Guardians of Middle Earth Review

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Developer(s): Monolith Productions
Publisher(s): Warner Bros. Interactive
Platform(s): PSN, Xbox Live Arcade
Review Platform: Xbox 360
Release Date: December 4, 2012

If you had asked me a couple of years ago whether or not players would see a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game on this generation of consoles, I would have said no. There are a variety of things about a MOBA game that simply shouldn’t work on consoles. Controls are an issue. MOBA games rely on precise controls and there quite simply isn’t anything that can provide that precision better than a PC. MOBA games are also a balancing act. Characters have to be constantly balanced, rebalanced, buffed, nerfed, and entire game systems redesigned all to make sure that there isn’t anything that can’t be countered or is too powerful. This requires frequent updates and patches, also something that is significantly easier on a PC than it is on a console. But, Monolith Productions set out to prove that there can be a successful MOBA game on consoles, hence Lord of the Rings: Guardians of Middle-earth. Is Monolith’s Tolkien-inspired game the one MOBA to rule them all?   
  • Relic and gem system
  • Variety in Guardians’ abilities
  • A LOTR MOBA on consoles – what’s not to like?
  • Infuriating network issues
  • Minor, but noticeable balance issues
Let us address the elephant in the room: Is Guardians of Middle-earth a shameless copy-paste of League of Legends? Well, to some degree, yes. But, you shouldn’t be worried about that. World of Warcraft set the bar for MMOs and it took years for other developers to experiment with different MMO formulas. Where we were with WoW then, we are with LoL now. League of Legends is the first of its kind, the king of all MOBAs. Most of the MOBAs that have come out and will continue to come out for the next couple of years will, for the most part, follow LoL’s design premise. Guardians of Middle-earth borrows liberally from LoL, but it does enough differently—and advances the formula in some instances—to avoid criticisms of coat-tailing on LoL’s MOBA formula.


That being said, GoMe’s basic MOBA design follows the same 3-lane map that is featured in LoL. There is also a 1-lane map; however, it is significantly less interesting and tactical than playing on the 3-lane map. Two teams of five start at respective ends of the map with towers that spawn soldiers. Your job as a Guardian is to steward your soldiers into one of three lanes with the ultimate objective of pushing enemy forces back to their spawn point and destroying the main tower in the their base. Guardians of Middle-earth begins to differ from LoL after that. Located at four points across the map are shrines that each team may control. To capture a shrine a player has to stand next to it for three seconds. The shrines provide buffs to the players of the team that control it. They are noticeably beneficial to a team and because Monolith has made sure that they matter they don’t come across as a poor, superfluous design choice.

Done away with is the in-game item purchasing that is featured in LoL. Instead, Monolith opted for a relic and gem system. Relics and gems are purchasable via the gold earned by completing matches. Relics contain between two and four gem slots and provide bonuses across a wide variety of stats that vary from attack speed to basic damage boost to ability damage resistance. However, these relics are only activated once a player has activated all of the gems in a relic. Gems are slotted to relics and contain even more boosts or buffs to various stats. Gems are earned by leveling up. Once a player levels to the level required to activate a gem, the gems activates. Once a player has activated all of the gems slotted to a relic, the relic then activates, granting the player the respective bonuses provided by the relic. At 5,000 gold for the high-level relics and gems, they are just as expensive as purchasing a new Guardian. So, spend wisely. The system works and provides the game with depth. You’ll spend a good amount of time in the menus figuring out which gems best compliment which relics and how then to pair relic and gem combinations with Guardians. 

    
There are also various commands that can be slotted to one of four slots. Commands are activated by pressing the left-trigger button (LT on 360, L2 on PS3), and range from instant-heal to a giant Balrog that bursts through the ground, rooting all enemies within a specific radius. On top of that, players can carry up to four potions with them, activated by pressing one of four directions on the D-pad. Potions provide timed bonuses to various stats. Mind you, all four potion and command slots are not immediately available to players. Slots 2 – 4 are unlocked as the player levels up their profile.

I know it must sound like there is an overwhelming amount to know and keep track of in Guardians of Middle-earth, and to an extent there certainly is. However, it lacks the difficult learning curve of LoL. Don’t get me wrong, you’ll still spend a good amount of time—dozens of hours—getting to know all of the game’s systems and nuances; but, that pales in comparison to the huge amount of time it takes one to truly feel comfortable with LoL’s systems and nuances. As MOBAs go, GoMe is certainly one of the more accessible ones out there.  


