By Steve Wright
Guardians of Middle-earth is WB Games’ first attempt at bringing the MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena) game type to consoles, leveraging off the familiar (and loved!) Lord of the Rings franchise. Available as a downloadable experience, it’s no surprise that WB has positioned this game alongside the release of The Hobbit in theatres later this month.
Thankfully, the game is much more than a movie tie-in type title.
For those unfamiliar with MOBA-type games, think of PC classics like Dota and League of Legends. Gamers connect to a server, and in the case of Guardians of Middle-earth, fight in two teams of five. Teams will need to work together to destroy the opposing team’s towers and wrestle control of the map to win the match.
In every match you play, you’ll start off as a level 1 character playing on one of (only) two maps, gaining XP that will level you up to a cap of 14. Each level grants you one point to put towards one of your three main attacks, plus a fourth that you can activate with a certain level of progression. You can also upgrade defence and soldier towers as you play each map, depending on how the battle is unfolding.
As with most genres defined on the PC, developer Monolith has had to scale a multitude of keyboard commands down to a very minute number of Xbox 360 or PS3 controller buttons. I think it works quite well; you’ve got four main attacks with your main buttons, plus potions on the left shoulder and upgrades on the right. Saying that, Guardians of Middle-earth is my first real MOBA experience, so I doubt that hardcore fans of the genre will appreciate the simplicity as I do.
Taking advantage of the Lord of the Rings license, the game features a number of playable Guardians from the franchise – Legolas, Gandalf, Aragorn, Gollum and more, some of whom can be unlocked though gaining XP. You play on either the 3-lane or 1-lane battlefield map; 1-lane means all the characters will be duking it out in one main battle and 3-lane battles tend to take longer and require more thought when attacking on various fronts. All the while, Monolith has found voice actors who sound spot on to the characters in Peter Jackson’s films; each character will spout off famous one-liners as you play. You know, like Gandalf’s “You shall not pass!”
Just because some aspects are the game are simple doesn’t mean the entire thing is. Middle-earth has a VERY steep learning curve to those new to MOBAs; it took me a couple hours to get out of the habit of charging into battle without a fellow Guardian, or at least one group of constantly-spawning AI soldiers. Those n00b moves pretty much meant instant death at the hands of my opponents. Playing through the tutorial a second time after a couple hours with the game really helped me learn when I should attack and when I should retreat.
If you can’t find 9 other gamers to play with, Guardians of Middle-earth will use AI-controlled characters to fill the gaps… and those AI players are ruthless. They will decimate you when you play against them, and they don’t seem to want to work co-operatively with you when on your side. It’s nice that you don’t have to wait for human players, but it also detracts from the whole experience… especially if you're not great at MOBAs. While Monolith is planning future DLC packs for Guardians of Middle-earth, they seem consist of on extra Guardian characters, which is disappointing; with only two maps to play through, the locales get very stale very quickly.
All up, Guardians of Middle-earth is a great MOBA experience to patient, first-time players or fans of the Lord of the Rings franchise. I have a feeling MOBA fans will want to pass this up if they have access to a more hardcore, traditional-type title. For 1200 points, it’s a great little pickup as long as you know what you’re in for.