Review: Guardians of Middle-earth successfully brings the MOBA genre to consoles
As someone who spends a majority of my gaming time playing League of Legends, I've often wondered how the game could play on a console. So, it's no surprise that during E3, one of my favorite parts was the time I spent with Warner Bros. and Monolith's Guardians of Middle-earth. I've been following the game a lot since then, and finally, was able to start playing. I can easily say that on the surface, Guardians of Middle-earth is simple with nothing but fast-paced action, but Monolith has crafted something special with unexpected depth and strategy.
While the Guardians of Middle-earth is a MOBA like League of Legends, they are vastly different. Going for a more fast-paced, action-oriented vibe, GOME has you starting out with three of your four abilities (no ultimate at level one) right from the beginning of the match. This should inspire players to play with more aggression. Also, unless it affects a relic that you have in your loadout, last hitting doesn't really make a difference. It's all about pushing lanes, harassing your enemies and getting experience. It also helps to go help other lanes a lot, as you can often get an easy kill. The better you do, the faster you will level up, which unlocks more of your Guardian belt faster. It can feel like the game can snowball quickly in one team's favor, especially when one person on your team loses hard, but I've already had a few comeback wins. Nothing is impossible in GOME.
The controls feel like a twin-stick shooter -- which is perfect for GOMe. With a top-down, slightly angled view, you control your Guardian with the left stick, and the right stick aims your abilities and basic attacks. The range on your abilities and basic attacks is shown by a ring around you, with a circular target or line for your aiming. Abilities are assigned to the face buttons, and depending on whether you're using basic or advanced controls, you either press and depress them, or you press them to queue them up to activate with the right trigger. The control scheme is better than I could've imagined, and after some practice, you'll be fast with your attacks and combos. The only gripe I have with the controls is that sometimes in the heat of battle, I click in the left stick and right stick, which toggles free cam. Then I'll be viewing a different part of the map when I was trying to move and attack. Free cam honestly feels unnecessary in this game, as you can see everything you need to see on the mini-map.
What really makes GOME stand out from the MOBA crowd is the lack of buying items. During the match, you aren't tasked with going back to base to buy items. Instead of buying items, all of your customization is done before the game in the form of loadouts using relics and gems. During the match, all you'll have to worry about is defeating the enemies and upgrading your towers and units -- something that adds strategy when trying to push lanes or defend. Are you stuck under your turret being harassed? Well then you can upgrade your tower to heal you or fire at two enemies at once. With no need to buy items, you can just focus on the action.
There's multiple components to loadouts. When you real a certain profile level, you'll be able to have five custom loadouts. In those loadouts, you customize what four potions you want, what four Commands you want, and then what you want your Guardian belt to contain. Potions offer buffs for short durations, with everything from movement speed and crit chance, to a heal-over-time or shield. You can either buy potions or get them as rewards after matches. Commands are like summoner spells from League of Legends. You unlock four Commands that you can toggle through during the match. There are four tiers of Commands, so once you choose one from the first tier, you can then choose one from the second tier, and so on. Then there's the Guardian belts, which is where all of the meat of the customization is.
Guardian belts are comprised of Relics and Gems. Gems are like runes from LoL. There's different types of gems for different needs -- like attack damage, ability damage, health, armor, cooldown reduction, or life steal. With seven spots in your belt, you can equip gems into those spots, but you don't start the game with all of those available. As you level up in-game, you unlock more of your Guardian belt, so it has the same effect as buying items, except that it's pre-determined before the match. A slot of your belt is unlocked at every even level -- so 2, 4, 6... all the way to the max level of 14. Relics offer more power and customization to your belt. Relics are combinations of two, three or four gems that offer bonus effects when you complete unlocking that relic in the match. For instance, on my Arathorn loadout, I use a two-slot relic, a three-slot relic, and a two-slot relic. The first uses two yellow gems and gives me +2% attack speed for every yellow gem I have in my belt. The second uses two yellows and a red gem, and it makes my basic attacks slow the enemy by 30%. The third is made of two red gems and gives me +2% basic attack damage for every red gem in my belt. So you can imagine the possibilities for creativity with your belts. The system is deceptively deep and strategic, and I found myself liking it more and more as I played around with it.
There's a good amount of match types to play around with. You have your standard one-lane and three-lane maps for teams of five players to battle each other. You can also play those maps with AI-controlled players filling out the empty spots on both teams. You can set up custom games for you and your friends, or you can just pit yourself and some friends against AI bots. While the AI can be finicky -- you always dread having an AI bot on your team against a human opponent -- they can do some damage and get some kills.
Visually, Guardians of Middle-earth is not as 'cartoony' as other MOBAs. Even though Lord of the Rings is as fantasy as you can get, Guardians doesn't go overboard. Even though there's nothing that will visually rock your socks off, the graphics are modest and work well. The sounds are also basic for the MOBA genre, with your typical swords clashing, abilities casting, and Witch King yelling that fans of the genre are well-versed with.
As much fun as I'm having with Guardians of Middle-earth, the game is not without its faults. First of all, while there's a tutorial and bot games you can play, the game is not easy to learn. The tutorial is short and doesn't present the pace or strategies that a real game has. There's also a tutorial for creating loadouts, but that is also quite brief. It's just very confusing to newcomers, and even a MOBA vet like me was a little lost in the menus. A bigger problem comes with learning Guardians. There's three ways to view more information about a certain guardian. You can learn about their abilities, base stats, how difficult they are to play -- you get the point. I played about ten games before a friend pointed out that Guardians have passives. For example, the Witch King's passive is that after every four spells, his next spell is a fear. Arathorn's is that every 10th successful attack will crit. These are buried at the bottom of a list describing the Guardian's abilities in-depth. If you do the quick view at their abilities, a passive isn't even mentioned. The passives should definitely be more prominent because they can influence how you build your Guardian belt and how you play him. Also, these passives are easy to follow by on-screen prompts -- like a bar that fills or a glowing ability -- if you know what to look for. For a few matches, I had no idea why there was a blue bar that filled with every basic attack, but now I know.
There has also been a big problem with lag spikes and matchmaking disconnects. The day of launch was the worst, and today is much better, but the lag spikes are still there, and they make matches almost unplayable at times. I've played in multiple locations, and it had nothing to do with where I was playing. I'm sure that the servers will continue to improve, but I've been booted out of a game where I was doing really good, only to lose that match's experience, gold, and stats. Like I said, there is a noticeable improvement today, so I'll keep hoping Monolith continues to improve it.
There is stat tracking and leaderboards for things like Kills + Assists, Soldier kills, and other things, but it's not really indicative of how good you are at the game. I average nine kills, one death and two assists per game, but I'm not able to play as much as other people, so my kills + assists number is lower than others. Basically, if you play a lot, you'll be near the top, regardless of how good you actually are. I have a really good kill/death ratio, but there's not a leaderboard for that. I'd like to see more detailed leaderboards in the future.
Guardians of Middle-earth is a unique, fun, action-filled MOBA. At first glance, it looks like there's not as much strategy, but it is deceptively strategic, and the difference between the good and great players will be determined by loadouts and your grasp of how to build and play that Guardian. The Guardians all have a unique feel, and are well-balanced with no one Guardian feeling over-powered. Both new players to the genre and veteran MOBA players will find something to love about Guardians of Middle-earth. Lord of the Rings lends itself perfectly to the MOBA genre, and I can't wait to see what other surprises Monolith has for the game in the future. If you want a competitive console game that could be revolutionary to the MOBA genre, look no further than Guardians of Middle-earth.
[Reviewed on Xbox 360]