The MOBA Comes To Middle-Earth
The Lord of the Rings: Guardians of Middle-earth has a unique obstacle to overcome in that it needs to sell the MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) genre to console gamers. While MOBAs are incredibly popular with the PC crowd right now (just look at the success of games like League of Legends, Heroes of Newerth, and the upcoming Dota 2 as examples), we console gamers tend to be a simpler bunch. We generally prefer to hop online for a ten-minute match of Black Ops II to tinkering around with some strategically time-consuming fare.
But Monolith decided to take a risk, a risk that I can see being justified in boardroom meetings by using the ever-popular Lord of the Rings IP as a major selling point and even tying Guardians of Middle-earth to the release of the first Hobbit film. But can the most popular of fantasy franchises convince Joe Console-Gamer to try his hand at the MOBA genre?
Judging by the amount of people playing Guardians of Middle-earth on PSN during its first week, the answer to that question is starting to look like a big fat no. You see, the game is set up to be played with two teams of five squaring off against one another. However, I found it incredibly rare to wind up in a match with more than one or two other people, more often than not facing off against a full team of A.I. opponents in what was supposed to be an online five-versus-five match. I did manage to get into a match with nine human players once, but the lag was unbearable. (You can always choose the Elite Battlegrounds mode, which won’t allow a game to start until there are ten human players present and accounted for, though the wait times in these matches are quite a bit longer than in your standard Battlegrounds matches.)
Also, when you actually do find human opponents, it’s all too common to see them drop out before the match is over. The way Guardians of Middle-earth accounts for missing players is weird too: It will remove an A.I. player from the opposite side of whoever just dropped out. A lot of my matches were whittled down to three-versus-three for this reason. I’m not sure why the game doesn’t just bring in an A.I. opponent to replace the human player who left.
Either way, the game’s greatest hurdle is going to be maintaining a healthy player base. If a community doesn’t build around Guardians of Middle-earth, the game simply won’t be all that entertaining. MOBAs, after all, are competitive games; they’re not much fun against A.I. opponents.
I have a few other issues to mention, including some frame rate frustrations (even in matches where I was playing with nine A.I. players) and some weird audio choices (Gandalf can sound strangely like a bad Sean Connery impersonation at times.)
All of this is unfortunate, because Guardians of Middle-earth delivers a legitimate MOBA experience to consoles in some pretty brilliant ways. Now, I know most PC gamers will scoff at the notion of bringing the genre to consoles in the first place, but the controls in Guardians are truly impressive.
Instead of clicking with a mouse button, movement is handled with the left control stick, and you can aim with the right. Your face buttons handle your special attacks, and your shoulder buttons handle pretty much everything else. (With the D-pad activating whichever potions you have equipped.) It’s a marvelous implementation of a control style that many would have initially called impossible on a twin-stick console controller.
There is an insanely complex loadout menu at play too, and you’ll unlock pieces of your loadouts by earning money in games. See, you have seven slots, which you fill with relics (which are better thought of as belts) and gems. Each piece of your “belt” will have a set amount of gems, and you won’t get any bonus from that section unless its gem slots are completely filled. And gems grant stat bonuses too.
All in all, the loadouts make equipping your character a fairly complex minigame in itself. However, they can also make this kind of a grind, as you’ll be constantly spending your currency, which you only earn by completing matches, on upgrading these things to ensure that you have the best loadout possible. Thankfully, this is actually quite addictive, and I found myself pouring over stats for far longer than I typically have patience for. (I am, after all, primarily a console gamer.)
Once you get your loadout figured out, you can face off against your opponents in battlefields made up of either one lane or three. As MOBA fans already know, lanes are basically paths between your base and your opponents’. So a single-lane battlefield will have you basically march in a straight line to meet your foe, while three-lane battlefields will allow for much more complex strategies.
And these backgrounds are pretty well designed, drawing from the Lord of the Rings lore. One map, for example takes place in the Shire, even though the Shire seems like a weird place for these types of battles to take place. (Unless you’ve read the books and are familiar with the Scouring of the Shire, though the game is obviously based off the Peter Jackson films rather than the Tolkien novels.)
And since we’re speaking of lore here, this is not a game that cares about the lore whatsoever. It even allows you to side up characters on improbable teams; Gandalf, for example, can be on the same team as Sauron and Gollum, which makes absolutely no sense. In fact, it seems as if the only reason for making this a Lord of the Rings game was to draw in players who would otherwise be uninterested in the genre. Unfortunately, I have a feeling that this game isn’t really for Lord of the Rings enthusiasts at all.
That brings me to the biggest mystery of the game: Who is this made for? You could argue that it’s for the hardcore MOBA players, but those people have their PC MOBAs like Dota and LoL; they really don’t need to see the experience emulated on a console. So how about console players who are completely new to MOBAs? Well, sure, but how do you convince console gamers to try something as complex as MOBAs if they’ve otherwise shown very little interest in them? You base it off a mega-popular IP, I suppose, although you run the risk of alienating those fans when the lore doesn’t really make sense in a MOBA context.
Essentially, Guardians of Middle-earth just doesn’t seem to have the lasting appeal it needs to, and it overcompensates for this by whitewashing itself with a thin coat of Tolkien paint. Don’t get me wrong, it does a lot of things right, and it does several things brilliantly. Unfortunately, this is a genre that requires a healthy community, and it’s hard to be optimistic about that here. Still, if you have any interest in seeing the MOBA genre on consoles, then you should definitely try this out; just don’t come into it expecting a competitive scene of any sort.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 3.2 Graphics
There’s a fair level of detail here, but that doesn’t come without frame rate issues. 4.8 Control
The MOBA controls have been brilliantly translated to console controllers. 3.8 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The music is suitable, though some of the character voices sound just plain weird. Gandalf in particular. 3.0 Play Value
It’s hard to be optimistic about there even being a Guardians of Middle-earth community six months from now, and that’s going to make this a lot more difficult to enjoy over the long term. 3.4 Overall Rating – Fair
Not an average. See Rating legend below for a final score breakdown.
|Review Rating Legend
|0.1 – 1.9 = Avoid
|2.5 – 2.9 = Average
|3.5 – 3.9 = Good
|4.5 – 4.9 = Must Buy
|2.0 – 2.4 = Poor
|3.0 – 3.4 = Fair
|4.0 – 4.4 = Great
|5.0 = The Best