I was left disappointed with the ending of Shadow of Mordor when I played it at launch in 2014. After a promising start to that game, the final hours of the adventure felt rushed and sometimes ill-conceived, and the early excitement of the Nemesis system didn’t pan out into the meaningful encounters I had hoped to find. 

A lengthy demo of Shadow of War isn’t enough to lift all the concerns left behind by the prior game’s issues, but it went a long way to reigniting my enthusiasm for Talion’s adventures beyond the Black Gate. 

No system seems untouched when compared to Shadow of War’s predecessor. Every moment-to-moment gameplay mechanic is revamped or has seen improvements, from more responsive melee to a traversal and travel system that is faster and more responsive. 

The vaunted Nemesis system was the most revolutionary feataure of the first game, and the sequel has what appears to be a much deeper and more nuanced approach. Individual orc enemies have more distinct personalities and gameplay perks, so it’s even more important to pay attention to strengths and weaknesses. Talion is also building up his own army throughout the game, and it pays to recognize how to deploy your captains to counter specific threats.

That dynamic is on full display in the new fortress assaults. Prior to starting the battle, smart commanders will take extra time to choose how to deploy troops, and what bonuses to apply to those troops in order to best conquer specific enemy fortifications and leaders. Talion’s involvement in those assaults is also key to victory, and I had a blast exploring my many options for breaching enemy defenses. I climbed the wall and took out archers. I dominated a massive stone throwing beast on the walls, mounted him, and leaped down into the courtyard to clear a control point. I shadow struck up onto a passing drake, and then flew flame strafing runs across the enemy troops lines. And then I broke down the doors to the inner keep to do battle with the orc leader holding the fort. The sense of command and control outstrips what we saw in Shadow of Mordor, and helps this new game evoke a sense of being in a real war. 

I was also impressed when I stepped away from the big battles and tried out a couple of story missions. Without spoiling their contents too much, I can say that both felt like they had more meaningful character interactions, dialogue threads, and crafted objectives than what I recall from the last game. One involved a quest deep into a forest, and a confrontation with a forest spirit hidden within the trees. Another allowed me to meet up with an elven assassin in a stealth-oriented quest to uncover information about Mordor’s use of the all-seeing Palantir artifacts. If those two missions are an indicator of the campaign’s general flow, I’ll be very happy. 

Talion’s equipment and skill progression also intrigued me. Players can pick and choose among five major skill paths – combat, predator, ranged, wraith, and mounted – while a sixth path of abilities unlocks naturally through the course of the story. Tons of cool abilities lay hidden within these upgrade paths, from new melee takedowns to increased stealth attack options. Similarly, the new inventory system boasts significant customization potential. My favorite feature is that some more highly powered equipment can gain even more strength if you complete a specific task while having it equipped, like a certain number of ground takedowns on enemy captains.

The surrounding environments appeared to offer more variety and interest than I remember from the first game, with more lush and vibrant colors, but the small area of the open world in which I was able to play wasn’t enough to let me get a true sense of the full environment. As a Tolkien fan, I’m also more than a little bit at a loss as far as where the story and themes of the story are going at this point. The increasingly dark and world-changing nature of Talion’s adventures feel increasingly at odds with the core fiction, but perhaps it’s best to not get too caught up in parity with the original books or movies. As it is, the storytelling certainly seems strongly tied to elements of Middle-earth lore, but at times tonally dissonant from the source material. 

Even with those concerns, I came away from my time with Middle-earth: Shadow of War greatly heartened as to the direction of the gameplay in particular, and enthusiastic about the game’s potential when it releases on October 10.