Three years is basically forever in the ever-changing video game landscape, so you’ll be forgiven if you don’t remember all of the ins and outs of Midde-earth: Shadow of Mordor. It’s sequel, Middle-earth: Shadow of War, however, is not so forgiving.
It’s very hard to shake the rust off if you played the first game. It’s impossible if you didn’t. And the game is not exactly forthcoming with tutorials, tips or hints. So let’s talk through everything you need to remember (or learn for the first time) in Middle-earth: Shadow of War.
Premise and some lore
Both games take place during the 60-year span between The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring. Bilbo’s safely back in the Shire with a shiny new ring in his pocketses, and his “nephew” (first and/or second cousin once removed, technically) Frodo is not yet even a twinkle in Drogo Baggins’ eye (there’s still almost 30 years to go for that).
You play as Talion, a human ranger who was stationed at the Black Gate of Mordor. Things didn’t go great for Talion (or his family), and he wakes up dead before the first game even starts.
Talion is brought back to not-quite-life by a wraith in a shared-body kind of situation. During Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, we learn that the wraith is the Elf Lord Celebrimbor, the greatest Elven smith. Sauron (who was calling himself Annatar at the time) guided Celebrimbor to make the Rings of Power — “Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky, seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone, nine for mortal Men, doomed to die.” Celebrimbor has some guilt about the whole helping-the-Dark-Lord thing, so Talion and Celebrimbor team up to take on Sauron and his forces.
Talion’s fighting prowess and Celebrimbor’s wraith abilities turn them into a formidable pair. They spent the first game murdering and/or mind-controlling Sauron’s servants in and around Mordor until they had a final confrontation with Sauron. (Spoiler: They don’t kill Sauron all the way.)
There’s a lot more that happens in the first game — other characters and tie-ins and cameos — that we won’t get into here because they don’t really impact what you need to know going into the second one.
Middle-earth: Shadow of War picks up shortly after the end of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. Talion and Celebrimbor didn’t kill Sauron, but they did overcome some of his lackeys. Talion convinces Celebrimbor to hang around and continue their buddy-cop story. Oh, and, in a move that will make the most hardcore Tolkien fans’ heads explode, Celebrimbor decided to forge a new Ring of Power. That’s where Middle-earth: Shadow of War begins.
Both Shadow of Mordor and Shadow of War are Assassin’s Creed and Arkham series-inspired open-world action games. You run around, jumping and climbing and slicing your way through Sauron’s forces. Along the way, you’ll find new abilities, gear and pieces of the story (and backstory), pick up collectibles and consumable items. But stabbing orcs is the core gameplay.
In the first game, you learn Talion’s abilities slowly. In the second game, you start with almost all of them, and there are no tutorials. It’s intimidating to say the least. It’s confounding to say the most.
For close quarters combat, Talion has two weapons: a sword and a dagger. For your purposes as a player, they’re no different — they’re mapped to the same button, and he’ll use whichever one the context requires.
Talion’s also got a spectral(-ish) bow. It’s not so much physical as it is tied to Celebrimbor’s residence in his body. There’s a lot he can do with it in the first game, but it’s introduced relatively slowly in the second, so we’ll skip that for now.
Talion has a robust skill tree — there are 33 skills and 87 upgrades to those skills. Some of these will unlock as you progress through the campaign, and you can purchase the rest with the skill points you earn by doing various things or gaining enough XP to level up. Skills add options to Talion’s combat, new (magic) wraith powers and add new creatures you can mind control. There’s a lot going on here, so check out our guide dedicated to Middle-earth: Shadow of War’s skill tree.
Unlike the first game, Middle-earth: Shadow of War gives you a lot of control over your gear. You’ve got five pieces to worry about now: a sword, a dagger, a bow, armor and a hood.
Sometimes, like when you defeat certain orc captains or collect all of the ithildin words in an area, a piece of gear will drop. (We’ll talk more about ithidian words below.) They all have a pretty distinct icon, so you’ll know what it is. Each piece of gear also has a color associated with its quality and a stat. The stats are easy to understand. Each piece is associated with only one stat or ability, and higher numbers equal better gear, whether it’s melee attack for a sword or stealth for a hood. The quality is a little more complex.
