Guardians of Middle-Earth is a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) akin to the likes of Defense of the Ancients (DOTA) and League of Legends (LoL).What separates this MOBA from others is that it is designed for and can be played only on consoles (360/PS3). Therefore, straight from the get-go, Guardians sets itself up to be a game that is rather unclear as to which audience it is attempting to attract. Is it the hardcore, MOBA PC players or is it those that have been waiting for a proper MOBA to arrive on consoles? Ambiguous target audience aside, Guardians is a game that does well in a genre that is intended for play with a keyboard and mouse, but doesn’t support it.
The most glaring difference between this console-focused MOBA and others is that it has done away with the common item shop found in games like DOTA and LoL. A major factor in MOBAs has been the requirement to return to your base as soon as you have enough money for the next item you are planning to buy to increase the stats of your character – called guardians, in this case – but Guardians has opted out of that feature and decided to add some others.
The first of these features isn’t so much a replacement nor is it revolutionary, but it bears mentioning as it is unique in its own way. Players may create their own loadouts to use in-game that include their Guardian belt, relics, potions, and command abilities. Most of these things are familiar to players of League of Legends such as myself (Guardian belt=rune page, command abilities = summoner abilities, potions=potions), but relics are a small addition that is sure to add a little bit of extra time spent staring at numbers, as they add certain stat bonuses if you fill the relic with color-matching gems. The other addition comes in the way of a mini tower-defense game within the larger MOBA. This is not to be confused with most tower defense games, due to the fact that new towers cannot be created, but existing towers (found in all MOBAs) can be upgraded to do different things, such as target multiple enemies at once or simply fire at a faster rate.
The controls of Guardians is what might deter many skeptics as it has forgone the holy mouse and keyboard combination that has been held in high honor by hardcore PC gamers worldwide for ages. However, after a few minutes with the game, the controls come quite naturally. The left stick moves your guardian, the right stick can be used to target anything in 360 degrees, the R2 button (or right trigger on the 360) is your basic attack and the face buttons correspond to your four guardian abilities, and much like other MOBAs, you begin with three abilities and unlock your “ultimate” ability at a higher level. There are, of course, other buttons like L2 for your command abilities and the D-Pad for potions, but these are the core buttons you will use when playing Guardians of Middle-Earth. The only downside to the controls was the lack of ability to check in on any location of the map without having to move your guardian to said location. The mini-map provides awareness, but not to the extent that traditional MOBAs, played with a mouse and keyboard, do.
Being that this is a licensed product for The Lord of the Rings, some might wonder if justice has been done to their fabled heroes and villains in Tolkien’s universe. Put simply, yes, justice has been done. Characters look like their film counterparts (when applicable) and even sound like them, too. The characters that haven’t graced the big screen, such as Hildifons and Gothmog, still look and sound like they would had they made their Hollywood debut already.
While there is so much to enjoy about Guardians of Middle-Earth, it is not without its faults. Players can choose to queue up for 20-minute “Skirmishes” of five players against five AI controlled bots, 20-minute “Battlegrounds,” where the game will attempt to fill both sides with five players each (or, if matchmaking is taking too long, fill the remaining slots with AI controlled bots), or “Elite Battlegrounds,” which has no time limit and will continually search for players until all sides are filled with five actual players. This is where the downfall of Guardians begins. Hoping to queue up for Elite Battlegrounds and quickly begin playing is an attempt in futility. Elite Battleground queues always took much longer than the “average wait time” and usually by a long shot (try 17 minutes of waiting before giving up). Once in the game, there is no way of knowing if the match will see its end as huge lag spikes ruin the fun and eventually kick you out of the match, forcing you to wait through another grueling period of staring at a spinning circle, unsure of whether or not you have time to go make a sandwich and come back (you do). To be fair, I was able to complete a majority of the matches I have played, so far, without pain, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t feel like some matches were a test of my patience, as I watched my guardian skip around the map, run in place and seemingly do whatever else he/she felt like.
Of the matches I was able to play from beginning to end, without hiccups, I ran into a problem with lack of communication amongst my teammates. This may not be such a big problem on the 360, seeing as how most, if not all, players will have a microphone/headset, ready to use, but on the PS3, most people don’t have a Bluetooth microphone that they can sync to their console and use online. Even when I finally remembered I had one laying around the house, I couldn’t get the damn thing to work. There were times were I could hear some of my teammates speaking (though, this was rare), but I had no way to speak back to them, and for a game that relies heavily on team-based coordination and strategy, it’s a bit of a bummer that I’m left literally speechless, while I wonder what my teammates were planning to do when everyone with a microphone started saying my name, asking what the hell I was doing “over there.”
Guardians of Middle-Earth takes a familiar genre and places it in unfamiliar territory. Though, this isn’t completely to its detriment. When playable, Guardians is a fun, dare I say, more casual take on the popular, hardcore genre of MOBAs. The combat and controls are simple, yet just challenging enough to reward players with a sense of accomplishment when they take down an enemy. Not to mention the fact that it is all done with a gamepad from the comfort of a couch. However, there are some glaring technical issues and lack of communication support, limited by the PlayStation 3, that make the thought of playing Guardians somewhat objectionable.
Guardians of Middle-Earth was developed by Monolith Studios and published by Warner Bros. It was released on December 4, 2012. A Playstation 3 copy was provided by the publisher for the purposes of review.