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Guardians of the Middle-earth preview: One ring, but infinite choices

As early as Wednesday, players will get the chance to return to Middle-earth in Monolith’s digitally distributed multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game, Guardians of Middle-earth. So what does that all mean? We had the chance to sit down with producer Bob Roberts and senior producer Ruth Tomandl from Monolith, and discussed what to expect from our next outing in the land of the hobbits.

The first thing to know is that the game is built around the fighting mechanic rather than the story, which may irk some Tolkien purists but opens up it up to a lot of interesting possibilities. Sure, realistically Gollum probably wouldn’t be able to slow down a mace-wielding Sauron for longer than it would take to pick the remains of the creature from the Dark Lord’s gore-covered weapon, but the game gives you that option, and does so in a way that is consistent within its own logic, if not the logic of the source material.

The game is also built on the back of the films, both old and upcoming, as well as the original novels of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but not the larger Tolkien world. It’s a shame that legal disputes and property rights have pushed the additional Silmarillion material outside the realm of the adaptations in all mediums, but it does breed a consistency to the concept art and style that ties all the offerings together with the most recognizable form of the property at the moment. It also doesn’t hurt that the game is heading to homes less than two weeks before the release of The Hobbit threatens to reignite the craze that went along with the previous Peter Jackson trilogy, and it features characters from the upcoming first film of the new Hobbit trilogy.

But while t Monolith vetted their material through Peter Jackson’s Wingnut Films, the team was left to their own devices and given the freedom to expand the game in the direction it felt best served its goals.

“It’s totally just a Middle-earth game, really. We’ve been working with part of the lore that we pulled from the appendix of the books and from all kids of different places,” Roberts said. “So while the visual style and feel is very consistent with Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit film vision, it’s really more broadly a Middle-earth game. There’s definitely going to be characters in here that you’re not going to see in films that we have worked on independently, although there are some you’ll definitely see in the film too,”

Tomandl went on to suggest that roughly one-third of the characters in the game will be taken from the films, one-third will be taken directly from the books, and the remaining third will be a mix of obscure characters and imagination from Monolith, fleshed out specifically for this game. All of these original characters can be found buried deep within the source material, but they may be built around someone that was little more than a fleeting mention from another character in the book, giving Monolith room to create while still holding true to the series.

Unlike many other games of the same style, Guardians was created specifically for a console experience and not PC. The idea behind this was simply that the development decided to focus on the controls using a traditional console controller in order to give that platform the best possible experience. There are currently no plans to bring the game to PC. Besides, the PC market has plenty of MOBA titles, while the console market has only a few by comparison.

In the game you take control of one character, or guardian, out of 22 options each split between an “evil” and “good” orientation, and each with their own style and method. Sauron, for example, is more of a tank character, slow and powerful, but not very maneuverable, while Legolas will be a faster, ranged character, with more maneuverability but less defense.

When you first begin, you will only have access to a small number of these 22 guardians, and more will unlocked via the in game’s currency that you earn and use. Unlike many other games in the genre, however, Guardians will not feature micro-transactions, nor are there any plans to ask for cash in order to unlock aspects of the game.

Regardless of your alignment between good or evil, your character is defined by one of five classes: Defender, Enchanter, Striker, Tactician, and Warrior. The game features 5-on-5 competitions, and the best way to succeed is to balance out your team with a combination of classes and styles.

The class you choose will be defined by stats, allowing you to select a player that best suits what you want to do, and they all fall into molds familiar to any longtime gamer. The enchanter (a magician class) has low health and high damage, the warrior is balanced, the striker is a tank, and so forth.

The guardians each have a basic attack mapped to the right trigger/shoulder button, as well as four unique, upgradeable abilities mapped to the face buttons. Guardians also have four commands that can range from healing to lightning strikes, mapped to the left trigger/shoulder. All characters also carry with them up to seven gems and/or relics, stat augmentation items that unlock as you play.

There isn’t anything that should be too foreign to the average gamer, but the amount of customization means that every online game should be the same. You won’t be able to fundamentally alter one class to make them more like another, but within each class the options are significant, and experimenting with four other players loaded out in their own way should create a new experience every game.

And that level of variety will change constantly, as the game is designed to be played online with a full complement of human teammates and opponents. There is an option to play the game as a single player populated with AI teammates and opponents, but that isn’t what it was designed for. The method of distribution slightly changed the development process for the better as well. Since the game is being released as a digital download only, it ensure that those who purchase the it will already have an online connection. Each time you connect, you will download data that helps to pair you with real life players who are balanced by your rankings, hopefully ensuring a better game every time.

“The biggest thing it [developing for digital distribution] did for me was create a sense of relief that everyone will be connected and download our patches and balance data every time they log on,” Roberts said. “So they’ll have the most up to date version, so that’s kind of a relief.”

Guardians of Middle-earth will be released on Wednesday, December 4. Check out our full review later this week for all the details.