Guardians of Middle-earth preview: MOBA goes console

The Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) genre began on the PC and has flourished there, even as some corners of the community grew more insular. The game type is complex by its nature, and since it's all multiplayer-based it can be difficult for a new player to feel comfortable jumping in. Monolith Productions, the studio behind the recent Gotham City Impostors, is taking a stab at a friendlier MOBA experience with Guardians of Middle-earth.

The game touts a controller-friendly experience for those who may not be as familiar with the genre, and has the backing of the popular Lord of the Rings property to boot. It uses the license to blend film and novel fan-service, picking a handful of characters from the Peter Jackson movie franchise -- who rather pointedly look like their film incarnations -- and mixing them with lesser-known characters from the novels and appendices of J.R.R. Tolkein's world.

The characters are split into five classes: warrior, striker, mage, tactician, and defender. None of these roles will seem particularly out-of-place for MOBA veterans, but some LOTR characters may not be the class you'd expect. The game seems to prioritize balance over the fiction, but finds an appropriate blend of both.

The MOBA genre has been popularized largely in the free-to-play space, and GOME eschews this model. Its target platforms (PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade) aren't really built for F2P, so the game borrows only some ideas from it. Instead of real money, you can purchase characters with in-game currency, and each week will feature a new character to sample.

The game lets you pick a few different types of loadouts: Potions as single-use consumables for healing and stat bonuses, Commands as powerful abilities, and Relic and Gem Belts. Those last two are a sort of shortcut for the usual stat progression in games, having players set their level progression bonuses ahead of time rather than navigate through complicated tech trees while in-game. It's a concession to the platform, since it would be a pain to perform those choices on the controller, but it seems like a welcome change in any event.

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I played a handful of matches, all 5v5 Battlegrounds matches. Most of them took place on a tri-path map, while one took place on the notably more aggressive single-path map. Despite the myriad of classes and characters no hero seemed absurdly over- or underpowered compared to the others.

I quickly gravitated toward the Tactician class, who sets traps to make paths dangerous to cross rather than direct confrontation. Even as a relative newcomer, I felt like I could grasp the mechanics and make a difference to my team by picking a class type that facilitated my play style.

These battlegrounds matches will serve as the backbone of the game, ensuring a quick experience for players who might not be able to stand the long tug-of-war of a normal MOBA match. It has a 20-minute timer and fills open slots with bots if human players don't fill them. Those looking for a more traditional MOBA experience can choose Elite Battlegrounds, with no time limit and no bots, once it's unlocked at player level 2.

But that kind of serious, extended play probably won't be the draw for newcomers. Guardians of Middle-Earth is very clearly targeted toward those inexperienced with the genre, and looks like it will make for an inviting package for those who might find the PC scene too obtuse.