Taking a complex and intricate genre which has found a home on the PC to consoles is not a task I envy. But how does Monolith’s Lord of the Rings-themed MOBA, Guardians of Middle-earth, fare away from the glare of a computer monitor?
Transferring the fundamentals of a PC-centric genre to a console was never going to be an easy task. How do you take the precise mechanics, in-depth shop systems and all that click-click-clicking from a keyboard and mouse to a controller? Well, you do what Monolith has done with Guardians of Middle-earth: strip the MOBA down to its bare essentials and create a game that, what it loses in accuracy, it more than makes up for in accessibility.
It’s still a highly technical and tactical game of 5 v 5 that requires a large dose of teamwork and organisation to achieve success. To quickly cover the basics, both teams start in their base at opposite ends of the map with three routes leading to it and a couple of defensive towers dotted along the paths to keep attackers back. A constant wave of minions spawns from each base and wanders down each of the lanes to clash in the middle with the intention of pushing towards the opposing team’s base. Your job is to assist in that assault by forcing the enemy back, taking down their structures and eventually laying waste to their base to win the game.
All the while you’re levelling up to improve your abilities by killing enemies and their minions, ducking in and out of the “jungle” (a universal term, but it’s more like forest here) areas to capture relics that give team-wide buffs and slaying monsters dotted around the jungle to grant yourself temporary enhancements.
So the goal and general approach to achieving it are very similar to its PC counterparts on a broad level, but it’s when you get into the specifics that you see the changes Monolith have been forced to make to create a console MOBA. Mastery pages are gone, last-hitting minions for extra gold is gone, even the whole idea of buying new items has been nixed to keep the focus on lane battles and base sieges. Instead, you take your hero or villain from Tolkien’s lore into battle with a pre-set loadout of stat-boosting relics, single use potions, and powerful command abilities.
A wizard respawns precisely when he means to
It’s here – in the customisation screens – where most of the genre’s depth has been moved to. Fill those relics up with related gem types and you’ll receive a bonus, from basic increases in your character’s stats to more powerful boosts that might provide you with a temporary shield after killing an enemy or increase the armour penetration of your next attack. There’s lots of room to customise your character to suit your playstyle and MOBA vets will feel most at home here with all the different modifiers to attacks and abilities.
Monolith have covered all bases with the 20 heroes and villains up for selection too. Some, such as Gandalf, rely on their abilities to output damage, whereas others like Legolas are more reliant on basic attacks to shred through foes. Other characters can fulfil different roles: some are tanky initiators that get stuck into battles to draw the enemy’s attention away from the damage dealers in the back line, while some focus on supporting their teammates with heals, shields or utility abilities that disrupt the enemy.
There’s a good balance of classes and roles on offer and a lot of room to experiment with different team compositions to find which characters work well together. The Witch King, for example, can taunt an enemy champion to hold him in place temporarily, allowing Arathorn enough time to stun the foe and finish him off with ranged attacks before they flee. And if a console MOBA was ever going to work, it was important they nailed the opportunity to set up and execute such plans.
Yet, Guardians of Middle-earth feels like it’s propped up by the Lord of the Rings license, rather than designed for it. Past the character names and some vaguely recognisable avatars I honestly couldn’t tell I was playing in a version of Tolkien’s world, and there’s little drama to be wrought from the potential clashes between Gollum and Gandalf or Sauron and Legolas – except the thrill of outsmarting a opposing player with a devious play that swings the game in your advantage.
Essentially, there’s still a well-designed MOBA at its core. The depth may be removed, reduced or reshuffled to different areas, but that’s not a terrible problem when you consider the restrictions a console places on such an intricate and expansive genre in the first place. Controls are a bit finicky at first, abilities take a couple of games to fully comprehend and the battlegrounds are a bit drab. But nevertheless, Monolith have sensibly adapted the genre by drawing on the most console-suitable components of the MOBA and bringing those to the forefront. As such they’ve created a compelling argument for how the genre might work away from the desktop for now and in the future.
Guardians of Middle-earth, by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment and Monolith Productions, is available now for Xbox 360 (reviewed) and PS3.