Published on December 13th, 2012 | by Ethan
Guardians of Middle Earth Review
Remember that time in The Lord of the Rings when Gollum and Galadriel teamed up to fight Sauron and Gandalf, but Sauron kept hiding behind a tower like a little baby because Galadriel would fear him into the Witch King?
Sounds like something out of a fan fiction? Nope, this experience is brought to you by the new downloadable title from Monolith Productions. Finally gamers can take Lord of the Rings characters and pit them against each other in a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) on the Xbox 360 and PS3. The premise sounds silly and there is nearly no reason for LotR characters to be in the game, but the game itself is a bit of a surprise.
It would have been easy for Monolith to simply make a quick cash-in after getting the LotR license, instead it’s evident that a fair amount of work went into developing this game. For those who don’t know, MOBA games (ala: League of Legends and DoTA 2) are five vs. five games played in a three lane tower defense map. Each player chooses a unique champion and tries to push to the opponents’ main base in an attempt destroy it. Guardians doesn’t stray far from this formula and instead of improving and innovating on the relatively new genre, it makes a few changes to simplify it for a different platform: Consoles.
As a long time League of Legends and occasional DoTA 2 player, it is refreshing to enjoy a MOBA without worrying about an onslaught of mechanics. Gone is last hitting, buying items in-game with gold and unlocking character abilities. Instead the game focuses on individual encounters with players, emphasizing how they utilize the abilities at their disposal. Fights are still heavily in favor of the team who is a higher level, but at the end of the game everyone is usually on an even playing field. It’s a simpler experience that is more focused on combat, and for the most part, it’s well executed.
Bringing a genre that was born from a Warcraft III mod to a console couldn’t have been easy. The main camera is locked to the player’s character and the right analog stick is used to aim basic attacks and abilities. While basic attacks are intuitive, holding down the right trigger/shoulder button, trying to use an ability and aim at the same time is nearly impossible. Unless an enemy is right in front of a player, they will have to do a right-hand thumb and index finger yoga dance trying to use the right analog stick and face buttons at the same time.
There is an option to let the abilities be chosen beforehand and then activated with the right trigger, but it still feels a little bit clunky. I wish this wasn’t a big deal because the overall controls are intuitive, but chasing down a player while trying to aim a game-changing stun while fighting with the controls leads to lost games and frustration.
Besides a player’s level and skill, capturing shines are a way to tip the game balance in the team’s favor. Each shrine gives a unique bonus to any team that holds it—whether it’s faster health regen or extra structure damage. Another way to give buffs to your team is to kill special monsters in the middle of the map, aka the jungle. While the in-game store is gone, a player can still customize their character’s attributes via a relic and gem belt, which is equipped beforehand and unlocks different powers as a player gains levels. It takes away the ability to react appropriately to the composition or the play style of the opponents’ team. As such, winning a Guardians’ game is simplified down to its roots and that works for players who are craving that particular MOBA experience.
Another feature not present in other MOBAs is the ability to upgrade towers and the soldiers’ (aka “creeps”) barracks. This feature is not as robust as it could have been; players are only allowed to upgrade towers at a certain level and it feels more of a chore upgrading towers than fun once the appropriate level hits.
Until hitting level 12, which is two levels below the level cap of 14, towers and barracks simply do more damage with every upgrade. At level 12, towers have the option of being upgraded for maximum damage or becoming healing towers that are useful if your team is doing well holding a lane. It is neat that they put this feature into the game, but why not have the option for a healing tower available at the very beginning of the match? That could add a whole new dynamic to the risk reward part of the “laning phase,” instead of waiting until the time in the game when players run around in a group.
On the presentation side, Guardians’ graphics are adequate for a downloadable game. It looks fine and the art style is somewhat reminiscent of the Lord of the Rings movies, but it just isn’t super impressive to look at. To be fair, MOBA games are not made to marvel at the graphics, but more visual polish wouldn’t have hurt. Sound effects are sufficient and do a good job of alerting a player when a tower is targeting them.
Voice acting also helps alert players to various events around them. Characters yell when their health is low and when the enemy team reveals themselves from the bushes. But while some characters sound fairly close to their on screen counterparts, others are very obviously not close at all (I am looking at you Legolas).
Speaking of characters, there is a wide variety of people, creatures and even demi-gods from the Tolkien universe to choose to do battle with. Each character falls into one of several combat roles. For example, Gollum is an assassin-like character called a striker, Sauron is part of the warrior class (the all-arounder), the Witch King is similar to a beefy support class known as a guardian and there is a hobbit named Hildifons Took—part of a tactician class—whose specialty is setting traps and barriers to route or block in the other team. The developers reached deep into LotR lore to find all of the characters they could, yet “non-canon” characters had to be created to fill some roles (particularly on the evil side).
But, because the traditional story line is thrown out the window, it is easy to forget that you are actually playing a Lord of the Rings game. Honestly, there is no reason for this game to be set in the Tolkien universe other than marketing reasons; it is unclear how many people would give a console MOBA a shot if they weren’t enticed by Gandalf and friends on the cover.
Hopefully, the people who did purchase the game without prior knowledge won’t be driven off by some the slow match-making system and horrible disconnection issues. Finding a match takes anywhere from one to ten minutes, which might not be so bad if getting disconnected randomly from games was not an issue. The worst is when a teammate gets disconnected or rage quits (it’s hard to tell) and you are left to slowly lose a game to an overpowered team. Monolith has already stated they are aware of the issue and will fix it with a patch, but the damage might have already been done to the relatively small player base.
Guardians of Middle Earth is a surprising title. Monolith could have made a quick cash-in using the LotR license just put out a mediocre game, but instead they made an enjoyable game with LotR characters sprinkled in. It may be a game that no one really wanted to see happen and didn’t use the license to it’s fullest effect; how cool would battles have been if they were accompanied by Howard Shore’s score?
But nevertheless, it’s a wonderfully fun and mostly well designed MOBA. A pure MOBA experience on a console is a niche that no developer has experimented with and it succeeds in more ways than it fails. Here’s hoping it’s a success in terms of sales.
The Xbox 360 version was used to review the game.
Boils down the elements of a MOBA to its core and succeeds more than it fails.
Has decent art style and voice work going for it, but the music and graphics are just adequate.
The Lord of the Rings license isn’t used very well in the game and barely warrants any attention to it.
Many achievements, challenges and characters to master, with more characters slated to come out down the road.