Developer: Monolith Productions / Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: $14.99 / ESRB: Teen [Fantasy Violence]
I’m going to start right off the bat by saying that I am in no way a fan of MOBAs (multiplayer online battle arenas). The mechanics are often impenetrable, the communities have a reputation for being a collection of elitist, rude assholes, and the strict adherence to stringent level design and gameplay mechanics feel very stiff and weird. So I took on the task of reviewing Guardians of Middle Earth with a bit of cynicism and curiosity; it is the first big-budget MOBA to hit consoles.
I was originally exposed to GOME first hand back at Comic Con, where I was intrigued by the license (I am a huge Lord of the Rings fan) but not necessarily the gameplay. I ended up taking home the MVP of the match that day playing as Gollum, and that first hit of adrenaline that comes with the frantic, tactical rush of MOBAs had me hooked. So here’s what I think of the full package, now that it’s out.
What this review will not do is compare GOME to League of Legends or Heroes of Newerth or DOTA. What it will do is judge GOME on its own merits, as a downloadable, console MOBA, a bit of a first for the genre.
If you’re new to the genre, think of a MOBA as a multiplayer real-time strategy game where you control only one character on a team of five. Together with your teammates, you’ll try and push your way across the map by assisting your AI controlled soldiers that spawn on a timer in your base and march towards the enemy base, with the ultimate goal being to either destroy the enemy base, or have the most points when time runs out.
In GOME, you’ll also have to contend with towers, which auto-attack the closest foe for huge damage. What this means is that any given match of GOME is a tug of war, where each side is slowly pressing the boundaries of their forces towards the other, using strategic planning and their character abilities to kill the other team’s towers, kill the other team, or at the very least, cause the other team to retreat.
Because matches are not persistent, everyone will be starting at level one every time they play, meaning each match is an exercise in leveling up your chosen character to max strength to best suit the changing conditions of the battlefield, which not only lends replayability, but is also satisfying in itself (mostly because humans just love watching numbers get bigger as a consequence of action). As you level, you’ll also be able to upgrade your team’s towers and AI soldiers to be more powerful and hopefully help you win.
So that’s a pretty by-the-books MOBA design. But there are two pieces of great design that make GOME stand out. The first is that this is a console game, and for the most part MOBAs have been restricted to the PC crowd due to the RTS nature of the controls. But developer Monolith has come up with a really comfortable, intuitive control scheme that makes piloting your chosen guardian a breeze. Abilities, the level up menu, and attacking are all mapped in such a way that you never have to take your fingers off the important buttons in the heat of battle.
The second reason GOME is such a well-designed game is that it makes excellent use of its license. The Lord of the Rings world is ripe with characters, magic, and conflict, all elements that reflect the actual gameplay of a MOBA. There’s also a variety of races and personalities, meaning the available roster of characters is varied and expansive. Monolith could have gone the easy route by simply including only the major characters from the movies and books and called it a day. But they didn’t; instead they delved into the lore (thankfully not too greedily or too deep, har har), pulling out lesser known characters on both sides of the good versus evil coin.
Sure you can play as Gandalf and Sauron, but you will also get to put yourself in the shoes of Gothmog, Sauron’s number three lieutenant, or Arathorn, father of Gondor king-to-be Aragorn. There are also some new additions to the property, like the fire-lobbing Hobbit Hildefons Took (mentioned once in an appendix of the novels), and the suicidal goblin Felgrom.
In all, the vast number of playable characters is a wonderful cross-section of The Lord of the Rings world, and even more importantly, they all feel like they were designed from top to bottom to be completely unique. Special abilities lend each character to a different play style, which means different tactics, team dynamics, and a vast amount of exploration of the mechanics.
I can’t stress enough how much thought seems to have gone in to the design of the titular guardians; Monolith’s meticulous care with the gameplay shows through with each and every one. And while some are easy to pick up and play (like Beregond, Gondorian soldier), others require extreme technical proficiency and a deep understanding of the game’s mechanics (like War in the North villain Agandaur). GOME is both incredibly fun to pick up and play, but reveals itself to be incredibly deep the more time you spend with it, peeling back layers and layers of complexity.
And that’s before you even get to the gem belt system, which lets you create custom loadouts for your skirmishes, with the ability to change and manage a whole host of min/max stat boosts that adds further experimentation possibilities.
Due to its nature as a MOBA, Guardians is a game in which you will spend 90% of the time in multiplayer (if not more). And really, it’s at its most fun when you’ve got a full five-on-five game of human combatants, as the quick pace and rewarding nature of the gameplay shines through. For its own part the netcode is pretty good. There were a couple times when it lagged a bit, but it was only for a second or two, and it never got bad in the midst of combat, where twitch reflexes are critical.
The game comes with two maps: a three-lane diamond that fosters longer matches with more strategic significance thanks to the amount of room there is to roam around, and a single-lane map that usually results in chaotic, intense battles that fill the screen with spell and particle effects. To me the one-lane style is less fun, but I can see an audience who will enjoy the absolutely ridiculous nature of it.
As far as maps go, that’s it. I realize that restricting the game to these two environments helps define that razor-thin balance MOBAs so heavily rely upon, but I would have liked to see a couple more variations, maybe a two-lane map, or a more complex arena that fostered ambushes and Trojan horse tactics. I can foresee the honeymoon period of the game wearing off fast as you’ll be able to see both maps in the span of 30 minutes; the long-term success of the game will really rely on the depth of the robust character customization and the population of the online community.
If that online community doesn’t show up, the game will be dead in the water; a single-player mode against bots is available, but beyond using it to test character builds or get acquainted with a new unlock, it pales in comparison to online play, mostly because the CPU Guardian AI is entirely useless. They stand around and watch you die, or stand around and die themselves because they’re within range of a tower and don’t move. And when they’re not standing around and dying, they’re running back and forth in place doing nothing of substance.
I am really impressed with GOME, AI issues notwithstanding. As a gateway to MOBAs, this game hooked me in a way I did not expect. It’s got that immediate gratification spirit to it, where I finish a match and immediately want to jump into another. The texture of The Lord of the Rings is represented beautifully in the gorgeous visuals and diverse, detailed character roster. The depth of the game reveals itself slowly through multiple plays, and if you’re the type of gamer that likes to master game systems, Guardians will have you locked in for a long time.
It remains to be seen if any balance issues will plague the game once the gaming public gets their hands on it, so Monolith’s support of the project will be key in maintaining a healthy game environment. I do hope they nurture it, though. It has the potential to be infinitely expandable and updated with new content on a regular basis; this is Lord of the Rings after all, one of the largest fictional universes ever created. For my money, GOME ranks up there with the games that I’ve had the most pure fun playing this year, be they downloadable or on a disc.
+ Deep, rewarding gameplay
+ Amazing roster of characters and customization options
– Guardian AI sucks, map selection is wanting
9 / 10