REVIEW: Guardians of Middle-Earth [PC]

I’m not particularly good at games in the MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) genre. I really like the basic idea, but for whatever reason I am decidedly average when it comes to playing them. So when I see there’s yet another one coming out it typically doesn’t get a second glance.

But Monolith got their hands on the Lord of the Rings licence and I am a massive Lord of the Rings nerd. So Guardians of Middle-Earth warranted a closer look, even without being too terribly strict on the lore side. Gollum can’t beat Gandalf, damn it!

For those unfamiliar with the MOBA genre, the core gameplay pits two teams against each other with the goal to destroy a building at the centre of their opponent’s base. Each player controls one powerful hero unit, with the game sending forth an army of lesser grunts to endlessly assail each team’s defenses. Without the involvement of the heroes, these grunts would grind each other to death in a permanent stalemate.

The player controlled heroes have special abilities, which they can improve through the course of a match by defeating opponents. In Lord of the Rings terms, this means you can play as Gandalf and increase the power of your magic and melee attacks via defeating endless orcish hordes and the enemy controlled heroes and defensive structures.

Unlike other MOBA titles there is no “last hit” mechanic in play here, for the most part. As there is no in-game item shop you don’t earn gold from defeating opponents and experience points are granted to any friendly heroes close enough to the battle. Purists may decry this change, but if all you want is yet another clone then you’re the problem, not the changes in Guardians of Middle-Earth.

Certain skills and passive abilities require making the killing blow on an opponent but by selecting the right character and equipping complementary relics you can avoid the “last hit” phenomenon entirely. Which is great if, like me, you think it is the worst mechanic in any game that has ever been created!

While there is no item shop during matches you can purchase potions and equip certain, powerful, class-agnostic abilities in the menu between matches. Potions offer the usual boosts like healing, hastened attacks and protection from damage, but they must be purchased with gold earned from completing matches, making them a somewhat unappealing investment. The abilities do not need to be purchased and can be reused, though the reuse timer is typically quite long, especially for the more powerful and dramatic attacks like calling in “air support”. Meaning a giant eagle or one of the winged beasts of the Nazg├╗l swoops in, raking their talons across the enemy ranks and pushing them in the direction of the strike. It’s as cool as it sounds, along with being satisfyingly powerful.

[img_big]center,9537,2012-08-31/guardians_360_arathornpushingtower.jpg,Guardians of Middle-Earth[/img_big]

But perhaps the biggest departure from standard MOBA strictures is the belt where you store relics and gems to buff your character’s innate attributes. Both relics and gems must be purchased with gold but, once purchased, you can use it in as many belts as you wish. If you want to use multiples of gems in one belt you will need to buy more, but relics are a one-time purchase.

Relics do anything from provide a straight health boost to increasing your attack rate or granting more health or damage for each enemy you kill. There are even some that allow quicker reuse of your heroic abilities, a boon for characters that rely on firing off abilities every time they’re available.

Relics and gems also have a certain level of symbiosis, with some relics offering boosts depending on how many of a certain kind of gem you have equipped. A relic might grant +10 Health for each emerald equipped, with another granting damage resistance per emerald. Stack emerald gems on top of the right relic slots and reap a huge reward during a match as your progress unlocks each in turn.

There’s a great deal of depth here since different heroes benefit more from certain relics than others, though you’re not tied down to a specific set. You can make a surprisingly durable Gollum, give Eowyn a faster refresh on her stun ability, or just make Legolas attack even more quickly.

Unfortunately, it’s not all good news. Guardians of Middle-Earth was originally released on consoles and only recently ported over to the PC. On release the game was playable, though extraordinarily frustrating. Abilities would fail to trigger or would go off in the wrong direction and movements were imprecise or movement commands were simply ignored. Matchmaking didn’t work, with 99% of attempts resulting in matches with 9 AI and one player.

Since then the developers have been diligently working on the game and these teething issues have mostly been resolved. If you miss with an ability now it’s probably your own fault.

Other than some heroes seeming more powerful than others the only real complaint remaining is the matchmaking system. They’ve tried to address the issue with work on the backend and increasing the timeout period before it just lumps you with some AI, but you still mostly play with and against AI. How much of this is the system’s fault? It’s unclear. It may just be that there aren’t enough people trying to play at the same time anymore after the disastrous launch issues. And, to be fair, the AI controlled opponents are quite competent and will provide newcomers a good challenge. But they’re no subsitute for the oddities and intelligence of other humans.

[img_big]center,9537,2012-08-31/guardians_360_runsigdefendingshrine.jpg,Guardians of Middle-Earth[/img_big]

Usually I like to end a review by boldly declaring you should or should not buy it, but here I’m quite torn. If you’re a Lord of the Rings fan you’ll probably get a kick out of this, though it’s by no means the best game in the franchise. If you’re a MOBA junkie there’s some interesting differences to some of the other titles in the genre that may make it worth your time.

But it costs $19.99 for the base game. More, if you want all the available cosmetic options and characters unlocked from the start. And, in comparison, Lord of the Rings Online and the most popular MOBA titles are free to play.

I’ve had fun with Guardians of Middle-Earth, you might have fun with it too. Just be aware you’ll play a lot of your games against the AI, which is perhaps no terrible thing given the MOBA community’s notoriously poor behaviour.

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