Awesomenauts debuted as the first console MOBA in a genre that would normally translate poorly to gamepads, but the minds over at Monolith Productions have conjured some other-world mysticism that has proven that belief wrong. Guardians of Middle-earth dons the appearance of a standard MOBA experience that handles magnificently on a controller. The button mapping for basic attacks and abilities makes perfect sense, and visual cues help players time their powers before casting. The only problem with Guardians of Middle-earth: no one seems to be playing it.
Part of the issue is the pricing. For a genre with only a dozen titles to its name – most of them free – the MOBA brand puts up impressive eSports numbers against Starcraft II. Yet it's hard to imagine Guardians of Middle-earth resonating throughout the avid market unless more players shell out 1200 Microsoft Points. The “Quick Match” feature estimated average queue times of about two minutes, but sometimes I waited upwards of five to ten before the matchmaking got its act together. A handful of matches even dropped my connection as the fighting began, then banned me from multiplayer for several minutes for “quitting.” Although penalizing repeat quitters makes for a nice bullet point, that does not excuse a system any less flawed when teammates leave in a fury and cannot be replaced by AI Guardians. The task then falls to a team of two or three to salvage a win against an opposing crew of five.
Cue the obligatory "You shall not pass!"
That’s all provided gamers search for a Battlegrounds match, though a majority of the sessions I managed to join were plagued by lag issues. Guardians spasm in their mad sprints around the map, and the effectiveness of abilities remains subject to frequent connection delays. Most of the players have aggregated in Skirmish, then, a game type of five humans against five AI rivals. But once teams learn to exploit the AI’s weaknesses, it becomes possible to steamroll enemy Guardians in a few minutes. While the game does fill empty player slots with bots before a match, the friendly AI could not be more idiotic. A set of creeps is enough to scare your virtual allies from the front lines, and they consistently fail to press the advantage when adversaries have less than 10 percent health.
So as I wait for a match in the meantime, let’s dissect Monolith's gameplay. Guardians of Middle-earth resembles your traditional MOBA experience. Two teams of five vie for control of a 3-lane or 1-lane map while trying to eliminate the other faction’s towers, creeps, and base. The 1-lane map becomes cluttered quickly as teams clash in the middle in a magical tug of war. I doubt even League of Legends could match the spectacle of ten Guardians unleashing flame whips, meteor strikes, ice blasts, and immobilizing vines in attempts to freeze and slay their foes. Losing your Guardian in the chaos is no issue, either, because of the bright blue circle that designates your attack radius, which solves any potential misclick problems on gamepads. Automated soldiers (creeps) spawn at regular intervals too, though players can upgrade their barracks to produce mounted cavalry or a siege creature that specializes in destroying enemy structures. And when the danger of dying approaches, dashing into surrounding shrubbery populated by neutral creatures hides your Guardian from view.
Every enemy within that luminescent cone will take damage when attacked.
Monolith introduces five classes – Enchanter, Defender, Striker, Warrior, Technician – that take on several offensive, defensive, and support roles. To represent these archetypes, the developers have combed the annals of Tolkien’s lore to create a respectable cast of heroes and villains. Faces like Legolas, Gandalf, Sauron, and Gollum may be familiar to movie fans, yet Monolith appeases bigger Lord of the Rings nerds (myself included) by tapping into lesser-known characters such as Arathorn (Aragorn’s father), Thrain (Thorin Oakenshield's father), and Agandaur and Wulfrun from last year’s Lord of the Rings: War in the North. Players less familiar with the universe may be peeved to find out the studio has withheld eight more characters, including Bilbo, in the form of a season pass. There’s no option for microtransactions here, but it’s hard to argue over the twenty-two readily available Guardians. Monolith plans to cycle the free heroes and villains each week, and players have the ability to permanently unlock their favorites using in-game coins.
How you perform in a match determines your accolades, coins, and challenge progress. Challenges are character-specific, so eliminating five enemy Guardians in one life with the Witch-king may not present an experience reward like it does Haldir. Players still level up on the battlefield, gaining access and upgrading their four unique abilities as the match persists. A person’s overall rank also unlocks more loadout slots, commands, gems, and relics. Before you cry foul that Call of Duty has infiltrated the pure and sanctioned combat of the MOBA space, let me say that loadouts are not a game changer. Players that know a character’s flaws and strengths will still eliminate less skilled players regardless of the customization. Loadouts simply distinguish Guardians of Middle-earth from the competition. Each character’s belt holds seven gems that slightly increase health regeneration, speed up cooldown times, grant more experience, etc., but relics – which require certain ordering and types of gems – produce more specific results. For example, one relic stacks the damage of your next basic attack by 15% for every second you keep your sword sheathed.
Get too close and enemy creeps will show no fear in chasing you down.
Likewise, commands are akin to regular abilities, except they take several minutes to cool down and shift the flow of battle when cast at the right time. These power plays are divided into tiers: Lower level commands instantly heal Guardians for a large percentage of their health, or buff their armor and reflect damage for a dozen seconds; higher tiers allow players to summon such beasts as a Balrog. Only time will grant you the experience needed to hit the max level and call forth these fiery demons. More dedicated gamers have an advantage in this regard, yet Monolith provides default loadouts that keep competitions close.
Guardians of Middle-earth is a rare treat when it works, using a well-known trilogy to garner attention in a field dominated by League of Legends. It streamlines the MOBA genre for newcomers, lowering learning curves to mere hours instead of days and weeks. Readying an ability that glues enemies to the ground for a critical second feels natural when mapped to the face buttons, and I never had issues attacking the wrong target. The community seems to be rather agreeable in their actual aiding of new players, too (instead of filling a person's ears with vitriol). Sadly, no amount of Lord of the Rings appeal could excuse Monolith’s game for its terrible networking issues, even if the player base reaches League of Legends’ status.
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Developer: Monolith Productions
Release Date: December 4, 2012
Number of Players: 2-10 (Multiplayer)
Platforms: Xbox Live Arcade (Reviewed), PlayStation Network