Heading into this review of Guardians of Middle Earth , I had had no prior experience with the sub-genre known as MOBA, which stands for multiplayer Online Battle Arena. As most of my readers know, I tend to avoid online-based entertainment for a variety of reasons. That being said, it isn’t hard to spot the appeal and polish exhibited in the latest from Monolith Productions, although I do wonder if “Lord of the Rings” fanatics will be satisfied. This is less about Tolkien lore and more about a certain style of play but from where I stand, there’s nothing wrong with that approach.
The graphics are crisp and nicely refined, and there’s a bevy of pleasing special effects that give this immersive, fantastical world a bit more flavor. It’s the combination of a no-holds-barred arena of combat and death fused with a highly imaginative landscape. Things have a tendency to get a little muddled during periods of hectic confrontation so that aforementioned visual crispness can suffer, but one has to appreciate the obvious attention paid to detail. With an old-school top-down isometric view, though, I have to say the graphics often take a back seat to the gameplay; however, that shouldn’t annoy anyone.
Technically speaking, the sound is in much the same boat, despite the balancing problems that can occasionally rear their ugly heads. The soundtrack is great; it’s not especially diverse but the compositions are unquestionably effective and fitting, as the atmosphere is begging for these classic odes to battle and all the nobility it can boast; i.e., honor, pride, courage, nobility, etc. The music does a good job bringing us into the action while at the same time emphasizing the grand fanfare of the spectacle. The effects match the graphical effects, in that they’re well implemented without being especially impressive.
If you’re unfamiliar, Multiplayer Online Battle Arena is a relatively new genre; for a frame of reference, other titles included in this category are Dota 2 and League of Legends . Such games have a fair amount of depth and intricacy and are typically geared toward the PC platform due to the nature of the gameplay. Essentially, there’s a lot of clicking, a bunch of hotkeys, and the like. This means that Monolith had to find a way to make Guardians of Middle Earth functional and streamlined with a standard console controller. I imagine many would prefer the keyboard/mouse setup but really, the developers did a good job here.
Monolith doesn’t cut any corners or scale anything back, either (at least not so far as I can tell). The top-down isometric view is a nod to the past – and one I applaud, by the way – and most importantly, this is not a port; the game was designed from the ground up for consoles. Sure, they’ve been forced to change up some mechanics and make things more accessible for a very different interface, but they have done so admirably. Instead of clicking for a skill shot, you have area-effect attacks that nail anything in their cones of sight. It’s easy to grasp but given the huge amount of depth and a significant learning curve, takes some time to master.
One of the features included here that you won’t find in PC MOBAs is the Guardian Belt, which replaces the standard item shop. The Belt offers a bunch of unlockable buffs to which you can gain access as a match progresses. But beyond this, it should look and feel very much like other MOBA titles you’ve played in the past, despite the obvious difference in platform. For the uninitiated, it’s important to remember that strategy plays a very large role, as you’ll have to experiment with abilities, relics, and characters (there are over 20) before you finally come up with a tried-and-true battle plan that works to near perfection.
In choosing your “loadout,” vernacular that may be more recognizable than MOBA, you select various relics, each of which take up a certain number of slots in your Guardian Belt. They can help boost your strength or offer some defensive or healing benefits, so they’re essential to victory. In addition to the relics are the gems, which can be added to the relics for even more bonuses; these typically up your base stats, so you’ll enjoy such pluses throughout the course of the match. Remember, though, you have to unlock each relic on your belt, and that’s dictated by the battle’s progression. The key is to find the setup that works best for your chosen character.
Obviously, each character has different strengths and weaknesses, so you’ll want to learn what they are before you start choosing stat boosters willy-nilly. Now, here’s where we come to a potential downfall, and this drawback will be quite familiar to fans of the fighting genre. Although the latter is very different from Guardians , both potentially suffer from balance issues, in that some characters are simply stronger than others and hence, have the unfair advantage in combat. Personally, I’ve found that some characters may feel underpowered and as such, Monolith should probably listen to fan feedback concerning this subject.
Then there’s the short match timer (each match is set to 20 minutes), which is also a new element in the MOBA world. While it can offset some balance problems and gives the game an added feeling of urgency, I can always do without any countdown clocks in games, especially those with a significant amount of strategy. I understand that this is real-time action but even so, I greatly dislike the idea of a timer; it’s just something else I have to think about and in truth, it’s often the biggest enemy of all. I’ve got enough on my plate, what with erecting and upgrading bases and towers, directing my guys in battles, and controlling shrines. I can do without a freakin’ clock, thank you very much. Clocks are just…bad.
The other downside, which I briefly mentioned in the introduction, is the apparent lack of “Lord of the Rings” story aspects. I mean, the game pits all your favorite characters against each other, but we never really know why…maybe we’re not supposed to care. And I get that. As I said, this is all about the gameplay. But even so, with such a huge focus on character development and plot, I’d think some LotR fanatics might be disappointed at seeing little to nothing in the way of either in this game. It’s hard to say, though; maybe they’ll just get a kick out of controlling Gandalf, Legolas, Aragorn, and even Gollum. It is lots of fun.
On top of which, due to the inherent differences of each character, the variety mixes with the depth to create a supremely robust and fulfilling package. Guardians of Middle Earth is a solid MOBA and one well worth your time and effort, especially if you’ve enjoyed similar titles. It doesn’t sacrifice or change much in comparison to other MOBA experiences, and at no point do you feel like you’re playing something that’s watered down. That’s the benefit of building from the ground up, right? There may be some balance issues, I don’t like the timer, and the LotR lore is lacking but other than that, all the depth, complexity, and accompanying rewards are undeniable.
The Good: Clean, crisp visual presentation. Great score. Well-implemented, streamlined control for a gamepad. Plenty of depth and requisite strategy. Tons of variety among the LotR characters. Proves MOBA can work just fine on a console.
The Bad: Possible balance problems (TBD as time goes on). Short match timer feels restricting. Not much actual LotR lore. Steep learning curve.
The Ugly: "I still say Gandalf should be more of a bad-ass."