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How to survive Sauron’s Army in Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

Read our full Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor review.

Monolith Productions built a big, sprawling game in Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. The dark lord Sauron’s broken kingdom is laid before you, split between two fully explorable open world regions. There’s an open-ended structure within the scripted story, as ranger protagonist Talion creeps through the shadows, sowing discontent among the upper ranks of Sauron’s vast army.

So you’ve got a lot of freedom in how you choose to approach Shadow of Mordor, but there’s also a bit of a learning curve. We’re here to help. Read on for a rundown of how the game’s basic systems work and how you can harness them more effectively as you turn the legions of Sauron’s army against their master.

ABC: Always Be Creepin’

To say that Mordor is a hostile landscape is an understatement. You’ll find very few friendly faces there, and none just wandering freely in the open world. Human slaves aren’t any threat, but their orc masters are definitely dangerous. In a manner similar to the Assassin’s Creed games, a detection indicator pops up and slowly fills with yellow, then red, when a hostile spots you. Break line of sight and you can slip away.

You’ll find very few friendly faces there, and none just wandering freely in the open world.

Of course, it’s better to avoid being spotted in the first place. Wraith sense is one of Talion’s most useful tools in this regard. Activate it whenever you wander into a new area to get a sense of what’s around you. The range is limited, but you can peer through walls and other obstacles to catch sight of any enemies patrolling in your immediate vicinity.

Rank-and-file orcs are highlighted blue in Wraith sense (as are creatures like Caragors), though any special equipment they might be carrying, such as a ranged weapon or a shield, shows as red. Those that show as solid green are Intel targets; if you can isolate one and grab it, you can then peer into its mind for information about the Captain or Warchief of your choice. Finally, orcs highlighted in solid red are Captains or Warchiefs. Click R3 when the prompt appears (only in Wraith sense) to bring up any known intel relating to that officer.

It’s generally a sound strategy to maintain the high ground whenever you can. Or, when you’re invading a fortified area, shimmy along the ledges from the outside. Wraith sense gives a good idea of how nearby orcs are positioned, and you can use that knowledge to keep obstacles between you and your targets while you find a convenient perch.

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When you are spotted, a ghost outline of Talion appears as an indicator the last position the orcs had on you. That’s where they’ll investigate. Get out of harm’s way by changing up your location. You can even take advantage of situations like this by circling around behind the orcs while they look for you and taking them out quietly.

Your first real goal in the game should be to just run around and unlock every single Forge Tower. When you scale one and interact with the anvil you find up there, all of the collectibles and other goodies in that region of the open world map are revealed. They also become active fast-travel destinations. You can spot them easily with Wraith sense; they look like crumbling ruins in the real world, but Wraith view highlights them as tall, stark-white towers.

Building a better ranger

Talion levels up as you earn XP throughout the game, and each new level grants another skill point to spend on either Wraith (primarily stealth) or Ranger skills (primarily combat). Certain ability unlocks are attached to specific story missions, and progression through the tree as a whole is governed by your progress through the game, but there are a few skills that new players should prioritize.

Really, the entire first row of Talion’s skills should be purchased as early as possible. Each one is a fundamental skill that is useful throughout the entire game. Grab the Ride Caragors skill first, as this allows you to leap on top of and tame the four-legged beasts. Not only does that make moving around the world easier, it also gives Talion a bit of an offensive edge when heading into heavily defended territory. Those Caragors are nasty in combat.

All of the skills in the first row are vital, and should be purchased early.

The Detonate ability is also extremely useful when it comes to taking out groups. Orcs have a tendency to gather around fires, and one well-placed shot with your bow will either take them all out or leave any survivors weak enough that mop-up is no challenge. Execution and Strike From Above are also useful from moment one; the former is best for those that favor open combat, and the latter for stealth.

Again though: All of the skills in the first row are vital, and should be purchased early. Shadow of Mordor very easily tailors itself around your particular approach to the gameplay, so your best bet is to go with what suits your style. After you grab Ride Caragors, that is.

