Guardians of Middle-Earth: A fun game doomed by its business model

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The MOBA genre has exploded in recent years, with global giant League of Legends becoming the most actively played video game in the world and competitive tournaments getting more viewers than some televised sports. Today's MOBAs appeal to casual and competitive gamers alike, but until recently very few had crossed the console barrier. Released on PS3 and XBox 360 last December, Guardians of Middle-Earth took traditional DotA gameplay and made the quite experimental leap onto consoles.

I'm not much of a console gamer (you can take my mouse and keyboard away when you pry them from my cold, dead hands), but I couldn't pass up the opportunity to see how Guardians of Middle-Earth stacks up against its PC-based counterparts. Monolith Studios has done great things in adapting MOBA gameplay to a console control scheme and audience, and the core game really is a lot of fun to play. But in charging an initial purchase price for a game that relies on having a large community, publisher Warner Bros. may have accidentally consigned Guardians to the scrapheap.

In this hands-on opinion piece, I explore Guardians of Middle-Earth and ask why it's already a ghost town just three months after launch.

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Getting started

Guardians of Middle-Earth starts with an optional tutorial designed to introduce the control scheme and the basics of MOBA gameplay. It's mostly stuff you could work out on your own, but completing it unlocks Gandalf as a playable guardian, so it's worth working your way through it. The tutorial does over-explain things and constantly interrupts you with new instructions rather than letting you get on with testing out the controls yourself, but you can't argue with a free Gandalf!

The lobby user interface is polished, and I spent an embarrassing amount of time reading through all the lore on each of the characters. The average wait time to get into a standard battleground match was reported as one and a half minutes, but it typically took me double that to get into a match, and even then half of the players in the game were bots. I eventually found the much more enjoyable Elite Battlegrounds that don't use bots, but those matches took upward of five minutes to get into. The recent release of the Survival mode DLC probably didn't help with battleground queue times, but the official forums have been full of similar complaints since launch.

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MOBA gameplay on a console works!

The game can be played on single-lane and three-laned map variants, both with very different gameplay dynamics. The single-lane map feels a bit like Heroes of Newerth's Mid Wars mode: a fast-paced battle that rapidly escalates into one team winning by a landslide. The three-lane map plays like a cross between a standard MOBA and League of Legends' Dominion mode, with capturable shrines and health boosts spread throughout the map. Action in both modes is quite fast-paced, and picking up a heal at just the right moment can let you quickly get back into the fray. It's clearly a very casual game that is fundamentally a ton of fun to play.

The controls were surprisingly intuitive, with one analogue stick for movement and another for facing to aim your attacks. A few gameplay concessions have had to be made for this control scheme to work, such as all attacks being area-effects, lines, or cones in front of your character. Even your basic attack will hit all enemies within its area, so you can farm creeps faster by positioning yourself such that you can hit several with the same attack. This also makes harassing enemies in the lane easier, especially if you're playing as a ranged guardian like Legolas and are facing off against someone with slightly shorter range.

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Character progression and stats

Character customisation in Guardians of Middle-Earth comes in the form of belts filled with relics and gems that give passive bonuses during a match. This has been compared to League of Legends' Rune pages and Masteries, but it's more like a replacement for the item system. Instead of getting gold by last-hitting creeps and then buying items with it, the belt is pre-filled with bonuses before a match starts and unlocks incrementally as you level up. This eliminates the need to run to a shop mid-game but comes at the cost of removing the last-hitting mechanic central to the laning phase in most MOBAs.

I actually think this is a pretty clever way of converting items over into a console-friendly format, but it does have some drawbacks. Tying stat progression solely to levels makes matches less likely to snowball in favour of one team or another, which sounds good in theory but can lead to some very long games. If you don't manage to push the level advantage early in a match, it quickly disappears as everyone hits the max level of 14. I played a single-lane match that lasted over 40 minutes because it reached a stalemate when both teams hit the level cap.

I can't help thinking that the belt system should be tied to creep and guardian kills rather than level, but other than that it was a great customisation system. The bonuses from relics and gems are significant and figuring out builds for certain guardians and playstyles provides an interesting tactical metagame that may help create a competitive tournament scene. The fact that belt bonuses unlock incrementally also means certain builds are weak in the early game but become absolute monsters if they can get farmed up quickly, a risky but effective strategy.

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Matchmaking and bots

It's been three months since Guardians of Middle-Earth launched and the servers are already pretty bare. As a result, I found myself being matched up against older players with better gems and access to more commands and potion slots than I had. Disconnections, lag, and rubber-banding were commonplace as the game uses peer-to-peer networking instead of a central server. Players also sometimes disconnected or ragequit in the middle of matches; the game threatens to punish quitters with temporary bans from matchmaking, but no such punishment is actually levied.

Matchmaking problems with such low player counts are solved by filling out queued teams with bots, which would be a great idea if the AI weren't painfully stupid. On one occasion, I was thrown into a game with only one other human player, who soon disconnected and left me alone in a game filled with AI. I watched in disbelief as the bots paired off into lanes and began pacing back and forth without attacking each other or the creeps.

The AI plays ridiculously defensively, never seems to initiate a fight, and always uses the same defensive loadout that just piles on hitpoints regardless of the character's role. As a striker with a full offensive loadout, I found myself unable to kill any same-level bot on my own. Though this sounds pretty bad, poor AI is forgiveable as the game was clearly designed to work with a much larger community than it currently has. When you finally get into a full game of humans and nobody disconnects, the game really is good fun.

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On the surface, Guardians of Middle-Earth is a fun casual MOBA with interesting characters and enough progression and challenges to keep players busy for a long time. The game is adapted well to a console audience and control scheme, and the lack of keyboard warriors raging in chat makes a nice change from PC MOBAs. If nothing else, Guardians proves that the DotA experience can be delivered on a console and still be a ton of fun to play.

It's unfortunate then that Warner Bros. hasn't fully embraced the free-to-play model that's become the standard for MOBAs on the PC. The initial purchase price of Guardians of Middle-Earth is such a big barrier to entry that the game has already become a bit of a ghost town just three months after launch. The decision to sell entire game modes as DLC also serves only to further segregate the community and slow down queue times for standard modes.

To get into a standard battleground match, players currently have to choose between waiting in a queue for five to ten minutes or playing with terminally daft bots, neither of which sounds particularly appealing. The disappointing conclusion is that this perfectly good game may have been doomed from the moment it was launched solely because of its business model.

Massively's not big on scored reviews -- what use are those to ever-changing MMOs? That's why we bring you first impressions, previews, hands-on experiences, and even follow-up impressions for nearly every game we stumble across. First impressions count for a lot, but games evolve, so why shouldn't our opinions?