8 things I wish I knew before starting Middle-earth: Shadow of War

Middle-earth: Shadow of War is designed to kill you. In fact, if you don't die at least a couple times playing Monolith's sprawling Lord of the Rings epic, you won't engage with some of the game's most interesting mechanics (and you'll miss a ton of hilarious, humiliating, or wildly entertaining taunts from your leathery-skinned murderers). 

And it's easy enough to oblige, with the number of orc captains, their bodyguards and blood brothers, war beasts, giant monsters, siege weapons, and the seemingly infinite hordes of bloodthirsty orcs and trolls all hellbent on taking their ounce of gravewalker flesh. But if you're sick of getting batted around by the hordes of enemies that seem to descend every time you start a fight or raid an outpost, we've got some tips to keep your favorite ranger-wraith on his (their?) feet.

There are a lot of systems at play in Shadow of War and they get layered in pretty quickly, but if you play smart, it's easy enough to stay ahead of the curve (and out of the way of swinging swords). Talion may already have one foot in the grave, but these tips will help ensure the other one is always firmly planted on an orcish throat.

1. Don't feel bad about running away to fight another day 

The first and most important lesson you need to learn is that it's perfectly alright to run away. As is appropriate for a lone fighter in the heart of enemy territory, it's easy to find yourself surrounded, and everything in Mordor wants to kill (and in most cases eat) you. So if you're in a tight spot and low on health, feel free to bolt. 

Early on you'll get the ability to call on your wraith companion Celebrimbor's elven agility to dash even faster than your typical run speed, and it's a perfect way to quickly extricate yourself from a near-death situation. You can also take advantage of the story ability that unlocks in the prologue to vault up walls super quickly or instantly trigger elven speed after a jump (or double jump) with the press of a button to put some space between you and an angry mob or some particularly vicious captains. Combine these abilities, and you'll find it's a simple feat to buy yourself enough time to recharge your health. Which dovetails nicely with the next tip...

2. Rats are a wraith's best friend 

Sometimes just escaping isn't enough, especially if you intend to go back and finish the job. Though your health will recharge a bit on its own when out of combat, you'll need to drain the health of some unsuspecting foes to get back into fighting shape. This is problematic, however, when you're being pursued by a pack of captains and their attendant minions, given how long it takes to suck health out of orc-shaped containers.

This is where the tiny denizens of Mordor come in - and luckily, rats are pretty ubiquitous on Sauron's home turf. They're incredibly quick to drain and provide nearly as much health as an orc, but bear in mind that they're not the only tiny creatures you can use to top off your HP. Spiders will serve just as well, and you can often find their nests gummed onto the sides of walls or over doorways. Just pop them with your elfshot and you'll find yourself with a ready supply of Middle-earth's energy drink equivalent. And both rats and spiders are easier to spot scurrying around if you drop into wraith vision and look for their telltale ghost-white outlines. Just be warned: those helpful spiders also pack a nasty poison bite, so get your fill and leave the rest to harry your pursuers.

3. Want some rare loot? Try dying 

While most of these tips are about preserving and improving Talion's life, there is one rather game-y way to ensure higher quality loot - if you're willing to sacrifice a bit of pride (and embrace the reaper). 

Often, you'll discover epic or higher orc captains as you interrogate worms or discover them in the open world. These orcs will always provide better-than-average loot if you manage to cut them down in battle, but that loot can actually be further enhanced if you allow them to kill you repeatedly. Not only will this increase that captain's level, but a nemesis mission will spawn tasking you with taking your bloody vengeance. If you succeed you'll receive even richer rewards.

4. Plan accordingly before every fortress siege 

Soon enough, you'll find yourself facing Shadow of War's most strategic challenge: assaulting and conquering fortresses. These can range from fairly simple, straightforward affairs to incredibly taxing, pyrrhic slaughter-fests, during which you can easily find yourself overwhelmed. It's all a matter of preparation and planning, and not just in the form of planting your dominated allies amongst the defense force.

Before a siege, you'll have the opportunity to decide on a number of factors, from who will lead your assault force to assigning your personal bodyguard. You'll also have the chance to pick up some critical bonuses to aid you in your attack, like a host of the aforementioned poisonous spiders. Spend some time in the preparation phase looking over both your own forces and your opponents, and make sure you prepare accordingly. Those spiders would be an excellent asset if you find yourself pitted against an orc that's mortally afraid of poison, for instance. And a personal bodyguard who's a great melee fighter with a deadly suite of skills can really help take the pressure off you when you're trying to personally make a difference in the middle of a siege.

5. Shaming orcs can get them on your side 

A common problem is that you'll often encounter some of those powerful orcs but discover that they're too high level to recruit. While you might be tempted to just immediately put them out of their misery, there's another, sneakier option available if you're willing to be a bit more patient.

Eventually when you dominate broken captains, you'll have the ability to 'shame' them, which - aside from being a poetic form of revenge on the testosterone-fueled orc warlords - means you'll effectively reduce their level. Drop them enough, and the next time you track them down, you'll be able to recruit them, taking advantage of those same unique abilities that you found so noisome when you were staring down the business end of their cleaver.

6. Grab the Treasure Hunter skill ASAP 

To feed your need for increasingly powerful loot, you'll want to cut down the treasure orcs you stumble across (handily marked with little white icons above their heads) whenever you have the opportunity. But what's perhaps less obvious at first is a simple quality-of-life improvement you can find in the depths of the skill tree.

It takes a bit of investment in terms of skill points, but with the rate they come flying in early on, it's well worth it. At the far end of the Wraith skill line, you'll find the Treasure Hunter ability that lets you immediately pick up any item you run across. And given the length of the gathering animation, this is a welcome improvement. While this likely should've been the default way to grab loot, at least there are number of quality upgrades along the wraith tree that you'd likely want to snag anyway, so getting there doesn't feel overly punishing. 

7. Start optimizing your gear towards a specific build 

Now that you're picking up loot at a much faster rate, you'll quickly find yourself with a broad selection of quality gear. Rare and higher gear will be equipped with special abilities that mark it out beyond the basic stats, some of which need to be unlocked by completing specific challenges. Don't feel compelled to finish every challenge on every piece of gear you pick up; instead, focus on a build that complements your abilities.  

Early on, I concentrated on skills that improved my likelihood of landing critical hits; when I started grabbing quality gear, I then focused on stuff that added special effects, like fire or poison, to every crit. You could also double down on stealth or ranged combat and build accordingly - just make sure your gear is a match for your playstyle, and slot gems into your items that further enhance them along those lines. 

8. Poems offer an easy path to legendary loot 

Starting in the prologue area, you'll discover a number of collectibles scattered throughout the region as you reclaim towers from Sauron's grasp. While those of us suffering from a touch of open-world fatigue may sigh as we scan an area for icons, I highly recommend you track down the Ithildin fragments in each zone, and return them to their mystical poem door. 

Complete the poem by slotting in the right words and it'll crack open to reveal its contents, which in this case is powerful legendary loot. It's one of the easiest and most reliable ways to get your hands on those gorgeous purple set items you crave, and hunting down the fragments isn't too onerous. Plus, the Mad Libs-style poetry mini-game is actually oddly satisfying in a way that collectible hunting rarely is.