Guardians of Middle-Earth
Developer: Monolith Productions
Publisher: Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment
Platforms: Xbox 360 (reviewed), Playstation 3
Release Date: December 4th, 2012
Price: 1200 MSP or $19.99 – Available Here and on XBL/PSN
Lord of the Rings is a huge franchise by Warner Brothers that stretches all the way from the universally recognised and acclaimed trilogy, to countless pieces of merchandise and of course across many games that try to show off their own takes on Tolkien’s well loved universe. Guardians of Middle-Earth is one such game by developer Monolith Productions and is a tie-in to the soon to-be-released The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Is this top down multiplayer online battle arena game an in depth brawler or merely a shallow cash-in for the sure-to-be blockbuster movie? Let’s find out below.
Visuals and Audio:
Guardians of Middle-Earth features visuals that are pleasing to behold and features an artistic spin on all of its characters and world that mean that even without having a huge budget the game is still great to look at. During some of the more intense fights magic, fire and arrows are flying in all directions and it really is a sight to behold, with no slow down or frame-rate drops which really is impressive for the amount of things that can appear on-screen. Platoons of soldiers can be fighting on each side with Guardians nimbly duelling each other throughout the fierce melee and not once will the visual quality drop below the buttery smooth level that it features in its small-scale tutorial. The music provides a nice background for the action and Guardians will throw insults and jests back and forth at one another as they fight. Combat is particularly pleasing for the ears, which sounds really weird but with satisfying clashes of steel, twangs of bows and character shouts not a whole lot negative can be said about it.
Guardians of Middle-Earth is all about an arcade style attempt at a tug-of-war concept. There’s no story or in-depth character development to be found here; Monolith simply wanted to create a fun, deeply tactical and addictive game with plenty of RPG elements thrown in for good measure. This seems to actually be what they achieved.
In Guardians you play as one of over twenty different heroes or villains from the Lord of The Rings and The Hobbit Universe (same universe but different times). This “Guardian” forms part of a team of five that goes into battle against a similar opposing team. The objective of the game is to push your way to the enemy’s base on the opposite end of the map and destroy their central fortification. What adds to this however is that each arena contains either one or three different lanes that the main battles usually occur upon. Three lane games usually last longer but offer more tactical depth, whereas single lanes are shorter and usually simply dissolve into massive brawls rather than refined melee. Spreading out Guardians where they are needed most is key to victory and the most common form for three lane games is two on the highest, two on the lowest and one holding the middle.
Each lane leads to both teams bases and these paths are dotted with four towers, two on each side. This leaves the middle of each lane free to do battle against each other in a fairer area. Once one team is pushed back however, their towers come into play and they gain an advantage (not a deciding one mind you), that will allow them some slight reprieve and assist in battle if they aren’t as skilled as the other player/s. These towers hit players especially hard so the ideal tactic is to allow it to target your own more expendable forces first, and then attack it while its attention is diverted. Of course many players obviously didn’t learn this in the somewhat decent tutorial because I lost count of the number that would just throw themselves against mine, do tiny amounts of damage and then die at its base.
At the start of each lane is a building called a Barracks, which spawns waves of troops to assist you in battle against enemy guardians, towers and rival soldiers. If left to their own devises, such forces will usually only remain in the centre of their lane for the entire game, as each side spawns the same amount as the other, meaning clever Guardian use is the decider rather than simple troop abuse. These troops will only continue along their allotted lane in a straight path, meaning if you take one of the many criss-crossing side paths that intertwine and dot each map away from the lanes, you have nothing to fear except other Guardians.
The reason to traverse these rougher areas is that they contain numerous shrines and neutral creatures that if captured or killed respectively, will give handy bonuses to all the Guardians on your team. They are easy to capture however and so there is a constant back-and-forth of teams fighting over these buffs, some of which offer extra damage resistance while others offer damage bonuses. Such areas are only available with any level of size in the larger three-lane games, while single lanes contain only a few very important and possibly even game-changing ones. Numerous bushes also dot each lane and these allow Guardians to avoid detection or retreat to lick their wounds. Expect to find many fragile, but hard-hitting Heroes amongst this fauna while heavier, beefy tanks rely on the strength of their armour.
Classes in the game all offer their own unique play-style for gamers wishing to play that handsome rogue, dashing knight or devious sorcerer. Well something like that anyway. Players can choose from five different classes: the quick and deadly Striker, the regular hard-hitting Warrior, the tank-like slow moving Defender, the trap wielding Tacticians or finally the powerful but squishy Enchanter. Each class has their own character that fit each category, for example Legolas and Gollum are both Strikers while The Witch-King and Eowyn and Defenders. What class you choose will drastically affect how the game plays out for both sides and choosing the right Guardian for your team is essential. Most players will try out a character from each class and then settle on their favourite, with a good mix on each team always being a good thing.
