pity’s sake!’ says his mum, so he takes up the antique flaying knife from where it rests above the mantle, and he does the job of flaying, and does it well. But sometimes he secretly listens to The Jam and cries when no one is looking.
Or perhaps, for some, it’s about resolve. Mozû was killed in a poison attack, so now he wields it to prove his own strength and bravery to himself. A kind of immersion therapy for the damned. If this is the case it’s a poor tactic. It’s like the time my dad offered to buy a vodka and coke for my friend, who kept politely refusing. ‘I can’t,’ he said. ‘I have diabetes.’ My dad, who was extremely drunk, did not accept this as an answer, and replied ‘Don’t put yourself down like that mate! You can have it if you want to!’ as if diabetes is something you can get over if only you put your mind to it. This is not the case with either diabetes or being poisoned.
Given that Sauron’s army is a needlessly brutal society, I lean towards a third explanation: that it’s all for the bantz. Some orc gets newly promoted and he’s got to the part where he decides what his ‘thing’ is going to be now he’s a captain, but because the local overlord is a dickhead every third guy has to make his ‘thing’ whatever he hates the most or will instantly kill him. You don’t like caragors? Amazing. Your job is sitting on one now. It’ll make you really amped up for battle, all the time. Also we’re going to go ahead and give you a pack of caragors, too.
Here lads, look, look, this guy is afraid of caragors so I said he has to ride one all day! Hahahahaha! Someone call Sauron, he bloody loves this stuff. Sauron! Sauron, mate…. WHASSUUUUUUUUP?!