By nature of the games that inspired and evolved it, the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) genre is inherently obtuse and command-heavy. The game type is naturally suited to PC, so Monolith must have known what it was getting into when it conceived of the console-only Guardians of Middle-earth. Simplifying such a complex genre is a daunting task, and while the game mostly succeeds inside the battlefields, the equipment menus grow more congested as a result.
Developer Monolith wanted to make a kinder, gentler MOBA experience, and the team certainly succeeded when playing matches. The usual staples are present: two teams pick larger-than-life heroes to oversee assaults from soldiers on opposing towers, all the while attempting to defend their own. It's an inverted game of tug-of-war, focused on a constant push and making achingly slow, incremental progress toward the goal.
The 5v5 games are split into 3-path and 1-path matches, with the latter resulting in much more chaotic center-of-map smack-downs. It starts off limited to Battlegrounds matches, which are aimed at making the game reliably quick. They're restricted to 20 minutes, determining the winner by points if time runs out, and will fill the empty slots with AI bots if matchmaking takes any more than a couple of minutes. Elite Battlegrounds is the more iconic MOBA experience, as matches go on as long as they have to and will wait for 10 human players. Skirmish is a cooperative experience, pitting 5 human players against 5 AI opponents.
I found that the game ran perfectly fine in smaller matches occupied mostly by AI bots, but full matches had a tendency to stutter terribly or disconnect. In one instance, all of my teammates dropped one by one, and since we were already inside a match, they weren't replaced by AI heroes. They were simply gone, so I was facing off alone against a full team. Quitting out of that bloodbath earned me a temporary ban from matchmaking.
Assuming it all goes smoothly, though, the battles themselves are impressively intuitive. The game gives clear cues for pathfinding, locating ongoing conflicts, and upgrading your powers, soldiers, and towers. MOBA veterans will likely take to the pacing faster, but even as a MOBA amateur I didn't feel entirely overwhelmed. Occasionally the long respawn times can feel too aggressive, especially when you can only sit and watch as your towers topple. But on the whole the matches are fun, frenetic affairs that showcase why the genre has sustained on PC.
Outside of matches, the experience is more complex. I often felt overloaded with information, much of which is presented with tiny font more suited for the close confines of a monitor. For all of its pick-up-and-play simplicity, the game is still a MOBA through and through, and that means its underpinnings are dense. That density is contained almost entirely in menus that must be sorted through between games. Gems and Relics slot into your Belt for passive bonuses, and that's before you determine your Commands or Potions for the Loadout menu. These are all presented with equal weight in the menu, which doesn't visually identify the hierarchy of the choices or how they relate to each other. The game feels like it's split in two: the fun, fast-paced MOBA matches, and the somewhat dull, confusing, but short equipment-sorting meta-game.
All of this is wrapped in a thick layer of fan service based on the classic works of fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien. The playable heroes are the clearest throwback to Tolkien's iconic tropes, but the design permeates everything. The look of towers and soldiers, the sounds of battle, even the leather-bound menus and flowered language feel like they've been pulled straight out of the novels and films. It's no coincidence that the game is releasing so near to the upcoming Hobbit movie, even though the two aren't directly related.
Heroes range from familiar fan favorites like Gandalf and Gollum, to much more obscure selections. Chances are only the most ardent of Tolkien fanatics will recognize minor characters like Hildifons or Ugluk. The heroes are split into five categories for easy sorting and understanding their battle roles: Warrior, Defender, Tactician, Enchanter, and Striker. The characters seemed well-balanced in my play time, as long as they stuck to their roles. Tacticians will easily lose head-to-head encounters, but can control the battlefield; Defenders can stand up to punishment, but need allies at their side to take down opponents; and so on.
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Like most MOBAs, though, all the heroes aren't open from the start. A handful are available to play out of the proverbial box, while others are locked behind in-game currency with rotating sample characters. It's not microtransaction-based since the currency can't be bought with real money, but the inspiration is clear.
Guardians of Middle-earth is a shockingly successful attempt to convert the MOBA genre to consoles, but its success comes with a few qualifications. Even if the apparent server issues are ironed out, dealing with the cluttered menu system becomes a necessary chore. Its foundation is solid, but it's lopsided. For players who don't mind devoting a bit of time to upkeep, though, it's a great way to initiate console players into MOBA fandom.
This Guardians of Middle-earth review was based on an Xbox 360 download copy provided by the publisher. The game is also available for the PlayStation 3.