Separate from Talion’s abilities are upgrades, which you spend amassed Mirian (the in-game currency) to unlock. Half of the upgrades are specific to Talion: Boost your total health, the quiver capacity for your bow, and the length of your Focus meter (which slows down time when you aim the bow while the meter drains). You can also buy weapon upgrades, which unlock additional rune slots for each of your three weapons — sword, dagger, and bow — as well as a powerful, very expensive super-move at the end of the upgrade tree.

Runes apply an assortment of modifiers to the weapon they’re equipped on. They’re color-coded by rarity (think Diablo), with the more elusive ones conferring more significant bonuses. All three of Talion’s weapons have one rune slot unlocked by default, and downed Captains/Warchiefs always drop one, with more powerful opponents dropping more potent runes.

This is really a matter of taste. It’s possible to go through the entirety of Shadow of Mordor without ever equipping a single rune. There’s no harm in equipping one to each weapon’s single default slot, but some might prefer to save their Mirian for bigger health boosts or a larger quiver. Think before you spend though; if you want to unlock one of your weapons’ super-moves, it’s going to be expensive. Plan out where and how you want to upgrade.

Optional sidequests like Weapon Challenges and Outcast Missions are the best sources of Mirian in the game. You’ll get smaller amounts for grabbing certain collectibles and the like, but it’s hard to amass a fortune unless you pursue the optional missions. You’re never locked to a specific path, however, so it’s entirely possible to focus your early efforts in Shadow of Mordor on unlocking Talion’s abilities before you start pursuing Mirian-earning tasks in earnest. Or vice versa.

Know your enemy, grow your army

Nothing influences the pace of this game more than the Nemesis System. This hierarchy of Sauron’s army splits between two officer roles: Captains and Warchiefs. Captains are analogous with minibosses and Warchiefs are full-blown bosses. Each individual on the tree has a “power level” that changes over time as different orcs engage in power struggles or are shuffled around by your actions (example: If a Captain manages to take down Talion, his power level rises).

The “Sauron’s Army” menu gives you a pictorial view of the orc hierarchy. From here, you can access any known information about Captains and Warchiefs: Their location; power level; any ongoing power struggles with other orcs; and all strengths, weaknesses, fears, and hates. This is where Intel comes in handy, since it reveals details that you can use to get an advantage over your enemy.

It’s a little complicated to explain, but it’s worth taking the time to learn. Each orc has specific Strengths and Weaknesses, all of which are revealed when you apply Intel to that orc. With Weaknesses, an orc is either vulnerable to something — stealth finishers, ranged attacks, mounted beasts, and the like — or scared of something. Riding a Caragor into battle against a Captain that is afraid of the beast, and he’ll instantly go into a panicked “escape” state as soon as he catches sight of you. At that point, he’ll stop attacking completely and try to get away.

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The Strengths category works in much the same way. A Captain with the Summoner trait calls nearby orcs to battle; the Sniffer trait allows him to detect Talion when he’s close by. Also listed as Strengths are “Hate of” traits. Similar to the fear traits, a Captain with a hatred of Caragors becomes enraged when he sees one, which confers a combat bonus.

It’s important to gather intel and get a good sense of what you’re up against before you head into battle against Captains and Warchiefs. The latter especially, since unlike Captains, they don’t wander around freely in the world. Drawing out a Warchief amounts to a quest in Shadow of Mordor, with some specific condition — kill a certain number of orcs in two minutes, for example — attached to it.

Roughly midway through the game, Talion’s Branding ability unlocks. From that point on, you’ve got two options for dealing with orcs: Kill them or turn them. A branded orc fights on Talion’s behalf whenever he’s nearby and in combat. Brands are persistent, too. If you bring a fortress full of orcs over to your side, leave, then return hours later to take out a Captain, you’ll find all your underlings are still there.

Branded orcs appear as blue dots on the minimap. You can also tell by looking at their eyes, as branded orc eyes emit a bright, blue light. While it’s useful to have these guys around as defenders when you’re caught in battle, you also have the option of pressing up on the D-pad to “activate” them, at which point they’ll attack any unbranded orcs in the vicinity.