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Guardians of Middle-earth

Score: 75%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Developer: Monolith
Media: Download/1
Players: 2 - 10 (Online)
Genre: Action/ Strategy/ Online

Graphics & Sound:

Guardians of Middle-earthís isnít the first MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) to hit consoles, but it is one of the more high profile thanks to the Lord of the Rings/ The Hobbit license. Regardless of my thoughts on gameplay, or more importantly the communityís role in gameplay, it is hard to overlook the amount of detail layered throughout the presentation.

The game offers 20 characters pulled directly from Tolkienís universe. Youíll see familiar faces like Gandalf and Gollum, though youíll also see a number of side characters pop up during matches. Though nothing really sticks out about the visuals, characters at least look as true to the filmís rendition as possible. You donít get the filmís sweeping score nor do you get lots of authentic dialogue, but everything still fits the general tone of the film, so there isnít much to complain about.

One of the few letdowns, at least as far as presentation is concerned, is the lack of arena variety. Although Middle-earth provides numerous locales to draw inspiration from, nearly every map looks exactly the same. Areas like the recently released Shire have little flourishes, such as lanterns and the areaís signature round homes, though once you hit the battlefield, you might as well be somewhere else.


Gameplay:

Iím usually not one to do this Ė at least not as an "opening shot" Ė but Guardians of Middle-earth has a community issue. Few, if any, players communicate with each other during matches. Worse, it is sometimes incredibly hard to find a match and in the magic times you manage to find one, some players are quick to jump from the match the minute things look dire for their side. Unfortunately, in Guardians of Middle-earth, both communication and teamwork are vital to its success.

For the uninitiated, MOBA games are similar to real-time strategy games. Playing as a Hero character (in this case, LOTR/ Hobbit characters), you attempt to knock out the opposing teamís base while making sure yours doesnít fall. You are not alone in your defense; in addition to other players, all routes (called lanes) to your base are guarded by A.I.-controlled soldiers and powerful towers. The concept is easy to understand, and to its credit, Guardians of Middle-earth does a great job bringing it to consoles.

Guardians of Middle-earth offers two variations on this core play type; the difference being one pits players against other players while the other matches players against an A.I.-controlled team. Further, each game type offers either a 3- or 1-lane map. Of the two, youíre more likely to find player-versus-player matches, which is actually to the detriment of the game. Not only do you constantly run into the problems illustrated above, youíll also run into lag. At times, this just adds a funky stutter-step to your Heroesí run animation, though other times youíre hit with game-stopping "Waiting for Input" messages or, ever so often, a complete stoppage of play. As much as I want to say it can only get better, in the last two weeks, little has changed.

Other than tutorial, there is no offline content. Guardians of Middle-earth is meant as an online game, but I would have loved the option to play with/against A.I.-controlled opponents. It isnít hard to figure the game out, though some sort of offline mode would have been great for practice, if only to figure out how each character plays in combat.


Difficulty:

Guardians of Middle-earth isnít a complicated game to understand. It is actually one of the more streamlined and easier to get into games Iíve played in the genre. Thereís a lot going on, though 2-3 trips through the tutorial is usually enough to sear everything into your brain. Once you get into a game, however, matches are a frustrating mess.

For starters, I rarely entered a match with even teams. A.I.-controlled characters are supposed to fill in blank spots, though it doesnít seem to happen much. Worse still, a number of players absolutely refuse to communicate with each other. Iíve seen a few coordinated attacks, but most Ė but not all Ė matches boil down to 5 Ė 10 players running around the map killing each other. In the matches Iíve managed to get into, most have ended because time ran out, not because a base went down.

Players regularly dropping from matches compound the issue. Connection issues may be a factor, but it is suspect when a team gets suddenly smaller once things look grim. Although I stay until the bitter end, I canít blame some players for leaving since, once a team manages a foothold, the match is usually over Ė especially in 1-lane matches. In my experience, the team to down a town first is usually the winner.


Game Mechanics:

One of Guardians of Middle-earthís strengths is how it manages to streamline the MOBA experience without losing anything in the process. The control scheme is incredibly impressive; attacks are mapped to the Right Trigger while abilities are mapped to the face buttons. Once youíre comfortable with the flow of gameplay (allowing an ability to play out rather than immediately hitting attack, cancelling it), youíll be amazed at how quickly you can flip between normal and special attacks.

I was also impressed by the U.I., which manages to cram a whole lot of information on the screen without negatively affecting gameplay. Important info Ė mini-map, abilities and cooldown indicators Ė is in places that make sense. At no time did I ever feel like I needed to fumble around to figure something out.

Guardians of Middle-earth also removes mid-game shop visits. Instead, all character buffs are handled using your characterís belt. Between matches, you purchase gems and artifacts to augment your characterís abilities. These include health, attack and defensive bonuses, as well as a few more specialized buffs, like bonus damage to towers.

Each character comes with a default load out on their belt, though you can customize your belt once you have some money. The downside to the system is the lack of explanation. It isnít super confusing; though expect to make a few bum purchases while you figure out a load out that works for you.

You wouldnít guess this by the score, but Guardians of Middle-earth is actually a good game. There is a lot to like about the game and I encourage anyone who is interested to jump in, if only to boost the player count. If you do choose to jump in, however, expect a rocky road. If the lack of community doesnít get you, connection issues will. The latter is something I expect to see fixed over time, but Iím not sure about the former. Granted, it isnít completely Monolithís fault, though when online play is as important to gameplay as it is with Guardians of Middle-earth, I expect a little more push in the way of incentivizing players.

Hopefully Guardians of Middle-earth will find its feet in the next few months. I know Iíll be doing my part, but until that time, purchase at your own risk.


-Starscream, GameVortex Communications
AKA Ricky Tucker

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