There are four gear tiers — common (white), rare (yellow), epic (orange) and legendary (purple). You can’t upgrade common gear.
You can upgrade rare and better gear. When you first pick it up, you’ll see a mini-quest under the stat asking you to perform some task. In the example above, you can see that we have poison one enemy to unlock the upgrade. Once we do that, we’ll be able to spend some mirian, and Celebrimbor will upgrade the armor.
You can only upgrade rare (yellow) and epic (orange) gear once. Legendary (purple) gear has (much) harder quests, but you can upgrade it multiple times.
You can destroy gear that you no longer want or need and turn it into mirian (cash).
You can fit each of the five categories of gear with a gem.
You’ll pick up gems just like you pick up mirian and gear as you murder your way across the world. In your Inventory menu, you’ll have to spend 1,000 mirian to unlock the gem slot on each category of gear, but you only have to do this once, and gems remain in place even when you swap out or destroy gear.
There are three types of gems: Potency/Warrior (damage-increasing), Vitality/Life (health-increasing) and Wealth (mirian-increasing).
In each of those categories, there are five qualities of gems of increasing effectiveness: basic (they don’t have a qualifier) gems, carved, polished, refined and perfect. For example, a basic warrior gem will increase a weapon’s damage by 10 percent, while a perfect warrior gem will increase it by 30. Celebrimbor can combine and reforge three gems of equal quality into a single gem of the next-best quality.
Once you start picking up gems, you’re going to spend a significant amount of time managing gems.
There are four types of collectibles in Middle-earth: Shadow of War.
In the first game, finding artifacts restored pieces of Celebrimbor’s memory. In the second, finding lost artifacts will give you a bit of lore or backstory and, when you collect all of them in an area, a skill point. (The skill point is the important part there.)
In Middle-earth lore, ithildin is a specific type of mithril. The “speak friend and enter” doors into Moria that the Fellowship goes through were made out of ithildin. In the Middle-earth: Shadow of War, they’re hidden and invisible Elvish words that you find and collect to open a door to some really good gear. You should always do the ithildin collectibles.
Spoiler: Shelob’s in this game. It happens in the first five minutes, so it’s not really a spoiler, though. Throughout the areas you explore, you’ll find Shelob’s memories, which are called The Web of Fate. These are little lore and backstory tidbits that you pick up that will reward you with skill points.
The last one is not really a collectible, but it fits here anyway. Shadows of the Past Quests are mini-missions or challenges based on Celebrimbor’s memories. They’re kind of the closest thing that Middle-earth: Shadow of War has to tutorials. In each one, you’ll have to do a specific thing or use a specific skill to accomplish a goal. In fact, you’ll notice that a lot of them are locked until you purchase the requisite skill in your skill tree. You’re graded (bronze, silver or gold) on your performance, so the rewards vary, but you’ll get mirian (money), skill points and gems.
In both of the Middle-earth games, enemies are not permanently confined to their roles as either leaders or lackeys. They’re unique, procedurally generated individuals.
For all their individuality, your enemies — the orcs, at least — still fall into those two categories of leaders (captains) and lackeys (grunts). Grunts are sword fodder. Sure, some of them get shields or javelins, but they’re still all low-level and (relatively) weak.
If a grunt manages to kill you, however, he’ll get a promotion to captain, gain some experience and level up on his own. And he’ll remember you. Captains are a far more serious enemy, so we’ll give them their own section below. This whole system of procedurally-generated enemies, their hierarchy and the machinations therein is called the Nemesis System.
Think of the Nemesis System as your opponent’s turn in a board game. On your turn, you kill a bunch of the captains in an area’s orc army ranks. Your turn ends when you die (or when you choose to advance time at a fast travel location). On your “opponent’s” turn, new orcs are promoted into those vacated positions and others advance up the hierarchy. These promoted orcs become captains.
