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Guardians of Middle-earth review: Ambition can’t save this cash-in

Over the past decade, the multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) genre has exploded in popularity. Spawned by the Defense of the Ancients modification for WarCraft III, the genre has since blossomed to include such modern favorites as the legally distinct Dota 2 and League of Legends. The latter game has become a phenomenon in its own right, as professional gamers now earn surprisingly massive purses for competing in large-scale international League of Legends tournaments. Given all of this, should it come as any surprise that WBIE’s latest attempt to exploit its grip on the Lord of the Rings video game rights comes in the form of a Tolkien-themed MOBA?

Of course not, especially since The Hobbit is due to hit theaters on December 14. Even though Guardians of Middle-earth is a digital release that requires no true box art, WBIE’s art department made sure to include a mention of the upcoming film on the game’s Xbox Live and PlayStation Network listings. In short, this game is blatantly designed to capitalize on the huge Lord of the Rings fanbase in the lead up to The Hobbit. Normally that sort of promotional tie-in would spell disaster for the resulting game, but since WBIE tapped Monolith Productions to develop the game, we’re willing to extend Guardians of Middle-earth the benefit of the doubt. Monolith is normally quite competent and the company did give us the brilliant No One Lives Forever, so maybe the creativity of the developer might just save this game from being a shallow movie cash-in. We can only hope.

A Solid Foundation

The most difficult part of developing a game like Guardians of Middle Earth is undoubtedly translating its genre to modern consoles. The multiplayer online battle arena genre was spawned on the PC and its numerous keyboard inputs and relatively complex control schemes have so far prevented it from making any real in roads into the realm of console gaming. Traditional wisdom dictates that there simply aren’t enough buttons on console controllers to properly play a MOBA title, so most developers have created their MOBA titles specifically for computer gamers.

Guardians of Middle Earth

That said, it isn’t impossible to create a MOBA title for consoles, and Guardians of Middle-earth is proof of that. Monolith has built a control scheme that, while not terribly clever, does cover every function you’d normally find in a typical MOBA game — which is very helpful, given that Guardians of Middle-earth is the very definition of the typical MOBA game. 

As with every other MOBA title in existence, gameplay in Guardians of Middle-earth centers around assaulting enemy installations using both your chosen hero and the resources found scattered around each of the game’s Lord of the Rings-themed maps. A head-on assault is as simple as rushing toward the closest group of enemies, but intelligent players will bide their time. Random monsters can be found throughout each arena, and killing these beasts is one of the best ways to earn the crucial experience points that will allow you to improve your hero’s most potent abilities. Further, your own base will periodically release groups of single-minded soldiers that will selflessly rush toward the enemy base and attack en masse. If you can time your own assault on your opponent with these occasional waves of troops, you can greatly improve your ability to cause real damage to your foe.

All of this should seem familiar to anyone who has ever played a MOBA game in the past, as it’s almost the most generic distillation of the MOBA formula we’ve seen to date. That “almost” is a pretty important qualifier as Guardians of Middle-earth escapes being described as “utterly generic” due primarily to the Lord of the Rings license WBIE has attached to it. Most of the game’s unlockable heroes is a fan-favorite character from Tolkien’s books, and Lord of the Rings devotees will be delighted to see Gandalf, Gollum, Legolas and the rest of Middle-earth’s legendary heroes.

Guardians of Middle EarthIt’s quite obvious too that WBIE realizes the strength of this license. Monolith did its best to infuse every aspect of the game with Tolkienian ambiance, so you’ll often hear your hero spout one of his or her most famous quotes. Likewise, all the enemies and locations are drawn from Tolkien’s work (though to fit the MOBA arena mold, those locations rarely look as they did in either the books or Peter Jackson’s films). Even hero abilities are sourced directly from Tolkien, though aside from in-game descriptions these special attacks are surprisingly similar to one another. Whether that’s the result of lazy animators or the constraints of adhering to strict cooldown and attack timers isn’t apparent, though we doubt the reason will matter much to fans who wish to see each attack rendered as gloriously as possible.

Nothing Special

Before we get to Guardians of Middle-earth’s key flaw, let’s get one thing straight: This is a very competent MOBA game. By strictly adhering to the basic tenets of the genre, Monolith has created a title that could hypothetically provide hours of competitive, multiplayer gaming to prospective players. The game’s skills are well designed, its heroes are varied yet well-balanced against one another, and each of the game’s arenas offers its own unique challenges. That said, the key problem with Guardians of Middle-earth is that outside of the Lord of the Rings license, it just doesn’t serve any particular purpose.

While we are impressed with how well Monolith was able to translate traditional MOBA controls to a console, we doubt anyone will argue that the control scheme Monolith designed is actually easier to use than its keyboard-based inspiration. There are simply too many buttons in this sort of game to keep track of for the standard Xbox 360 controller to properly keep up. It’s certainly possible to play this game and get good at it, but the missing buttons drastically increase the learning curve you’ll have to slog through to even be competent online. 

Guardians of Middle Earth

That wouldn’t be an issue if Guardians of Middle-earth had an effectively infinite player pool willing to dedicate itself en masse to learning the game’s ins and outs (and thus providing a strong competitive community for a game that, for all intents and purposes, should be viewed as an online-only title), but here is the second area in which Guardians of Middle-earth bucks common MOBA trends: It isn’t free. The aforementioned League of Legends, a game that attracts hundreds of thousands of players on a daily basis, is available as a free to play title. By contrast, Guardians of Middle-earth will set you back $15. That price difference alone will go a long way toward negating this game’s success. Fewer players will be willing to try a $15 game than they would a free one, and thus the potential player base for Guardians of Middle-earth is necessarily limited. While we’re impressed that Monolith was so successful at creating Guardians of Middle-earth despite these hurdles, after spending time with the game we’re left wondering why exactly it needs to exist.

Conclusion

Guardians of Middle Earth is a perfectly serviceable, console-based multiplayer online battle arena title, and that’s the highest praise we’re able to pay it. It will certainly attract Lord of the Rings fans curious to watch their favorite heroes battle to the death in one of our most popular modern gaming genres, but outside of those devotees whose obsession can justify spending $15 for a relatively shallow clone of gameplay you can find in a number of free to play PC titles, we can’t imagine who might enjoy this game. 

Maybe it’s not possible to create a console-based MOBA game. Maybe WBIE and Monolith were banking too hard on the potential profits to be had from a Lord of the Rings tie-in game. Maybe Sauron cursed this concept from the start. Whatever the reason, Guardians of Middle-earth, though a serviceable title, exists in a no man’s land of the gaming market in which it serves no real purpose. From a technical and conceptual stand point we mostly like the game, but beyond that we just can’t recommend Guardians of Middle-earth to anyone.

Score: 6/10

(Guardians of Middle Earth was reviewed using a downloadable XBLA copy of the game provided by EA.)