Guardians of Middle-Earth review for XBLA, PSN

Platform: XBLA
Also On: PSN
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive
Developer: Monolith
Medium: Digital
Players: 1-10
Online: Yes

There haven?t been a whole lot of attempts at bringing a MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena) style experience to consoles, outside of the really well done Awesomenauts from earlier this year. But even that title was a pretty big deviation from the big PC heavies in the field, namely League of Legends and DOTA 2. Developer Monolith and publisher Warner Bros. Interactive are looking to change that up a bit with the release of Guardians of Middle-Earth, and all in all, I?d say it?s a pretty fun experience on consoles.

As the name implies, the hero characters, or Guardians as the game refers to them, are taken from Lord of the Rings lore. You?ll get a host of characters, both good and bad, to pick from here. Notable, recognizable standouts abound, like Sauron, Legolas, and Gollum. But there are a lot of less recognizable names bandied about too, like hobbit Hildifons, Aragorn?s father Arathorn, Orc warrior Mozgog and more. Each character falls into a specific class, giving you a rough idea of what exactly they?re good for even if you?re not familiar with playing them. But each character possesses four unique skills, which tend to not overlap from one Guardian to the next, making each one feel pretty unique.

Gameplay is divided up into a series of 5 versus 5 matches. These matches are represented by modes, called Battlegrounds, Elite Battlegrounds, and Skirmishes. You can also opt to make custom matches to invite friends into, which won?t tie back into leaderboard rankings. Battleground and Elite Battlegrounds are pretty much the same thing, except Elite won?t fill out open slots with A.I. controlled characters, and will force you to wait until all 10 slots in a game are full. Both modes give you the option of playing in 3-lane or 1-lane layouts. Skirmishes are roughly the same, but eliminate the 20 minute time limit enforced on matches in Battlegrounds and Elite Battlegrounds.

Gameplay has you and your team fighting to take down the opposing sides structures, composed of towers and army generating nodes that send out A.I. controlled generic soldiers down one of three paths (or a single path if you?re playing with one lane). Taking down towers is rarely an easy feat, as the towers themselves have the defensive ability to fire shots at you or the soldiers marching down the lane when close enough. You?ll also need to contend with enemy Guardians trying to do the same, so each match tends to be a back and forth battle of attrition.

Matches are won in one of two ways. One was has you destroying the central structure on your enemies side of the map. The other has you winning with the highest score when time expires. Score is awarded for defeating enemy Guardians and taking down towers, so it pays to remain on the offensive as often as possible. But avoiding death is also key, not only because you?ll award points to the other side every time you die, but because your respawn has a timer attached to it, which extends with each death. The slower you are returning to the fight, the more likely your lane is to being overrun.

From the week or so I?ve spent playing the game prior to review; I?d say that Guardians of Middle-Earth has a really satisfying sense of balance to it. I find balanced characters are pretty much key to any enjoyable MOBA, and despite not giving you full access to the roster right away by locking characters behind purchases with in-game currency, even the unlockable characters seem pretty much on par with the initial set you get access to. But they still feel unique, aided both by appearance and by skill sets. Certain characters seem easier to learn for novices, like Mozgog, a fairly straight forward warrior archetype, while others will take a bit of learning to utilize correctly. Monolith has also implemented a smart tactic of temporarily unlocking ?feature? characters on what appears to be a weekly basis, letting you test the waters a bit before spending your hard-earned gold on a character unlock.

Outside of characters to purchase, in-game currency can also net you a number of consumables, potions that?ll give temporary boosts in speed, defense, and attack, along with healing potions. There?s also a customization system in place using Relics, which you can fit into a limited number of slots and outfit with gems. Relics activate as your character levels up in a map, and often provide round permanent boosts to various stats. The Relic system takes a little while to adjust to, but as you play you?ll unlock more customization slots, similar to something found in modern shooters, allowing you to adjust Relic loadouts for various characters without going into a menu to switch out Relics every time you want to play as someone new.

The only real, significant downside to the game at this point is that the online play needs some real work. I?ve had the game installed since last week, prior to launch, and wasn?t able to play much outside of rounds with bots, which ran fine enough. But I wanted to wait until the game went live to finish out this review, and I?m pretty glad I did. My experience online, as of Thursday night, has been really hit or miss. I?ve run into problems with matchmaking, which can take upwards of 8 or 9 minutes to find a match when the average time displayed is a minute and a half. I?ve been randomly disconnected from games, and have experienced show-stopping lag in matches. I?ve also had a handful of smooth online matches too, so it?s not completely busted. But my overall experience online has been poor, which is certainly a shame considering the focus of the game is on online play. I imagine launch week quirks will get worked out, but keep in mind that if you pick this up, the online side is a little sketchy at the moment.

Provided Monolith irons out the kinks, I think this is the stand-out MOBA experience on consoles thus far. Granted, there?s not a lot of competition there, but it?s nice for console only gamers to be able to get a taste of what the PC crowd has been obsessed with for quite a while. Structuring the controls around an actual controller and not a keyboard/mouse combo doesn?t feel ham-fisted either, which is certainly a plus. I definitely think the game is worth checking out, provided the online issues get fixed quickly enough.

Grade: B