Among the captains, there’s also constant infighting happening. Captains challenge each other in events like camp raids and executions. The triumphant orc will increase in power while the loser will usually die (and therefore open up a spot in the ranks for a grunt to be promoted). These power plays show up on your map as orange, head-to-head icons. You can insert yourself into these Nemesis Missions to influence their outcomes, advancing certain captains (like ones you control) or just taking advantage of the distraction to kill two captains at once.
You’ll see a brief cutscene whenever you die that shows you these behind-the-scenes movements and hierarchy changes.
The captains in the orc army are quite a bit different from the grunts. They have an honorific after their name, fancier armor and a long list of strengths, abilities, weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Killing a captain, while difficult, will get you more XP and better gear.
There are eight kinds details about Captains, broken into strengths and weaknesses.
- STRENGTHS: Immunities (things that have no effect on them), Hates (things that make them Enraged and very aggressive), Class Traits (extra abilities due to their class) and Bonuses (like gangs or mounts).
- WEAKNESSES: Mortal Weaknesses (things that deal lots of damage or one-shot them or things that will immediately make them flee), Vulnerabilities (things that do extra damage), Dazed By (things that make them Dazed) and Hints (which are just helpful hints about ways to defeat this Captain).
You get all of this information by gaining intel, which we’ll talk about in the next section.
When a captain kills you, he becomes a Vendetta Mission of the “He killed you, go kill him back” variety. Killing these captains earns you even better gear than killing a regular captain.
There are also epic and legendary captains. These are extra-tough orcs, with extra strengths and bonuses, but they’ll drop epic and legendary gear.
Because captains get a bunch of strengths and weaknesses, it helps a lot to know about them before you take them on. (It’s not necessary, but it sure helps.) While you wander the world, you’ll be able to find intel. You’ll find some as notes on tables in orc camps. You’ get other intel after interrogating worms (orcs that know things).
Both kinds of intel are marked with the same icon your map and minimap. It’s an angular, green chevron-plus-hurricane-symbol icon — it’s the only green icon, so it’s easy to spot.
When you get intel, you can choose one of the captains in the area to learn about. You’ll get to see all of these strengths and traits — things like Enraged by Stealth (meaning that stealth attacks will make them super aggressive), Poison Weapon (meaning that his weapons can poison you, which deals extra damage and makes avoiding attacks more difficult), or Beast Fodder (meaning he takes extra damage from beast attacks). You can then use all of this information (and there’s a lot of it) to plan your attack.
There’s not really any online play in Middle-earth: Shadow of War per se, but there are ways for you to interact with other players. When a captain kills another player, you’ll be able to take on an Online Vendetta Mission to avenge their death.
These missions have their own orange, crossed-swords icon on your map. When you travel to their world (which basically just means into their version of the Nemesis System) and defeat their killer, you’ll earn a loot chest (see below in market) and some Spoils of War. Spoils of War is like XP for vendettas. Every 1,000 Spoils of War points will earn you a Spoils of War Chest (see below).
The second way to interact with other players doesn’t open up until many, many hours into the game. The Shadow War take the fortress mechanic that you explore at the end of Act 2 and turns it into an ongoing challenge among players. Once you control a fortress, you can spend time and money upgrading its defenses and the army defending it. Other players can then attack your fortress and test their abilities against those of your orc army. And you can do the same to their fortresses.
These fortress sieges are a great way to get ongoing content out of the game, as well as earn Spoils of War and loot chests.
Market (and microtransactions)
The Market is where you go to purchase and open chests. You can earn chests by doing certain tasks (like the Online Vendetta Missions above). You can also purchase them with mirian (which you earn in-game) or gold (which you purchase with real-world money).
There are three types of Chests. Loot Chests give you gear and/or XP-boosting consumables. War Chests give you Followers, Spoils of War-boosting consumables and Follower Training Orders (things to improve your Followers). Spoils of War Chests are special War Chests with better followers inside.
For an in-depth look at what’s worth buying and whether your should spend real money, see our Middle-earth: Shadow of War Market and microtransactions guide.