Middle-earth: Shadow of War - An expanded Nemesis system, an army of Followers, new RPG elements, and everything we know

Fast facts:

  • Middle-earth: Shadow of War release date: October 10, 2017
  • Formats: PC, PS4, Xbox One
  • Developer: Monolith Productions
  • Price: $59.99 / £54.99

In order to prepare for this game, you ought to start practicing your best impression of Saruman bellowing "To war!" in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Middle-earth: Shadow of War is the promising follow-up to Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, bringing back (and massively expanding) the open-world straight out of The Lord of the Rings films, which you'll conquer through close-quarters combat and sneaky stealth takedowns that mimic the Batman: Arkham series by way of Tolkien's high fantasy. The fused pairing of human ranger Talion and the elf wraith Celebrimbor are back, and they're ready to raise an orc army of their own to counter the hordes serving Sauron. There's a ludicrous amount of info to sift through concerning this sequel, which builds on the already ambitious original in some monumental ways - so we've gone ahead and consolidated all the details into one easy-to-read article. Here's everything you need to know about Middle-earth: Shadow of War.

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Middle-earth: Shadow of War story sets the stage for a colossal conflict 

They say that absolute power corrupts absolutely, so forging a new Ring of Power is bound to end badly. Shadow of War takes place between the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogies, picking up where Shadow of Mordor left off. Sauron and his legions of orc, troll, and ringwraith servants have begun marching out of Mordor to invade the human realms; Celebrimbor, the ancient elf spirit who shares a body with Talion, crafts another Ring of Power in an effort to counter Sauron's One Ring (which Celebrimbor inadvertently taught him how to smith). Wearing this almighty ring bestows our dual heroes with additional powers (more on those later), but could have unforeseen consequences, even as Talion and Celebrimbor work with the military forces of Gondor and their own mind-dominated orc allies to fight back against the coming tides.

Whereas Shadow of Mordor focused more on Talion's story of revenge, as he sought to slay the Black Hand of Sauron and avenge his murdered family, Shadow of War looks like it'll shift the attention to Celebrimbor and his aspirations for ever-increasing power. It's well-intentioned, at least: Celebrimbor hopes to become the Bright Lord, the equal yet opposite force to the expansive evil of the Dark Lord Sauron. But we'll have to wait and seen how those grand plans play out, and how Talion will fit into the dual nature of our merged protagonists' ambitions and morality.

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Middle-earth: Shadow of War gameplay revolves around the revamped Nemesis system 

The most brilliant thing in the original Shadow of Mordor is easily its Nemesis system, where your primary enemies are randomly generated from a pool of horrifying appearances, quirky personality types, and combat strengths and weaknesses to create orc antagonists who are entirely your own. Dying to any enemy causes them to move up in the ever-shifting orc hierarchy, and they'll remember (and taunt) you during your next encounter, ramping up what started as a simple grudge into a bitter conflict that becomes increasingly intense every time you're struck down. That core system is back in Shadow of War, with an added twist: that Nemesis can become your ally (and vice versa) as you command an army of Followers plucked from the orc ranks.

Using the same Dominate ability from the first game, you can force your will onto a weakened orc and make them join your side, expanding your army and undermining Sauron's all at once. The myriad orcs and Olag-hai trolls populating the world are part of a larger hierarchy, from the lowest-of-the-low Worms up through Captains, Commanders, Warchiefs, and the Overlords who reign over their very own strongholds called Fortresses. Whether they're a Nemesis or a Follower, these minions can rise or fall beyond the player's direct influence - but depending on your choices, a grunt who starts off as little more than a mere pawn might become your right-hand general or a fearsome adversary over the course of many battles.

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Middle-earth: Shadow of War special editions include a dragon statue

If you have an empty spot on your mantle that would be just perfect for a 12-inch statue of a balrog fighting a drake, consider the Middle-earth: Shadow of War Mithril Edition. For the low, low price of $299 / £199 (no, that's not a typo) you get said decoration, a cloth map of Mordor, a collection of lithographs, the official soundtrack, a replica Ring of Power magnet, an in-game Mithril War chest, and even a bunch of stickers to show your allegiance to your favorite orc tribe on your trapper keeper. It also includes all the in-game bonuses of the Gold Edition. 

