At the heart of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is its Nemesis system, a structure by which players can track and influence the orc hierarchy within the game. At the same time, the game presents an open world where you can chart your own course. We spent some time with the title to see how these two philosophies mesh together in the dangerous land of Mordor.

The short answer is that they work together very well. In a recent event we dropped into the Sea of Nuren – an area of Mordor that is still populated by humans (now slaves) and whose grasslands, stone structures, and wildlife is a far cry from the desolated landscape of Mordor people might be familiar with from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The Nemesis system was a strong anchor for my overall objectives, but I was free to pursue my own whims and prey at anytime. The two are not mutually exclusive. "I think what we thought people would or wouldn't do kind of goes right out the window once they start playing it," says director of design at Monolith Michael de Plater. "The open world, the Nemesis system, and the story really do come back together at key points."

The Nemesis system is best encapsulated in a menu screen within the game that shows you the warchiefs in the area and which captains are under their command. If you've picked up – earned via interrogations or through scraps you find in the world – on any of the enemies here, you'll see it listed out in terms of that orcs' strengths and weaknesses, info on their personality (and thus ways in which they might be exploited), and the rewards you'll get if you take them down. There's a lot of information to scour, but the screen is easy to navigate and understand.

Back out in the world, you can make a beeline for your objective using the info from the Nemesis system's enemies screen outlined above. Or you can just do whatever you want. I did a little of both. In my pursuit to dominate and turn a particular captain against his warchief so I could eventually control and take over his army, I was killed. The result was the scrub who knifed me moved up the chain of command and became a captain – he also made my list of things to do for the day. Watching him get promoted in the Nemesis screen, I felt a weird sense of pride that I'd somehow helped a regular Joe orc make something of himself in this horrible world.

Tracking down this newly made orc captain led me to a heavily fortified garrison that I had to sneak around. I ended up stealth killing some guards, possessing and riding caragors (large, warg-like felines), and eventually getting my revenge. It was a fun excursion that showed how dynamic events in the game can be apart from the main objective at hand. I could have spent hours clearing out that fort if I wanted to.

Talion's wraith powers (mysteriously gifted to him, and which set the game's events in motion) are very helpful as you move around the world. The Shadow Step allows you leap around in bursts, including down from building roofs, and dipping into the wraith world lets you see enemies' locations – particularly the captains and warchiefs. The map of the demo area seemed relatively large, covering three distinct areas. Unlocked wraith towers within the world allow you to fast travel between them, but it's also easy to possess and ride a caragor to get to where you need to go quickly.

Anyone familiar with the Batman: Arkham series' fluid counter melee system will feel right at home in Mordor. Attacking, blocking, and killing (with some gruesome, satisfying finishers) was fluid, with clear prompts appearing on screen signaling the appropriate time to parry or possess someone. Talion's ability to dominate foes adds another dimension to the combat and overall game. During one battle I even got a couple of dominated orcs to fight on my side. Killing the captains and warchiefs outright earns you runes that you apply to your weapons to customize them and increase your abilities.

At the end of my brief playtime I may not have been any closer to my initial objective, but I had a much clearer understanding of the game and appreciation of its flexibility and possibilities.

Check out the trailer below for a glimpse into what Talion is doing in the Sea of Nuren, including an appearance by its spooky Queen.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor will be out on October 7 for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, and PC. For more, click on the hub below.