Review: Guardians of Middle-earth

GuardiansOfMiddleEarth

The first time I played a MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) game was almost ten years ago.  A friend of mine and I would look for Warcraft 3 player created maps and try as many new custom maps as we could find. Our search for fun and unique maps quickly stopped as we soon discovered the only map we ever needed. Of course I am referring to the original Defense of the Ancients map, or as it was called back as a Warcraft 3 mod, DotA Allstars.  The creativity of this mod spawned many late nights for my friend and I.  It also spawned an entirely new genre in the gaming industry, now led by popular PC titles like  Heroes of Newerth, League of Legends and DOTA 2.

But what about console gamers?  Shouldn’t they get to have a little MOBA fun also?  The answer is yes. Enter WB’s Guardians of Middle-earth, a Lord of the Rings flavored MOBA specially designed for console play.

Let’s step back for a moment real quick.  What is a MOBA? The basics are easy to grasp: Players select a hero — typically from a mix that includes a warrior, magic user, ranged archer, healer or any mixture of these archetypal classes — and take them onto a battlefield divided into various lanes of travel.  At each end of the battlefield is a base which needs to be defended from the opposing team. At regular intervals, support troops (or creeps) spawn from these bases with only one goal, to kill whatever enemy is in their way as they attempt to cross the other side of the map and destroy the opponent’s base.  The player’s job is to simply control their hero and support their ally troops and unleash devastation upon the enemy by taking down opponent towers, creeps and of course which ever hero class the opponent has chosen.

Guardians of Middle-earth is no different, except here the 5-on-5 battles pit famous Tolkien heroes like Gandalf, Legolas and Bilbo Baggins against infamous Middle-earth villains like Sauron, Gollum and the Witch-King.  The game has two basic maps, one with three lanes and the other with only one, and a range of classes that includes a Warrior, Striker, Defender, Tactician, and Enchanter.  Each hero has four upgradeable spell abilities to use for either supporting the creeps or other nearby heroes or attacking the opposing team.  Prior to a match, loadouts can be created to offer a bonus toward attacks, defense, speed, abilities, or health.  Loadouts are built around gems or relics which become active as the hero levels up during a match.  Loadouts also include slots for single-use potions, which can further buff attributes like attack, defense, speed, etc, as well as unique spells which have a longer cooldown period but range from healing to short term attack/defense bonuses.

In addition to leveling a hero during a battle, earned XP and gold allow players to level up their guardian outside of matches, making it easy to create multiple loadout builds geared for the different class types.  Gold earned can be spent on buying additional relic types as well as potions, gems and even new Heroes.  Each Hero also has a list of feats to complete during a match which counts toward the overall XP and gold earning mechanic.

Up to five players on each side can join a match and selecting a hero is done at a lobby area before the battle starts.  In theory classes/heroes should be selected to compliment the team, but in reality many teams come together randomly with teammates who, to the detriment of the match, don’t always understand the role of the hero they are playing.  Early moments of each round are important for leveling by attacking opponent creeps, allowing for the hero spells to increase in power. When there are good players on both sides there is an almost poetic, rhythmic dance that occurs during a match as each hero steps into the fray long enough to use a spell, attack and kill a few creeps and then deftly retreat to avoid death (and giving the opponent precious points). In a bad match, however, inexperienced players blindly walk their heroes into the middle of an obvious deathtrap allowing the opposing team to score easy points.

A team of well-communicating players can quickly jump out to an early lead, but there are some heroes and relics that don’t truly shine until they have reached a high level.  More than once I’ve been on the losing side of a game in the first half only to have my team’s heroes level up to the max and completely stomp the opposing squad.  

Matches end after either 10 or 20 minutes, depending on the map, and there are two ways to achieve victory. Points are awarded to each team whenever an opposing hero is defeated, and which ever team has the most points at the end of the timer wins the game. A match can also be ended within the time limit as any team that is successful in destroying the other team’s towers and ultimately the main power core wins via complete map domination.

Because the game is so layered with multiple heroes and customization choices, the game can be a bit daunting to fully grasp right away, as is true with any MOBA.  As with other games of this ilk, the community can make or break a new player’s initial experience.  In my experience playing the PS3 version, there is a strong chance that you’ll match up with folks who aren’t playing with a headset to communicate with other players.  In a public free-for-all matchmaking system such as what Guardians offers, not having a way to communicate to other players kills a lot of the cooperative strategy. Of course, voice chat can also bring out complete asshats.  During one match, I encountered a teammate who berated another teammate because they obviously weren’t grasping how to play.  Not understanding how to play a game doesn’t entitle folks who do to be overzealous jackasses.

On the flip side, I’ve had plenty of great matches where one or two other players communicated and offered advice and worked to ensure the match was won.  One complaint I can level at Guardians from this standpoint is the fact that once I met a good player there was no way to team up with that person again without adding them as a PSN friend first.  No where in the overly complex interface is there a way to invite random people on teams to join up for subsequent matches.  Once a match is over that potential ally is lost without making them a friend.  I don’t know if this is the case on the 360, but I don’t understand why the game doesn’t offer the ability to at least ally during a gaming session.

One other minor gripe I have with the game, as hinted at above, is the interface.  There is so much information necessary to be expressed to the player, yet the layout can be a challenge to parse.  One good thing is that a match can be queued up to join and exploration of the various loadouts, potions, and heroes can be navigated while waiting for the next match.  Waiting for matches is not an overly prolonged experience, although I have encountered a couple of four minute queues.  When Guardians first released I had run into problems of matches disconnecting, but as of the latest patch my disconnection issues seem to have been reduced. Sadly if a teammate is disconnected in the middle of a match, that hero is pulled from the game, effectively making the match a 4v5 encounter.  If there aren’t enough real players, the game will insert an AI controlled hero, yet this doesn’t apply if a real player disconnects during a match.

Similar to how League of Legends works, Guardians offers a basic group of heroes to choose from in addition to a weekly rotating list of heroes.  Additionally the game offers a season pass which includes additional heroes that will be released in the weeks to come as well as a new mode and new map. Purchasing the season pass ensures that all new content is cheaper than buying everything individually (as is the case with most DLC season passes associated with games these days).

The long and the short of it is that Guardians of Middle-earth is a deep game that offers a ton of customization. Matches are best won by playing smart and working as a team.  Learning how to best utilize each class won’t come right away, but the game rewards players with enough leveling perks to keep each hero class interesting and fun to master.  Guardians is a great MOBA for consoles, but folks without any background on how to play or what is expected as a team player may find themselves in over their heads at first.  Tying iconic (and some that are more obscure) characters from the world of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit is a great way to introduce a truly addictive game genre to the uninitiated.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Matches are relatively quick and no long waiting when joining new matches
+ Deep customization offers a rich and wide variety of play styles
+ Decent AI to fill in when full matches aren’t available

Cons:
– UI is a bit muddled and could be further optimized for large screen/distance viewing
– No ally group making from within a match
– Loadout management can feel a little too micro-managey

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PS3 via PSN, also available for Xbox 360 via XBLA
Publisher: Warner Bros.
Developer: Monolith
Release Date: 12/4/2012
Genre: MOBA
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1-10
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.