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    Guardians of Middle-Earth review: MOBA fête


    "Multiplayer Online Battle Arena," or MOBA, is the name given to the emerging genre of games initiated by Dota, and now led by games like League of Legends, Dota 2, Heroes of Newerth, Smite, and more. Because MOBA games come from a heritage of real-time strategy gameplay, they tend to have most of the qualities of that genre. They're complicated, high stakes affairs, with lots of controls and nuances, where one little move can sometimes turn the tide of battle completely. These are traditionally games meant for hotkeys and minimap clicking, mouse precision and a Ventrilo client, rather than the relatively imprecise triggers and joysticks on a console controller.

    Which makes it all the more impressive, then, that Monolith (a studio with a long shooter tradition that includes No One Lives Forever and the FEAR series) has chosen to take on Guardians of Middle Earth, a MOBA game designed from the ground up to recreate the traditionally PC-centric experience on consoles. Yes, games like Awesomenauts and Monday Night Combat have borrowed MOBA principles, but Monolith here goes full bore, all the way back to the top-down isometric view that began with the original Starcraft Aeon of Strife map at the genre's inception.

    In fact, given this task, the fact that Monolith's game also happens to use the Lord of the Rings license (right around the release of the new Hobbit film) is almost inconsequential. Tolkien nerds may want to see Sauron battling it out with Gandalf directly, but MOBA nerds should be even more excited to see what Monolith does with this emerging new form.

    Gallery: Guardians of Middle-earth (E3 2012) | 8 Photos

    For the most part, Monolith succeeds, and even improves upon what games like League of Legends and Dota 2 are doing on the PC. This is definitely a full-fledged MOBA game, with essentially all of the working parts and excitement that you'd find in one of the PC titles. Tweaks have been made, sometimes for compromise and sometimes just to experiment, but before we run through all those, it's worth saying that Monolith has made what it set out to create: A working MOBA game on a console.

    The major difference, of course, is the controller itself. Not having a mouse subtracts a lot of precision from the game, so instead of frantically clicking or aiming skillshots, most attacks are based on area-of-effect, or just generally aimed in the direction of whatever you want to kill. Lots of abilities have been overloaded with both destructive and beneficial effects, too, so if that damage burst you aimed just happens to miss the exact enemy you wanted to hit, at least you'll still get healing from it, or an extra ability power buff.

    The oafishness of a controller-driven interface also means that the MOBA item shop is gone, and Monolith has replaced itemization in the game with a "Guardian belt," a series of unlockable buffs and bonuses that automatically open up as a match goes on.

    Players get the option to first choose "relics," which take up two, three or four socket slots on the belt as they're laid out, and provide certain effects, like an attack power boost on a kill, or a bit of healing when your health drops below a certain percentage. Then, you can fill those relic sockets with gems, which passively boost your stats, like critical percentage or health. Once the whole belt is laid out, it periodically unlocks during a match, so that by the end, all of your chosen abilities and bonuses are activated (as if you'd purchased and upgraded items in a more traditional MOBA game).

    Unfortunately, there are a few balance issues in these first few days that Guardians has been live. Some heroes seem slightly underpowered in general. I found the hobbit tactician Hildifons a bit weak in particular. When such characters are matched with a weak belt and faced off against a strong Guardian (Legolas and the Witch-King will probably be fan favorites early on), players will find more frustration than fun.

    But Monolith has promised to keep a close eye on balance, as well as set up a system to tweak the game as quickly as possible (each time the client starts, it downloads new balance numbers quickly in the background). The game's not broken by any means, but balance is always a concern with games like this, and Monolith has some tweaking to do.

    Guardians of Middle-Earth does advance the form a bit as well: Towers and base barracks can be upgraded and specialized, to either provide extra buffs, or send out more powerful soldiers and larger minion waves. Team-controlled shrines in the middle of the map also provide quite a bit of extra depth to the strategy, as players need to not only worry about gaining experience in the early phase of the game, but must also try to keep shrine bonuses and watch the shrines for incoming ganks.

    The other big innovation is not that innovative at all: A short match timer. Each game mode (both the standard 3-lane map and a wild and wooly 1-lane map) has a strict 20 minute time limit, with players earning points for kills and tower destruction. The time limit can make a very unbalanced game much more bearable, and the scoring system actually allows for some upsets. For example, players who lose battles early on can band together to take down towers, and try to flip the score back their way before the game ends.

    The ranked "Elite Battlegrounds" playlist doesn't use this timer system: Like other MOBAs, it asks your two teams to battle it out to the very end, usually about 40 minutes or so, or up to an hour if it's a really contested game. I actually came to prefer the shorter games while playing, especially as you level up the Profile Rank ladder. It remains to be seen just what the online community for Guardians of Middle-Earth will be like (and community has, in the past, been very important to these kinds of games), but at least here at the beginning, shorter seems better.

    Will players who've never played a MOBA game in their life enjoy GOME (as it will undoubtedly be called)? That's a tough outcome to predict. Monolith has definitely planned for this contingency, as there are more than a few very clear tutorials and tips added to the game, and the whole affair, while still very deep, has been designed to be as foolproof as possible (when in doubt, move toward what you want to kill and hit buttons as best you can). If a player's been interested in a MOBA game without a PC to play it on, GOME is certainly a good way to taste test.

    But at the same time, Monolith has stuck with a few genre standbys that even the tutorials don't explain well. Not all Guardians are available to play right away: You'll need to earn in-game points to unlock them one by one, and though there's no way to buy those points with real money (though there is a Season Pass for future character releases), the system seems borrowed whole cloth from League of Legends. There are also NPC creeps on the map, though none of the Guardians seem made specifically for jungling around. And there's at least one other way the game may falter: If it fails to attract a sizable audience, the AI bots may end up being all the game's fans have to play against.

    The Lord of the Rings license is also strangely used here. On the one hand, it's obviously well-known, and it is very fun to see Gollum jump in to melee, or Gandalf summon a giant firework eagle for massive damage. On the other hand, there's no reason for these characters to be fighting as far as the lore is concerned, either against or alongside each other, so LotR purists may scoff. In the end, despite some nice touches, great voice work and cool spells, the license is another weird layer on an already very experimental game.

    Guardians of Middle-Earth is successful in translating the MOBA genre on consoles, and Monolith deserves a lot of credit for not only taking on such a crazy task, but also attempting some smart innovations as well. The game's not perfect, and if the genre doesn't already appeal to you, this probably won't be the entry to convince you otherwise. But it is a neat experiment in translating a very PC-centric experience over to the console space, and a fun throwdown featuring some of fantasy's finest.

    This review is based on an XBLA download of Guardians of Middle-Earth, provided by Warner Bros.

    Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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