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I came for Middle-Earth: Shadow of War's stealth and left on a fire-breathing dragon

"Middle-earth: Shadow of War is a violent Tolkien fan-fiction generator," said our James of Warner Bros and Monolith's Lord of the Rings-inspired Mordor follow-up, after going hands-on at E3. The trailers since impressed me with improvements to the game's coveted Nemesis system, reinterpretations of Shelob and, most recently, dragons. 

However it was James' mention of stealth—or, perhaps more importantly, lack thereof—back in June that caught my eye. "My biggest concern going into Middle-Earth: Shadow of War was stealth play getting sidelined for the large-scale combat of the fortress assault missions and a renewed focus on managing uruk forces," said James. "So at E3 when I got free reign over how to spend my time in an entire region, I figured I’d attempt to infiltrate a fort, coax the captain out, and kill him without anyone knowing I was there. Classic Shadow of Mordor stuff." 

James had some luck sneaking into the enemy compound, but in the spirit of exploration I seek to double-down on stealth as much as my hands-on with Shadow of War allows, to see how varied your approach can really be.

At first glance, 'mounted massacre' doesn't strike me as a particularly pro-sneaking mission, but I take it on anyway and am immediately asked to mount a caragor—a sort of big orcy dog beast. I spot three uruks battling one such brute up ahead and decide to hug a line of trees before lying in wait. Cautious to avoid rushing in too soon, I inevitably overestimate my downtime and wind up face-to-face with a wounded beast who clearly ain't for taming. I turn tail and run with my life intact and my azkâr between my legs. 

Before long I've tamed and mounted my own creature of the hunt. I'm prompted to notch ten kills and five "counter attacks while mounted." The former sounds doable without going detected, but the latter is going to require finesse, timely strategy, and—WOW, LANCING URUKS FROM UP HERE IS FUN. Ten? Call it 20, or 30 or 40 as I tear through hordes of great orcs like an Aeglos through butter. Talion butchers his foes with care and precision, and my quest for stealth is well and truly forgotten. Bodies pile up around me and, for better or worse, I feel an enormous sense of wellbeing.

Onto the next quest. 'Tirith' recalls Celebrimbor's march into Mordor at a time when the realm was said to have went to war with itself. "Remember how he flew into battle upon a drake, killing the mighty graugs of his enemies," so reads this mission's briefing and, needless to say, stealth is hardly an option here either. Riding dragon-back into battle as you save your keep from hostile caragor riders, on the other hand, absolutely is. 

Swooping beneath archways and soaring above turrets in bouts of uninhabited flight is a joy, as is isolating targets with the gamepad's left trigger and raining fire upon them with the right. The world burns on my command and I get so caught up in my willful slaughter that I completely overlook one secondary objective that says "0/3 release captured drakes."

In a flash, I shepherd a horde of caragors to their fiery doom at one end of the castle, nip down to free one of my three incarcerated dragon companions, and grin from ear to ear as my newly relinquished serpentine pal takes to the sky before destroying the remaining threat at the keep's opposite end.

Later, I take on Shadow of War's more open set pieces and test my hand at its new 'ring of power' possession feature that sees me flipping enemy allegiances in a BioShock Plasmid-style show of mind control. Drawing out captains from strongholds becomes a lot easier when you've got his minions onside, doing your bidding instead of your aggressor's.  

Prior to going hands-on with Middle-earth Shadow of War at yesterday's NVidia showcase event, the game's director Michael De Plater said: "Every single time you play one of these missions it's about making your own stories." This perfect outlines Shadow of War's scope for nuance and its all-embracing approach to combat. 

In June, James recognised that perfect stealth runs probably don't fit the game's storytelling purview. I now agree—but when there's this much fun to be had tearing Mordor and beyond apart who's really complaining?

Middle-earth Shadow of War is due October 10, 2017.