As Middle-earth expands into our cinemas once again with the release of The Hobbit, Warner Bros. Interactive and Monolith Productions have teamed up to bring a small slice of the vast Tolkien universe to our consoles. Released online via Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network, Guardians of Middle-earth is a very unique online Lord of the Rings experience that would normally be reserved for a rather small niche of avid PC gamers.
Guardians of Middle-earth is a multiplayer online battle arena game. For those unfamiliar with the genre, it has its origins in real time strategy but allows players to freely control just one character as opposed to constantly building and managing hordes of troops. After selecting one of twenty six guardians available in the game, you and four other guardians are then tasked with leading automatically spawned troops into battle and taking on the other teamís guardians and their army. The object of the game is a rather simple one Ė protect your base whilst launching an attack against that of the enemy. Depending on the type of game you play, victory is achieved by either demolishing the enemyís base towers, or given to whichever team gets the higher score after the time is up. Itís a rather uncommon style of game for a console, but one that is rather entertaining and addictive and the emphasis on multiplayer means that teamwork is essential in order to win the battle.
Being mainly an online only game there are limited ways to play, with the only option available at the start being the Battlegrounds option. These restrict the matches to a twenty-minute time limit but to be honest thatís more than adequate for beginners to the genre. Once you prove your worth in the battlefield the Elite Battlegrounds option becomes available which lifts the time-limit restriction and creates the closest thing that is a fight to the death. There are also two types of map to play - three lane or one lane. The one lane maps put you quickly into the heart of battle, giving you no negotiation in your tactics whilst three lane maps branch out giving you multiple routes of attack and a lot more ground to cover, and is definitely the easier of the two to play.
For a genre that established a name for itself on gaming PCs, this particular multiplayer online battle arena game works surprisingly well on a home console control pad. Each character has a range meter in the form of a circle under their feet with a cone or rectangular shaped line of attack controlled by the right analogue stick. By moving your chosen character with the left stick, the idea is to get the enemy within your line of sight and either use the right trigger to attack them, or one of the coloured buttons on the controller to use one of four special attacks usually unique to that guardian. Potions and other power-ups can be used thanks to the directional pad and if youíre knockiní at deathís door then the back button can grant you a fairly quick escape back to your home base.
Guardians gain experience throughout each battle depending on the amount of kills they accumulate and towers they destroy. Whilst this sounds pretty straightforward, taking on opposing guardians usually means sudden doom so the best strategy is to either take on the cannon fodder that is the opposing troops or one of the various creatures scattered around the map, such as trolls, necromancers and giant spiders. Once a guardian has gained enough experience one of their special powers can be upgraded on-the-fly during battle. The first few hours of gameplay can be a tough slog, but as you progress it becomes much easier - particularly once youíve grown accustomed to using a specific guardian.
At the end of a battle, whether youíve won or lost, your profile will receive experience and coin. Experience unlocks further abilities for you to attach to your guardians, whilst the coins can be used to buy gems that give your guardians extra attack and defence power before your next battle. How you customise these gems is entirely up to you so itís important to get the right balance of power-ups before going back online. There are also a number of extra guardians that can be purchased online such as the most famous hobbit of them all Bilbo Baggins, or even heir to the Dwarven throne, Thorin Oakenshield. These do cost Microsoft points so unless youíre a die-hard Lord of the Rings fan or a MOBA addict chances are youíll stick to the guardians available from the start.
The big problem that Guardians of Middle-earth faces is with its connectivity. Waiting to join battle can take as long as five minutes which is virtually unheard of in an age when multiplayer gaming is at its peak. The game also doesnít factor in bandwidth when teaming you up with players worldwide and more than often youíll find yourself in a battle that suffers from lag, eventually booting you after several minutes. Depending on whether you choose the regular Battlegrounds mode or Elite Battlegrounds mode, the game will add a number of AI players to the ranks if required, but this can often lead to the opposing team having an unfair advantage, particularly if they consist entirely of AI players. Tactics play a big part in Guardians of Middle-earth and it seems that the AI knows all the tricks, making it even harder when put in a match with new players who take off in different directions rather than striding into the heart of the battlefield.
The game oozes with colour by giving the style of the Peter Jackson movies a glossy, illustrated palette scheme. As expected with a MOBA game, the maps are symmetrical so that no one team has the upper hand and vary in location, with battles taking place from the green leafy shire to the rock hard fires of Mount Doom. Characters such as Gandalf, Sauron and Legolas all look like slightly cartoony versions of their big screen counterparts which helps the game tie in nicely with the film franchise. However, during gameplay, some of these characters move at a snailís pace and combined with the ever increasing wait time between deaths, this can really put you off returning to battle, especially if it means youíre walking into an ambush.
Whilst the initial run of Lord of the Rings films coincided with a number of console hack íní slash adaptations, donít expect Guardians of Middle-earth to take you on a journey there and back again like in The Hobbit. The menu screen looks like a tabletop game and the fact that the game allows characters from both the good and bad side of the one ring to team up means that the premise is just as fantastical as the subject matter. Much like Bilbo leaving the Shire, Warner Bros. Interactive and Monolith have taken a big risk to release such a niche genre from its home on gaming PCs onto consoles. Whilst Guardians of Middle-earth wonít be the most memorable adaptation that the Lord of the Rings saga has been given, itís an entertaining way to continue the tour of Middle Earth whilst the fires of Mount Doom still burn hot.