Guardians Of Middle-Earth suffers from problems of nomenclature. Its ultra-generic title gives no window into the game’s makeup. Its genre – multiplayer online battle arena, or MOBA – provides no help to those who confine their gaming to consoles. We’re left with a confused, Tolkien-tinged picture of a five-on-five (or three-on-three) Lord Of The Rings game.
Some hard facts, then. You play as one of Tolkien’s Middle-earthlings, and together with four other team-mates, attempt to beat back an equally sized group of enemies. Characters come from the good and evil sides of the Silmarillion spectrum, and each have a handful of special abilities that can be deployed in battle. Some focus on direct damage, killing enemy player characters. Others can help weaker AI allies batter down static defences. Others still are more esoteric in application, disabling opponents to allow nearby allies to line up hefty attacks, or buffing a friend to increase their chance of survival.
It’s a model most often seen on PC. MOBAs like League of Legends and Dota 2 boast huge player bases, but Guardians Of Middle Earth is one of the first of its genre on Xbox 360 – and the transition hasn’t been entirely fluid. You aim attacks with the right stick, which is fine when you’re squeezing the right trigger for standard attacks, but demands a momentary monkey-claw grip if you want to use one of your character’s four abilities, which are mapped to the face buttons.
Acquiring a target is fiddly. You’ll need to make minute adjustments on the right stick to fine-tune your aim, which proves particulary tough in the middle of a battle. Fights are oversaturated with colour, and it’s all too easy to lose your character – and their aiming reticule – against the grey, brown, and red of the Middle-earth colour palette. The skills themselves are obvious in application: a darting whip attack comes replete with an oversized golden-red whip lashing into the air, while an area-of-effect Slow spell projects a yellow field onto the ground and dots those caught inside with a leg symbol to indicate their incapacitation.
PC MOBAs are defined by their complexity and depth. Guardians Of Middle-Earth takes these concepts at face value and performs its best with them. Outside of the matches themselves, players can outfit themselves with single-use potions, long-cooldown skills mapped to LT and, most confusingly, belts. These have space for relics; relics have space for gems. Relics and gems are earned by playing matches, and bestow minor bonuses when chosen as a loadout at the beginning of a game. It’s a system that allows a staggering amount of fine-tuning, but it also clearly benefits those who have played the most matches – something of a no-no in a genre so dependent on balance. And that balance doesn’t feel quite right – at least not yet. Some characters feel toothless; others so powerful a team lacking one of their ilk is at a disadvantage. Gollum, in particular, feels like a lethal, game-changer ganker.
Peter Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings films have defined the franchise’s visual style, and it’s a muddy one. MOBAs, though, need to be bright and clear: players need to know when abilities are used, when buffs are active and when spells are channelled, but here it’s too hard to see through the gloom. Characters are too slow to move to make matches as satisfying and skill-based as they could be. Being among the first of the console MOBAs, Guardians Of Middle-Earth could’ve been a gentle introduction to an intimidating genre, providing a welcoming hand for players new to the MOBA, but a split focus between accessibility and complexity means neither genre greenhorns nor greybeards will end up feeling truly satisfied.
Xbox 360 version tested.