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Middle-earth: Shadow of War's Fortresses serve as the battlegrounds for sieges on a massive scale 

Imagine the Battle of the Hornburg - popularly known as the Battle of Helm's Deep in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers - if it starred heroes and villains who exist exclusively because of your personal experiences. That's what Shadow of War is shooting for with the Fortresses, imposing strongholds which serve as key territories in the war against Sauron. Sectioned off from the larger open-world, Fortresses are ruled by unique Overlords, and have their own individual levels to signify when you have little to no hope of successfully taking them over. Assaulting a Fortress is as much about planning and preparedness as your actual skill in large-scale combat: you'll be able to analyze the denizens of a Fortress via a chessboard-esque diorama, letting you anticipate strengths and weaknesses within the enemy forces and giving you a chance to sneak one of your Followers into their ranks and set up some glorious backstabbings.

Your choice of allies makes a huge difference, given the rock-paper-scissors structure of each army's special traits, like resistance or vulnerability to fire attacks, siege damage, ranged weapons, and so forth. And only once the battle breaks out will you see the consequences of your decisions, highlighted via some incredible mid-conflict vignettes: perhaps your flame-fearing troll ally will be instantly burned to a crisp if you send them against a fire-obsessed Overlord, or a planted Follower will save your skin by eliminating a Nemesis just before they land the killing blow on you. It makes for incredible sandbox warzones rife with memorable moments you helped create, and it all culminates in a final boss battle against the Fortress' Overlord in a spacious throne room turned to-the-death arena.

If Talion and Celebrimbor get beaten to a pulp and you fail to overtake the Fortress, its Overlord and his underlings will grow stronger, and you'll need to regroup and amass more soldiers (to replace any who died) to come back and fight another day. But if you successfully execute the Overlord (by smashing their head into paste using Celebrimbor's spectral flag standard), you'll claim the Fortress as your own, with the authority to appoint a new Overlord who can take over and establish your rule in the region. Interestingly, the aesthetic of the Fortress itself and the surrounding open-world areas will change depending on who you promote to Overlord, from banners and monuments to the residing orc tribes and even the temperament of the climate (maybe some orcs run a greener operation than others). It's an excellent touch, and a clear reminder that this Fortress is now your house, a just reward after an intense struggle for control.

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Middle-earth: Shadow of War's open-world is a big step up from the first game in terms of variety 

Shadow of Mordor primarily took place in - you guessed it - Mordor, which was appropriately barren and desolate to reflect the hellishly barbaric lives and society the orcs have built for themselves. The tradeoff is that exploring its open-world vision of Udun feels a bit underwhelming, as it's primarily a flat, spacious expanse with the occasional lookout tower, outpost amidst crumbled ruins, or central orc stronghold. And the lush, fertile fields of Nurn, the game's secondary area, don't mix things up all that much beyond the aesthetic change of scenery. But Shadow of War is bringing tons of new maps to the mix, each one rumored to be around twice the size of those in its predecessor, and with these fresh regions comes more structural and strategic variety. 

This contrast is most apparent in Minas Ithil, the human city that serves as Gondor's last line of defense against the incoming orc hordes. Unlike the ramshackle barracks of Udun, Minas Ithil is a medieval metropolis modeled after Minas Tirith from the movies: full of ornate architecture and stonework skyscrapers amidst the usual trappings of a Middle-earth human city, with cavernous tombs hidden underground. Beyond the walls of any orc or human city, you'll also find snow-capped peaks, dense forests, and watchtowers built into the sides of jagged mountains. Throughout the campaign, you'll visit other regions Tolkien fans might recognize: the Island of Nurn, Cirith Ungol, and Gorgoroth, to name a few.

