Guardians of Middle-Earth Xbox 360 Review

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Multiplayer online battle arena, or MOBA for short, have become a big thing for PC gaming. A few months ago, the developers for League of Legends threw out a picture with statistics that showed it was the most-played game in the world. It’s not only League of Legends that has become popular. If you check out Steam’s stat page, then you will find that DOTA 2 – Valve’s own take on the genre – is always at the top with 200,000+ players at any given time. With the popularity of these games at an all-time high, it was only a waiting game to see if someone would have the guts to attempt the genre on a console. Who would step up to the challenge? Monolith Productions, the team that created such games as F.E.A.R and Condemned: Criminal Origins.

A striking aspect of Guardians of Middle-Earth is that this is a licenced product that stars characters from The Lord of the Rings. This should also be the time to note that the game is aiming for a more accessible approach to the genre, in such that console people or The Lord of the Rings fans – should be in high waves due to The Hobbit being in the cinemas – that might not have even touched the MOBA genre on PC, can pick up a controller and learn how to play on their Xbox 360 or PS3 with their favourite characters from the source material.

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One point carrying importance with the genre is that the game must teach the player the key aspects of the gameplay, which sometimes the PC MOBA games do not do too well. On a PC you can check out websites and guides, but that is still no excuse to have a video game with lacklustre tutorials and tips, especially when the genre is one that thrives off its community. Guardians of Middle-Earth comes with a decent enough tutorial that takes the player through a match and explains details, while asking them to perform tasks so that information is visually fed along with text explanation. It should allow anyone new to get an idea on how to play – at least with Gandalf the Grey, the hero used for the tutorial – and that team play and interaction is what is required to win a match.

Anyone familiar with classic MOBA gameplay will feel at home here. There are two teams of five heroes that must push along a three-lane map. A one-lane map exists, but that plays messy compared to the standard map and throws a lot of the strategy out of the window. Teams have AI soldiers that automatically move forward and attack enemies and towers, with the aim to have your side push forward into the enemy base and destroy their main structure. Heroes can attack by using the right stick to aim in a direction and holding down RT to begin attacking when an enemy is within the highlighted range. All attacks show their distances so players always know how far their move set will reach.

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The transition to console is helped along by the fact that not all the staples of a MOBA game are included. Monolith is working with a restricted amount of buttons on a console’s controller, which means something had to go. Money and the item shop do not feature in the gameplay, cutting out a lot of confusion for newer people (the item shop was an incredible complex and deep part of the game) and allowing players to concentrate more on the match. This is not to mean that Guardians of Middle-Earth is suddenly a poor attempt at a MOBA. It still requires skill, knowledge of the heroes and the map’s geometry, and other key points to be good at the game.

To cover the removal of items, the pre-match setup allows the choice of a loadout that can used to customise heroes. Loadouts consist of three elements. Potions can be used once per match to call upon healing or buffing oneself for a limited amount of time. Commands give heroes special spells to cast. Both potions and commands can have up to four equipped at one time. Lastly, gem and relics are equipped to a belt that adds permanent stat increases, similar to masteries in League of Legends. Initially, a lot of these are locked away, but as you keep playing and level-up with match experience and coins, you can use the coins to unlock more gems and relics that apply to your play style.

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Coming with over 20 characters each with their own unique skills, the selection of heroes might not be on the same scale as DOTA2 or League of Legends, but they do offer five different styles of play, such as Enchanter, Striker, Warrior, Defender and Technician – all coming with graphs that show their strengths and weaknesses. Even though you are buying the game on the store for 1200 Microsoft Points (MSP), you do not gain access to every character at first. The game forces you to replay and earn coins, allowing you to buy a character once you hit the required amount. They also offer weekly samples that allow you to play a character that isn’t unlocked. A few more heroes have been released as downloads, which you unlock using MSP for around 160 per character.

Monolith has made it so that everything moves along at speed. Matches will not normally go far past 20 minutes long and units cannot level-up higher than 14. There are some new mechanics in play with Guardians of Middle-Earth. Towers and AI units can be upgraded depending on how far you are levelled up, with the best upgrades coming when players are level 12. These can make towers shoot faster and make units faster or stronger to give your team the edge. Each unit station or tower has four different upgrades, which can be changed whenever and adds to the overall strategy of the game, as your team decides what is the best course of defence or offence during a match. Away from any security of a base are shrines that can be captured by anyone to gain bonuses for their allied team members, again making the game deeper than what it first seems.

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While it’s good that Monolith has managed to bring MOBA to consoles, it still has some flaws. The mini-map, for one, isn’t helpful in feeding key information to player, such as tower health. You can activate a free look by clicking down the two analogue sticks together, but since you directly control the characters in this game, it means you have to stand still while looking around the free view. Not very good to do in a game that is heavily focused on players keeping alert and knowing what’s around them at all times. The reason you can get away with free view on PC MOBA games is because you can tell your hero to go a certain direction while you look around the map. Matchmaking also seems to take too long. Since the game does not display how many players are online, I cannot determine if it is because there aren’t many people playing or that the search is just busted, but every match online took around five minutes to get into, something that adds up if you keep wanting to play a few matches a night.

There is definitely something to like with Guardians of Middle-Earth and Monolith has done a good job breaking down the key points of MOBA and bringing it to consoles with its own controls. The super hardcore DOTA2 / League of Legends players might not like some of the reshuffling to the mechanics, but there is no denying that this is a start of something positive for MOBA games on a console, and with more polish and fine-tuning, a sequel or another company could come along and make something special.

7/10

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Version tested: Xbox 360

Also available on: PS3

Developer: Monolith Productions

Publisher: Warner Bros.

Genre: Multiplayer Online Battle Arena