Guardians of Middle-earth ties together J.R.R. Tolkien characters from The Lord of the Rings with the strategic gameplay of a MOBA (Multiplayer online battle arena) style competitive game. Monolith Productions has carried the concept from the traditional PC environment to home consoles, producing an addictive multi-player experience that is not only challenging to learn, but ridiculously difficult to put down.
Developer: Monolith Productions
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Platform: Xbox LIVE Arcade (Reviewed), PlayStation Network, Windows PC
Genre: Multiplayer online battle arena
Release: (INT) 4th December 2012
Set in the fantasy realm of Middle-earth, GoME adopts the familiar formula of DOTA (Defence of the Ancients), one of the most popular custom map ever produced for Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne. DOTA (or MOBA) clones have been around for years, yet the central theme and mechanics have remained basically the same. For the uninitiated, MOBA game generally involve players being split into two teams, with each player taking control of one ‘hero’ unit battling with the opposing forces to capture their tower, base, or themed resource.
GoME works on the same principle with up to ten players divided into two teams of five, each player in command of single Guardian unit from a possible twenty character pool. Co-ordinating with your teammates, the aim is to destroy your enemies’ stronghold; or as many structures within a set time, or until one team has completely vanquished the opposition. Unlike other MOBA titles, GoME matches can vary from long encounters, to lasting no more than 20 minutes making it ideal for those who don’t have an abundance of time to sink into MOBA titles; but still enjoy the tactics and appreciate the craft in outwitting their opponents. It all sounds pretty straight forward, right? Wrong. It’s in the nitty-gritty details that make GoME such a deeply fulfilling experience.
Guardians are categorized into different classes including Warriors, Striker, Enchanter, Tactician, and Defenders. Warriors have a solid balance between power and survivability, Strikers are damage dealers, Enchanters dish ability damage, Tacticians dictates the battlefield with traps, buffs and AOEs (area of effects), while Defenders provide much needed support and fortification for allies. Within each class type, there is more than one available Guardian to choose from, each with their own individual statistics such as damage, ability damage, survivability and difficulty. More than twenty characters from the forces of good and evil can be chosen, some unlocked with in-game gold while others will need to be purchased as downloadable content providing enticing reason to keep coming back to Middle-earth. Fan favourites such as Gandalf, Legolas, Arathorn, Sauron and the always strangely appealing Gollum are all playable, as are less recognisable characters outside the big budget movies. Monolith have really taken a considered approach which Lord of the Rings fans who dabble in the lore from the Tolkien novels are sure to appreciate.
Apart from spending your hard-earned gold on more Guardians, players can purchase potions, Guardian belts, gems, relic and powerful new commands to customise the way in which each Guardian functions. Commands are special abilities which once unlocked can be equipped for devastating results. During the course of a match, characters can unlock higher tiers of the same ability. Gems can be equipped into relics and onto Guardian belts to provide static buffs for increased damage, health or attack modifiers. Again, these can be earned through purchase or unlocked through the many battles.
Four variations in game modes can be chosen: Battlegrounds, Elite Battlegrounds, Skirmish, and Custom Match. Battlegrounds are 5v5 match-ups, time limited to twenty minutes for added pressure. Elite Battlegrounds removes time constraints and AI participation, therefore games cannot proceed until all open slots have been filled, which can take awhile at times. Skirmish matches pit human players on one team against AI Guardians on the other. Lastly, Custom Matches are as the name implies, custom matches. Each game mode can be played in either three lanes or one lane maps, meaning multiple attack paths or single entry points depending on how complex you want a game to be.
Each team is supported by defensive towers scattered along each lane and at their home base, fending against oncoming attackers. Self-spawning soldiers from barrack provide resistance and a flesh shield against for Guardians to hide behind when attacking the deadly towers. Both towers and infantry can be upgraded, but only when your Guardian has reached level six or greater. Experience is awarded to Guardians for attacking enemy units, or being in the vicinity when a foe has fallen. With each level increase, a Guardian will also gain more health and resistance, as well as being able to upgrade their spell set. There are four spells for each Guardian, each spell can be levelled up to four times, with your Guardian maxing out at level fourteen.
Upon each battlefield are Shrines, available to either team for the taking. Any Guardian can capture a Shrine to grant a global buff for the entire team, enhancing stats such as increased max health or defences. Shrines can be captured and lost anytime throughout a game so expect to be re-visiting the Shrines to gain a competitive advantage. Neutral monsters are also hidden on the map that award sizeable experience for anyone game enough to take on the challenge.
So, now for the negatives. As GoME is a MOBA title, the multi-player component is integral to gameplay and unfortunately did suffer from latency issues from time to time, particularly when teaming together with a full house of blood-thirsty players. Lag periods generally settled down after a few minutes, but was enough to disrupt the flow of gaming, as a few online players voiced their dissatisfaction. I had a few instances where games came to an abrupt end when a stable connection with others couldn’t be found. On the positive side, playing alongside AI allies was pleasing as they held their own for most instances. At times, the AIs put up more of a solidified challenge than actual human players.
Graphically, the stunning character art didn’t translate over quite as well to the character models given the small scale of each in-game character, certainly not helped by the isometric/top down view. Spells and animation are awash with colour and fun to execute, particularly some of the Tacticians and their AOE effect spells. Audio could do with a bit of extra variety as the same tunes can become repetitive once you’ve spent a few good hours sunk into the game.
Not being someone who has had a lot of experience with DOTA-style games, Guardians of Middle-earth was a surprise package; in a positive sense. The game is simple to learn but difficult to master; with so many various classes, characters, spells and customisations on offer. New characters and content are still being introduced by Monolith Productions to further expand upon the experience. If you’re not careful, GoME has the potential to keep you hooked like the Ring of Power with its myriad of strategy and intense battles. Although, it may be a grasp you don’t really want to escape.
8.5 – Great. An enjoyable experience, fans and newcomers of the genre will be entertained. Any noticeable flaws are largely outweighed by the positives.