If all you saw were screenshots, you could be forgiven for thinking that Guardians of Middle-earth is some kind of timely Hobbit tie-in with League of Legends, so extensively does it borrow from the popular MOBA's playbook. But thanks to a few significant changes, Guardians manages to stand on its own. For one, it succeeds in adapting the controls and mechanics for consoles, and for another, its timed battles and redesigned upgrades streamline the experience for the sake of fun while sacrificing little of the genre's depth. What's more, a clear love of Tolkien's universe shines through in its 20 guardians and their associated abilities. If it weren't for bouts of crippling lag and frequent disconnects, Guardians of Middle-earth would be a must-have game for anyone who enjoys both multiplayer online battle arenas and the Lord of the Rings franchise.
Guardians of Middle-earth isn't the first MOBA for consoles, but it's the first that has made great strides at reproducing the depth of popular isometric lane-based MOBAs like League of Legends and Dota 2. The concept is simple in theory: two teams of five players begin on opposite sides of a map, and they advance toward their opponents down three separate lanes with the help of waves of non-player character drones, destroying towers along the way. Destroy your opponent's central tower at his base, and you win the game. The depth lies in the details. In the case of Guardians, you start each match at level 1 and level in health and power toward a meta-level cap of 14, gaining points for your three existing abilities and one devastating "ultimate" ability beginning at level 5. It's a design that lets you get powerful quickly, given Guardians' comparatively low cap.
Guardians of Middle-earth does a fantastic job of reproducing this design, but it brings with it a few innovations of its own, including an intense one-lane map that ditches certain strategic considerations of three-lane maps in favor of exciting tug-of-war battles. It's a pity that the two included maps don't exhibit more aesthetic variations. Middle-earth provides fertile ground for a multitude of settings ranging from the Shire to Mordor, but the game's uninspired stony pathways and charred foliage don't fully evoke the wonder of Tolkien's universe.
In their favor, the maps provide a good number of secondary goals. If you find yourself hard pressed to overcome player-controlled guardians, for instance, you can still hold your own on the scoreboard almost as effectively by focusing your attention on destroying the upgradable enemy towers and soldier spawn points that line each lane. The NPC drones themselves can be upgraded to feature mounted orcs and cave trolls that bash through enemy towers. Guardians' unique shrines add to the excitement, since capturing them bestows powerful buffs that can help turn the tide for a losing team. There's always something to do, and the accessibility keeps matches fun even in the most hopeless of situations.
That accessibility extends to upgrades. Gone are the usual in-game shops for purchasing new buffs throughout a match; instead, such upgrades take place outside the battlefield in the main menus. With the help of a customizable belt, you use your winnings from matches to buy relics and their associated gems and socket them so that each unlocks incrementally as your guardian battles his or her way to level 14. One relic might grant passive buffs to your ability damage, for instance, while another might grant health regeneration. For more immediate power, you can use your winnings from each round to buy one-use potions that bind to your D-pad. These adjustments don't oversimplify the gameplay, and indeed, the relic system makes it easier to stay focused on the match rather than wasting precious moments in the store.
Removing mid-match shopping wasn't just for the sake of convenience. Every second counts because of Guardians of Middle-earth's comparatively short meta-level cap of 14, and a 20-minute timer rescues most matches from slipping into frustrating slogs. (Rest assured, a ranked "elite" mode without the timer fills the gap if you're into longer skirmishes). Not everything works so well, though. Some of the 20 guardians available at launch are more popular than others, and it's not uncommon to find the trinity of Legolas, Sauron, and the Witch-King filling in most of the five slots for each team. More vulnerable guardians, such as Hildifons the hobbit, end up with less screen time. Additionally, you often face some long waits when attempting to jump in with the quick match option. A two- to five-minute wait is normal, but on occasion, the wait can exceed 20 minutes even when the estimated wait remains at under two minutes.
And then there's the lag. It wasn't such a problem in the first few days after release, but now many battles kick off with crippling frame rates that make you feel like you're watching a slideshow. Sometimes it gets better as the round progresses; sometimes it disconnects you in the middle of a kill streak or--worse yet--when you're whittling down the health of the enemy's base tower. (In Guardians' favor, such disconnects don't trigger the penalty for quitting a match, which limits your ability to use the matchmaker again.) Already there's a discouraging abundance of NPC guardians that fill the gaps when a full team can't be found in the matchmaker, and their AI--while usually serviceable--sometimes fails so spectacularly that two or more of them spend the entire match running back and forth, oblivious to everyone.
Gameplay takes precedence over oversaturating players with Tolkien references. Purists may balk at the sight of Arathorn (Aragorn's father) fighting on the same side as Gollum--there are no “good versus evil” battles--but the abilities themselves and their accompanying sound cues reveal a great love and respect for the source material without waving it around. Take Ori, the dwarven scribe from The Hobbit. Most of his attacks involve vivacious displays of book-based magic, and his giddy voice work makes him a joy to play despite his low survivability. One of Gandalf's most devastating attacks references the wizard's signature fireworks, and the Witch King can call down a fell beast on unsuspecting guardians. Such a diverse range of useful and unique abilities means that Guardians of Middle-earth remains fun from start to finish (provided you can finish, of course), and although there’s still a learning curve, it’s not an egregious one.
Even if you don't particularly care for Tolkien, there's a lot to love here in spite of the annoying server issues. It's a promising entry point for newcomers to the MOBA genre, and it plays smoothly enough to satisfy the more hardcore veterans of the genre. Eight more guardians are on the way, and purchasing a pricey season pass (at 1,200 Microsoft points) nets you all eight of them as they are released. As a surprise bonus, its short timed matches and limited meta-levels have so far allowed it to avoid the caustic communities of its cousins while retaining many of the qualities that make them so addicting, making Guardians a smart choice for players seeking a MOBA without the negativity. For now, at least, you still hear sincere exchanges of "Good game" after each round from both winners and losers, and that alone might be enough to make this an unexpected journey worth taking.