Being a relative newbie to the world of MOBAs (Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas), one of the most interesting thing about this kind of grassroots genre is that it really is an evolution of the hero-based real-time strategy game that Warcraft III represented. But the surprising thing is that these games- at least as evidenced by the two I’ve played- more or less do away with all of the boring, tedious, and repetitive clutter of the RTS, automatically cranking out cannon fodder along just a couple of set paths while you and a couple of teammates do the heavy lifting. Awesomenauts was the first game of this type I’ve played but Guardians of Middle Earth is the best that I’ve played. And from what I’ve gathered from other players and writers is that it’s a more accessible, more streamlined, and more refined, version of games like Defense of the Ancients and League of Legends. Oh, and it’s on consoles instead of PCs.
I tried the 60 minute trial first to see if I’d even like it but I put down my $15 about 30 minutes into it. At first, the game is overwhelming in a way that console games rarely are. There are 22 characters- each with four unique cooldown abilities and classes, each ranked along a couple of parameters including their relative difficulty to play. There are commands, consumable potions, gems, and a belt to hold stat- and ability- boosting relics. Each structure that you’re in charge of guardian-ing has four different upgrades available and your barracks can be tooled to make different kinds of generic soldiers. Then there’s an actual glossary of terms that you’ve really got to look over to understand the paragraph-length descriptions of everything. The tutorial helps with questions like “how do I move my character?” and “what does this button do”, but that’s about it.
Learn by doing is the best way to get into GOME. There’s a lot of content to digest, and fortunately all of that material translates into appreciable depth- it’s not just empty “lore” or fluff text on the cards. And I do mean cards. Monolith (yes, that Monolith that gave us Shogo, No One Lives Forever, and last year’s Gotham City Imposters) made the fun choice of presenting everything on cards and giving an almost board game-like theme to the game. It’s also definitely a strategy game, where loadouts pair up with playstyles and communicative (or at least observant) players will coordinate assaults, defenses, and counterattacks with the goal of wiping out the opposing team’s main tower.
The game makes me think of a soccer match as much as it does an RTS. Both teams sort of jostle back and forth with lots of mid-field action. You wait for an opportunity while the defenders or tied up or waiting for an opening. You let your peon soldiers run up, and then you strike. If you get killed by an enemy Guardian or a tower, it’s like the ball’s kicked back downfield. It’s not at all unpleasant, and I really like that each 20 minute game has its own development curve. Upgrading your character on the fly and even grinding a bit makes each game feel like a complete arc, despite the inherent back-and-forth repetition.
It doesn’t really make a lot of license sense that you can have Sauron and Gandalf fighting shoulder-to-shoulder, but then again Gotham City Imposters didn’t make a lot of license sense either. So if you’re a Tolkien purist demanding fidelity to canon, this game is going to piss you off. But the Lord of the Rings theme and imagery works well, and it helps ease new players into the game. You can probably sort out without much research what kind of gameplay Legolas or Gandalf offer. It is kind of odd that there is only one map- available in three lane and one lane versions- but are you really playing this kind of game to admire the scenery?
I’m finding Guardians of Middle-Earth terribly addictive, even though I’ve not been too thrilled at some of the wait times to get into laggy matches- and you get “punished” for leaving early, a temporary ban from matchmaking. But once in an online game- or even with and against the crummy AI- I love the sense of momentum and coordination. I’m enjoying the progression, earning XP to purchase new characters, gems, potions, and commands. I love all of the loadout options, and the big character roster ensures plenty of variety- and there are more on the way. One thing that I absolutely love about the game is that there are NO IAPs other than a season pass, and there are no cash-for-scrip currencies, XP accelerators, or any other kind of scam marketing. At least not yet. I hope they stay the course and keep that garbage out of this fine game.