Once you have decided on who you enjoy playing as the most you can begin to customise your personal belt to compliment your character. Each belt can be outfitted with relics and precious gems that accent certain characteristics of your choice, (anyone else get a Deltora vide?) including things like faster ability recharge, extra health or even unique effects like plus one damage for every second that you don’t use a regular attack. These belts really help to further enhance your own experience in the game and make you feel like the character and class is really your own special build. Alongside this players can also edit their loadout before a battle to equip handy potions that can be used mid-game or special commands that have a large cool-down rate but let you use some awesome abilities. The only issue I had with the whole load-out system was that I would have liked to see different weapons available for each class. This could translate into actual gameplay and really affect how you handle situations. Maybe a staff could boost abilities while a sword could boost your basic attack? Something like that would have further improved the already deep customisation options available in-game and really made you stand out from the crowd.
For me after I played around with a number of classes I settled upon Aganduar, a brutally dangerous Sorcerer with the power of lightning some gamers may remember from War in the North. While he isn’t particularly potent in his early levels due to a reliance on abilities and poor health, he becomes an absolute powerhouse damage wise by end-game. Combining a belt that drastically reduced my cool down time and upgraded the damage for my spells, while constantly making sure Overdrive (a spell that increases overall damage) was in effect during later levels meant for some epically fun times. Some might call me out now for balance issues. Ha ha! I hear you say, so he’s incredibly OP! Well no actually. Aganduar may be exceptionally damaging in later levels, but his earlier weakness and the fact that he basically only has a sliver of health (even later) keep him from being so.
Every class has outstanding balance across the board, with no characters dominating anymore than others and all the online players I met favoured different Guardians for different reasons. Every character seems to have a counter-character too, as my nemesis Wulfrun the Defender would attest to. Such varied and even Guardians across the board is an awesome achievement for Monolith and really shows how much time they put into the game in an attempt at getting everything perfect.
After each game you gain a certain amount of experience points to level your profile up and a number of coins based on your own performance and whether you won or lost the previous game. These coins can then be spent on unlocking more Guardians to play with or extra gems, relics and potions to add to your own unique load-out. Accolades and challenges are also available for each character, so nailing these during a game brings some great satisfaction to the overall results table.
Over time in-game your Guardian levels up and gains skill points that can be placed in three different abilities until Level 5, where they can be placed in your new Ultimate one. To continue my Aganduar example, my three abilities from level one to five were Dark Assault, Overcharge and Fireworks; a damaging teleport, increased ability potency and chain lightning basically. Upon reaching Level 5 I could unlock and upgrade a new spell, Shockwave, a particularly nasty area-of-effect cone attack that had the longest cool down time. Ultimate abilities are usually reserved for enemy Guardians thanks to their cool-down period while your first three are usually used on any enemy. Saying that, it was great fun juggling when and where to use Shockwave and my other abilities and deciding where it would be most effective to use them, with ally Guardian combinations being particularly fun and quite devastating to pull off.
The controls for Guardians of Middle-Earth are surprisingly intuitive and effective for the Xbox 360 controller. You move your character with the left stick while aiming with the right for precise targeting. The basic attack is allocated to the right trigger which you can keep held down to auto-attack and your four abilities are mapped to the four face buttons. Such a simple set-up means that any player could pick up the controller and instantly know what to do, which is a great plus for how easy to get into Guardians really is. While the tutorial kind of lacks putting you in a real combat situation and it teaches you the game mechanics well enough, if ultimately too brief to throw you straight into the game which can be a bit confusing at first. After that initial game however, you really start to pick up on all the little intricacies of the combat system and how you should always support your team members if you want to secure the win.
One aspect that could become a problem quite quickly is the lack of variation in the maps. From what I saw there were only two (one for three lane and one for one lane) and the game would merely swap the side you started on. While you don’t really notice that it should be altering the scenery every now and again because you’re so involved in the deep tactics and addictive gameplay, I could see it really being a turn off for some players. However, a patch set for release by the end of the week looks like it may help with some free map DLC for extra arenas if this is a big issue. Which ultimately for me it wasn’t and so does not effect overall my view of the game.
Guardians of Middle-Earth is an absolute triumph by Monolith Productions and is a great standalone MOBA game for any type of player. With its crazy good balanced gameplay, great character variation and tug-of-war style games, it is simply a joy to play. When you get in a group where you all have mics and can so effectively blend together as a team, you experience when the game really shines, but even without that it’s surprisingly enjoyable. I joined a game with a group like that and was only going to get in a quick extra couple of hours before I reviewed the game. Next thing I knew, three in the morning rolled by and I was still having a blast with the people I had just met in the game. Guardians of Middle-Earth is at its core an incredibly satisfying and deep RPG style arena game that really nails on the head the balance between fun and addictive play. I’d whole heartedly recommend the game despite the small issues I had with the overall product. You really won’t find yourself disappointed.