I have only seen a little of Middle-earth: Shadow of War, but that little has piqued my interest far more than its predecessor Shadow of Mordor. This may be because the majority of what I saw demonstrated was new, and wasn’t in Shadow of Mordor. Specifically, in Shadow of War you can assault a large fortress, ride some species of wyvern or other, and fight a big boss enemy that sounds and behaves like Arnold Schwarzenegger if he was a troll who was well into fire, and the setting things on thereof (this would have made Batman & Robin a substantially better movie).
Shadow of War takes place immediately after Shadow of Mordor, but decades before Lord of the Rings. TalionxCelebrimbor, the ranger fused with an Elven wraith protagonist from the previous game, forges a new ring of power to take on Sauron (and given that The Lord of the Rings happens later on, is either woefully unsuccessful or we go off into an alternate storyline, Star Trek reboot style). Known to his friends as the Bright Lord, Talion raises his own army and, we presume, hell along with it.
Shadow of War is touting the usual you expect from sequels, i.e. it looks nicer, and the map is much bigger and has more areas. Shadow of War is definitely aiming for epic in its scale, but, of course, the more variables you add the more potential there is for something to go wrong (see: Bethesda). We also don’t know what may have changed in the rest of the game, or how, in a bigger world, the ratio of fast travel to actually exploring might change. But I can tell you a bit about running a fortress assault, which is what I saw hands-off demoed.
The fortress assault — although it should be noted there are fortresses plural, and they can also be counter-assaulted by Sauron when they’re under your control — was a good thing to show off, because a) it’s new b) it’s exciting and there’s lots of explosions and shouting and chopping arms off and c) it demonstrates the different ways the nemesis system, which seemed to be everyone’s favourite bit of the last one, has been expanded into the game world.
So. You pony up to the fortress. You take a look at the enemy forces holed up in it: how many Warchiefs there are, and what they and the fortress Overlord (a new enemy level, an even bigger big boss who reports directly to the Nazgûl aka the Ringwraiths aka the Black Riders) might have added to the fortress defenses. For example, an energetic and proactive as fuck orc nicknamed Flame of War may have added burning pitch traps to the inner walls. Orcs now come in different flavours, like a shitty ice cream brand, based on the tribe they belong to. This alters things as well e.g. raising or lowering the potential for the fortress to be defended by a load of wargs.
You consider the fortress, and weigh it against your own forces, including your own Warchiefs — yeah, you get your own! You can have a big troll (because war trolls are very much a thing in this one) yelling ‘WE BRING WAR!’ at the front gates — that have different abilities, like mounted armoured cavalry or being a living battering ram to welly down defences. In the gameplay we saw, Talion had managed to install a spy on the inside, called Deadeye. Deadeye sabotaged the inside of the fortress, and took up a sniping position on a tower.
You and your forces attack; you breach the first gate! Talion was ambushed by Storm Bringer, an orc mystic who had been part of the Bright Lord’s army but had been killed and then resurrected (Storm Bringer interpreted this as having been abandoned and was very perturbed as a result). All seemed lost, but then Deadeye shot Storm Bringer in the head. This whole backstory and interaction was generated through the nemesis system; you’re unlikely to encounter Storm Bringer or Deadeye in your own game. Which is a shame, ‘cos Deadeye was a good lad. Good ole’ Deadeye. See, this time the nemesis system in Shadow of War extends to your own followers, so you can also ‘tell stories of loyalty or betrayal’ that can even evolve into friendship.
You go on to breach the second gate. Talion overpowered the Flame of War, although some of his forces are badly burned by the traps. You enter the Overlord’s throne room. When Talion was fighting the massive Schwarzenegger troll, who was yelling stuff about pain and fire, your boy Ragdug Iron Mount suddenly burst in and helped take him down. Ragdug was rightly promoted to Overlord himself for his loyalty. Thus, a fortress is won, and you conquer the region. There’s certainly potential here for some ‘Oh damn!’ moments of surprise, as well as forming unaccountably strong bonds with people that aren’t real, a la XCOM.
So to recap: in Shadow of War you can form your own Scooby Gang of orcs, lay fortresses to waste in pitched battles, engage in actual espionage, plant explosive traps, suffer quips from very over the top bad guys, and get some new combat powers thanks to your home-made jewellery. So, fortress assaults look pretty fun, all in all.