Console gamers have it pretty good these days, as many franchises originally confined to the PC have started making their way into living rooms. Sure we can’t really play real time strategies given the clumsiness of the gamepad, but that’s it, right? OK, and those deep historical strategy simulations. That’s it, though. Oh, and a proper Civilization title. OK. OK. I get it, consoles still have a long way to go in order to match the diversity of PCs.

One thing we can do now is play a proper MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena). Cut from the same cloth as League of Legends and DOTA, Guardians of Middle-earth from Monolith Productions and WB Interactive is the first (and only) traditional MOBA available on consoles. In fact, as of right now, it is exclusively available to Xbox 360 and PlayStation Network. Prior to this, the only option similar to a traditional MOBA was the fantastic Awesomenauts, and that still might be a better fit for those that have trouble adjusting to the way these games are played.

If you’ve never played a title like League of Legends, WB and Monolith have gone out of their way to make you feel at home. They’ve produced a five-part “Mastering MOBA” series (available on our YouTube channel), and the tutorials are well-paced, covering both in-game play and loadout management. Before you jump into your first match, I strongly suggest watching both. If you’re the impatient type, at least take this piece of advice: don’t stand too close to enemy towers.

There are over 20 characters from J.R.R. Tolkein’s universe available (with more coming later in conjunction with The Hobbit), but you’ll only have access to a small number early on. Some, like Gollum and Gandalf, will be familiar to most. Others, like Ugbol and Hildifons might only be known to Stephen Colbert and other Ringers of his caliber. Each functions differently, and vary not only by ability effects, but also by basic and ability damage levels. Unlocking new characters costs 5,000 gold (in-game currency). This isn’t terribly easy to come by, and you’ll need that money to purchase runes, gems and potions to customize your experience. These aren’t cosmetic enhancements, and you’ll need to be smart about how you build your “belt” in order to maximize your favorite character’s role. Putting a set of relics and gems together that complements your chosen Guardian is important. For instance, you can boost the basic attack of a character that is already strong in that area to make every hit brutal. Alternatively, you can go for balance and try to use the belt to plug some holes in the profile.

One of the hallmarks of the MOBA genre is rotating champions. Each week, a number of Guardians will be featured and free to play. This way, you won’t end up blindly spending a huge amount of currency on a character that simply isn’t right for your skill or preferred experience. As you compete, you’ll earn experience and gold. Leveling up earns you bonuses in the form of relics, gems and experience. You’ll also unlock new slots for potions, which can be used once in a match, and abilities, which have long cooldowns, but can be used multiple times.

While your meta-level will impact how many abilities and potions you can bring into a confrontation, every player’s character starts at level 1 (of 14). Experience is earned by defeating enemy Guardians, but the majority will be acquired by taking down the drone soldiers that serve as distractions. Guardians of Middle-earth features two different maps, with one offering three lanes and the other forcing every player into a single, chaotic scrum. Each lane is dotted by turrets. Get too close to an enemy’s pillar without the protection of drones taking hits for you, and you’ll often find yourself on the wrong side of the respawn countdown timer.

Playing a MOBA requires discipline that is counter to much I had learned from other online multiplayer experiences. Allowing drone soldiers to lead the charge, choosing when to unleash one of your four special attacks and making the choice to retreat when things get hairy are all learned habits. Dying not only takes you out of play for an increasing amount of time as the match goes on, but it awards your vanquisher with a significant amount of experience. Making foolish choices early on can snowball into a crushing defeat from which there is no hope of recovery.

Many of the games I played were pitched battles, with smart retreats to upgrade towers (a feature unlocked when you reach match level 6) and heal up. Capturing shrines that are located along the vertical center of the map provide benefits to your whole team, and seeking out creatures that live in between the lanes can net you stat buffs if you manage to defeat them. Most matches ended in a minor victory (determined by points when the 20 minute timer expires), rather than major victories signified by the destruction of one of the team bases. There are Elite Battlegrounds matches that have no time limit, but right now the wait times are coming in at twice the reported average, and could be as long as five minutes in my experience.

While I had little problems with the game prior to release (largely due to the diminished player count and AI-heavy bouts), now that it’s out in the wild, the chinks in the armor are apparent. I didn’t have a clean match the entire time playing. Sometimes the problems were as minor as nagging lag that presented as stuttering. Other times, things ground to standstill. I left one match open for 10 minutes while the connection was supposedly in the process of being re-established. I eventually had to quit out of the game because of one feature that should otherwise be a boon.

If players quit out of a game once they have entered the character selection screen, their matchmaking privileges are suspended. I haven’t tested the severity of the penalty, but it should work well to moderate the community if the servers ever become stable. In instances where players are left with no choice but to quit out due to lagging and hanging though, this is a hindrance. I want to keep coming back to this title, but if things don’t improve, I’m not likely to want to want to wait for a game (matchmaking is currently taking about two full minutes to enter the character select screen when “Play Now” is chosen, longer in Elite Battleground mode) and the additional pre-match process only to have the game seize right away or, worse, in the middle of game.

The presentation is otherwise strong, though even a slight redecoration to the two map types would go a long way. Things are already growing stale with only the two visual options. I greatly enjoy the small amount of voice acting, and those characters that appeared in the movies sound close enough to the actors that portrayed them that it isn’t jarring. The ability effects aren’t anything magnificent to look at, but as a means of being distinct, they are wonderful. I can tell which character’s ability is at work already, which is critical to making split-second decisions. The only problem is that when each team shares a character. For instance, Hildifons’ brambles and flame wall are identical regardless of whether they are friendly or hostile. An outline or subtle tinting would have been immensely helpful.

I appreciate much of what Monolith has done here. I’m delighted to finally be able to truly experience a MOBA on a console, and the choice to handle balancing on the backend (similar to Mortal Kombat and Monday Night Combat) will contribute greatly to the game’s longevity. I can already tell you that there are a couple of Guardians in need of a serious nerfing, and thanks to this decision, we won’t need to wait for a patch if Monolith decides to implement changes.

If the server issues get straightened out, I expect that Guardians of Middle-earth will earn itself a loyal community. Whether that will ever happen though, is unclear. When asked, Monolith informed us that the matchmaking and servers are peer to peer rather than dedicated. This seems to be the source of the lagging and stuttering. Unless some kind of filters are put in place to prevent poor matchups, these nagging issues will persist. There is hope. I have already met players online familiar with the genre that believe it stands up to the high bar set by Riot Games’ League of Legends. With the upcoming addition of more Hobbit-focused characters and further balancing, Monolith could have a true genre gateway on their hands. That wouldn’t just be good for them, it’s great for gaming.

 

Here’s the Rundown:

+ Great use of Tolkein’s Middle-earth
+ The first true MOBA experience on consoles
+ Backend balancing means that improvements aren’t reliant on certification process
+ Relics, gems, abilities and potions allow greater customization
- Major lag and other server issues leave matchmaking and game execution unreliable
- Some kind of experimentation mode for loadouts and characters would be helpful
- Having the same character on both teams leaves power signature confusion 

 

7 and 7.5 represent a game that overall manages to be worth a playthrough, just not worth the full price at launch. These scores are for games that are relatively good or even really good, but generally worth waiting for a sale or picking up as a rental when possible.

Guardians of Middle-earth was developed by Monolith Productions and published by WB Interactive. It was released on December 5, 2012, at the MSRP of $14.99/1200 msp. A copy was provided to RipTen by the publisher for the purposes of review.