All these tall buildings and high-altitude outposts ensure that verticality is a huge focus in Shadow of War's open-world. Being able to shimmy up a man-made tower or hop across neighboring rooftops in a city district provides more opportunity to deal death from above, whether you're scouting a target for an overhead assassination, or sniping explosive barrels of grog with your enchanted bow to incite a riot at ground level. Best of all, Talion doesn't suffer any fall damage courtesy of Celebrimbor's spectral powers, no matter how big of a leap he takes. It also sounds like some cities will have multiple appearances depending on pre- and post-orc invasion, as there's been talk of cities' appearances in a "pristine state" versus a "demolished state".

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Middle-earth: Shadow of War powers let you execute and explore in quicker, flashier ways 

Wouldn't you know it: slipping on a Ring of Power imbues the wearer with even more power(s)! As a hardened ranger, Talion already has the skills to slice up limbs and chop off heads with his trusty sword, shank unaware enemies from the shadows, and sharpshoot distant targets with a bow. But fusing with Celebrimbor grants him supernatural powers like the ability to slow down time or warp to targets for a killing blow. Talion and Celebrimbor can pull off even more wraith-y tricks in Shadow of War, like chaining executions between a series of orcs, sending out multiple shades of Celebrimbor to strike in every direction, or luring a bumbling enemy to a ledge-hanging vision of Celebrimbor who will assassinate them if they approach.

The Ring of Power has also leveled up your mobility in some pretty major ways. Shadow of War's maps will be much bigger, as previously mentioned, so your movement options have been expanded to match: you'll sprint faster, shimmy up structures quicker, and bounce through the air with the addition of a spectral double-jump. As in the first game, you'll have access to a skill tree that lets you enhance the abilities you like best as you level up to further specialize your ideal playstyle. And speaking of specialization...

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Middle-earth: Shadow of War's loot system goes full-on RPG 

Shadow of Mordor has some light loot mechanics, in the forms of runes you can collect from slain enemies to enhance certain attributes or gain new powers altogether. Runes make their return in Shadow of War, but as a piece of a much bigger picture: runes now enhance your Ring of Power, alongside additional gear slots for your chestpiece, hood, Urfael sword, Acharn dagger, and Azkar bow. With six gear slots to customize (which also change your appearance), equipment rarity that ranges from common to Epic, and full-on item sets that grant additional bonuses depending on how many pieces you're wearing, Shadow of War looks to be going full-on Diablo with its loot.

Things get even deeper, though: some exceptional items come with their own challenges that provide even more advantages when the requirements have been met. For instance, a dagger recovered from a fire-loving troll might ask you to 'stealth attack an enemy who is on fire'; do so, and that dagger will apply bonus damage to all stealth attacks on burning targets from that point on. Item enhancements will typically correspond to the attributes of the enemy who dropped them and/or the way you decided to execute them: stabbing, fiery explosion, poisoning, etc. There are also socketed items you can equip with gems of varying colors and effects for even more RPG minutiae to obsess over.   

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Middle-earth: Shadow of War’s mythical beasts of mass destruction can be tamed and ridden 

Turns out, Talion has something of a beastmaster streak, adept at tracking the exotic creatures roaming Mordor, then using his Dominate power to tame them before riding them into battle. Shadow of Mordor let you mount Caragors (akin to giant attack dog) and the hulking, ogre-esque Graug, both of which are returning in Shadow of War. But the big-ticket beast this time around is the flying, fire-breathing drake (call them dragons at your own peril) which Talion can mount with a teleportation shot from his bow before raining down destruction on enemies and structures below.

At first, you'll need to weaken these creatures before they'll do as you command; for instance, a drake will rain down flame-breath indiscriminately when you first set it loose. Once you've chipped away at its health bar, it's time to move in for the mind-control. With enough ability points, you'll eventually be able to summon a loyal Caragor or drake on command, which should come in handy when you need an airstrike or want to cover ground quickly. Meanwhile, some beasts (Graug included) will come in multiple elemental varieties, like a yeti-looking Graug who flings giant ice balls or a fire-powered Graug with a spiked, molten shell.

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Middle-earth: Shadow of War DLC will extend the game’s story

We already know of at least two story expansions that are planned for the game: The Blade of Galadriel and The Desolation of Mordor. Both of those are bundled with Shadow of War Gold Edition, though you'll likely be able to pick them up through a DLC season pass as well if you get the standard edition instead.

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