Review: Guardians of Middle-Earth (PS3)

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Title: Guardians of Middle-Earth
Format: Blu-ray Disc / PlayStation Network Download (1.2 GB)
Release Date: December 4, 2012
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive
Developer: Monolith Productions
Price: $29.99 (Blu-ray-includes Season Pass) / $14.99 (PSN)
ESRB Rating: T
Guardians of Middle-Earth is also available on Xbox 360.
The PlayStation Network version was used for this review.

What is a MOBA? It’s a genre that is mostly unfamiliar to console gamers. But as much of a rarity as it is on console, the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) is a staple in PC gaming. It’s a genre that pits two teams up against one-another, both trying to travel down one of three lanes, take down the others defenses, and destroy the opponents home base. It’s a mostly top-down, real time strategy game, with minor RPG elements, and heavily focuses on team work. PC MOBA’s like League of Legends and Dota can be tough for beginners to jump into, and while LoL veterans might scoff at the idea of a console MOBA, I’m here to tell you that Guardians of Middle-Earth does the genre proud.

Gameplay:
In Guardians of Middle-Earth, the player takes over as one of the familiar heroes (called Guardians) in a 5 vs 5 battle arena set in the Lord of the Rings universe. You’ll see plenty of Legolas, Gandalf, and Sauron in your romp through Middle Earth, with each Guardian wielding their own unique powers to destroy the enemy. Some characters are strikers, built for being up close and personal, dealing a lot of damage to a single target. Some are defenders, meant to take on the brunt of the action and work as a distraction or holding point. Others are tacticians, trap-setters that step back from the action and help assist the other Guardians. No matter your play style, there will be a character that matches it. And if you are having hesitations because you don’t exactly know how MOBA’s or the Guardians work, Monolith has included a very good tutorial to help wrap things together.

As the player marches from tower to tower with their minions, they’ll be able to level-up and improve skills along the way. After you’ve played enough games, you’ll have access to the Guardian Belt, a fully customizable ability booster to help make each character somewhat unique. If you want a character with more health, fill your belt with health gems and patterns. If you want a character with quicker cool down, fill your belt with the corresponding gems. Overall, the Guardian Belt is a nice incentive to keep players playing and helps create a “load out” feel, comparable to online FPS shooters like Call of Duty and Battlefield 3.

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Most hardcore MOBA players will complain about the lack of precision that a controller brings. Guardians is able to account for that by including more area of effect (AOE) attacks than actual single target attacks. This approach works perfectly and not once did I feel restricted by this choice. The decision also helps lower the learning curve for newcomers, while still retaining a certain depth. Accessibility is really where Guardians of Middle-Earth is at its best. League of Legends matches can be hour long grind-fests. Guardians has an option to keep matches at 20 minutes. This helps keep things simpler and doesn’t force players into such a time commitment. Of course, for those MOBA veterans, there is the option for no time limit.

When it comes to actual mechanics, the gameplay is fantastic. Positioning your Guardian and wailing on an opponent is fun, and the satisfaction of killing an enemy Guardian is an unmatched feeling. Like most MOBA’s, you develop real chemistry with your team, healing and buffing one another in hopefully coordinated attacks. Strategy also plays a key role in the gameplay, like figuring out which lane of the three lanes to attack, or when to retreat to avoid death. There is just so much to a game like this, it’s exciting to see that it all comes together nicely.

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Visuals:
Guardians of Middle-Earth is a nice game to look at. It is no Uncharted, but the character and level design is straight out of Tolkien’s universe. The animations are also very well done. You’ll see arrows fly across the screen, realistic looking flames roar to life, and special spells that are unique and eye catching. There are some problems with clutter though. MOBA’s tend to have a lot of information flying at you at any one time, which means the UI is constantly full. On smaller TV’s, this could prove to be a problem, especially in a game where information is valuable. Occasionally in combat you can be swarmed and lose your character in the crowd. Next thing you know, you’re dead. It’s more a product of the genre than really a graphical issue, but again, on a smaller TV, this could be a problem.

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Audio:
The audio design is perfect for LOTR fans. Not only does every character have the original movie voice actors, but the game also features a robust, familiar soundtrack. It is a just another example of how Monolith added the little details to make this game complete.

Online/Multiplayer:
The online matchmaking is awful in Guardians of Middle-Earth. A game based entirely around online should have a good netcode and infrastructure in place. Unfortunately, this game does not. Wait times for matchmaking can be up to 5 minutes long and games can be filled with lag. Sadly, this really hurts Guardians and deters a community from gathering. Have you ever sat around for 5 minutes staring at a screen, waiting for your game to arrive. And it’s not like you can walk around and do something else while you wait, because if a game starts up, you might miss your opportunity to choose your favorite Guardian to use. Once you are in a game, occasional lag spikes cause your character to jump from spot to spot, making it difficult to attack specific targets. Some matches went on with no problems and the experience was great, but the connection in other matches made it almost unplayable. Monolith does know about the problem and is hopefully working on a solution, but in its current state, the online experience is very poor.

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Conclusion:
Guardians of Middle-Earth is a fantastic game marred by poor online. It takes the MOBA genre and translates it perfectly to the console, presents it in an easy, intuitive way, and creates a unique experience for newcomers and veterans alike. If I had to base this game on those merits alone, this game would be an A. Sadly, the game drops the ball in one of the most central facets, the multiplayer. In other genres, this could be overlooked, but Guardians is centered in its community and network, both of which are lacking. A future patch could fix these problems and the game could be saved, but the question is: will enough players wait around for that to happen?

Score:
7.5

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