However, GoMe does have a few problems. For the most part, the variety of skills and abilities among Guardians is very good. Even the classes make perfect sense and do what they are supposed to on the battlefield. Tacticians excel at lane-control and taking down enemy towers, Defenders heal and remove enchantments from allies, and Strikers deal massive amounts of basic damage but have low survivability. Warriors specialize in killing enemy soldiers and Guardians, and Enchanters can lock down and hold a lane on their own, using powerful magic spells to inflict high amounts of area-of-effect damage. The abilities each Guardian has access to are also well-varied, and the distinctions are as such that there are differences in how each of the Guardians play. You’ll spend a good amount of time early on figuring out how each Guardian best serves the team and what their role on the battlefield is. Once you’ve done that, you’ll have found several you gravitate toward and spend the majority of your time figuring out which relic and gems best compliment your Guardians’ play-style. But, despite the good variety among Guardians and Guardian abilities there are balancing issues. Balance is extremely important in a MOBA. Just ask the guys over at LoL who have four times the character roster of GoMe. No character should be an outright dominator, and no character should have the end-all-do-all move that annihilates or routes an entire team. In GoMe, there are several characters that clearly need some work. Arathorn, Agandaur, and Haldir all have immense power. Particularly Arathorn, who has access to moves that slow and stun enemies and do massive—and I mean massive—amounts of damage. I equipped him with gems and relics that increase attack speed, boost basic damage, and increase movement speed, and he became a lone-wandering death machine of 17-kill-0-death proportions. Going forward, Monolith is going to have to look to the forums and hear what people are saying about respective Guardians, and then start rebalancing. The balance issues certainly aren’t anything I expect to continue. As with any MOBA, time heals all wounds. MOBAs need time, they rely on time. Monolith knows this, and I hope that the community of players already building up around the game know this as well, and hang in there while the game goes through several iterations of balancing.


The network issues put the balancing issues to shame. I’m sure Monolith has taken notice. It’s kind of hard to ignore when the majority of posts in the “general discussions” portion of your forums are all angry rants from people saying that they aren’t playing the game until the network issues are fixed. Many have called it unplayable. I personally haven’t played a match that was unplayable because of lag. That being said, there is really no excuse for the lag that I did experience. Healing potions don’t pop at the right time and you die, you have an enemy in your sights and are about to deal the final blow when suddenly the Guardian shoots several steps in front of you, out of your view. I have been disconnected a fair number of times while playing a match as well. For me this happened in 1 out of every 12 matches. This is unacceptable for a MOBA, especially one on consoles where the majority of people will be playing over an open network connection. Addressing this should be Monolith’s number one priority, then they can worry about tweaks to balancing and DLC.

Guardians of Middle-earth really is an outstanding MOBA entry for consoles. A solid MOBA formula and design anchors a relic and gem system that provides sufficient and surprising depth. The Guardians themselves are impressive in their variety and the abilities they bring to the battlefield. It’s accessibility –I use that word with great relativity—could also be a draw for console players who were/are put off by LoL’s tightknit and off-putting community of players. And, come on, it’s freaking Lord of the Rings people! Currently, the only things dragging the experience down are balancing and network issues. But, a successful MOBA needs two things: A development team that is committed to the long-term viability of the game, and time. Both of which are something that Guardians of Middle-earth have. I don’t think Monolith is going anywhere, and judging by the amount of work they’ve already put in, I’d say the development studio responsible for GoMe is very interested in seeing their game be successful, both in reviews and, more importantly, with players. 

Final Score “A Superb XBLA Title” 8.0
Graphics
Nothing special here—character models are too small on-screen for you to notice any detail and the environments are generally drab. But, when abilities are used, colors pop, and they are oh-so pretty.
6.5
Gameplay
There is a learning curve, there’s no doubt about that. But, all of the systems Monolith put in place are engaging and work so well. The game is a blast to play.
9.0
Value
For $20.00 there is plenty to play with. If you don’t get dozens upon dozens of hours out of this game, I would be surprised.
8.5
Sound
Turn up the volume, sit back, and get ready for some truly epic moments. When battles come to a head and there are Guardians throwing powers off left and right, the sound of the game really comes to life. Whether it’s the snarling roars of Sauron’s The Lidless Eye ability or the heavy, metal sound of sword on shield heard in Eowyn’s I Am No Man ability, the sounds are veritable ear-candy.
8.0

Review by Jon Hamlin
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Jon Hamlin is a freelance game journalist living in the San Francisco Bay Area. He plays too much Mass Effect 3 multiplayer and enjoys a good glass of wine. Occasionally, he can be found commanding his legion of doom on Xbox Live as GeniusPantsPhD. Follow him on Twitter @WordsmithJon, or email him at jonshamlin@gmail.com. All Articles by Jon.


1 comment:

  1. Glad to see this turned out well! I wish I still have my Gold LIVE sub to grab this.

    ReplyDelete