Guardians of Middle Earth

I was quite green with MOBAs when I first reviewed the Xbox 360 release of Guardians of Middle Earth last December. That inexperience definitely showed, but fortunately GOME turned out to be a great introduction to this infamously adamantine genre. Despite some network problems and a small player-base, I enjoyed the time I spent with it before moving on to, inarguably, heartier fare such as League of Legends and Dota 2. Mind, I’m not denigrating Guardians’ potential in the MOBA space. It has clear design objectives which aim to make it accessible to MOBA players of all skill-levels, and that noble goal alone should be enough to hold it high among the pack. Unfortunately, the PC version that should secure its berth among the greats fails to do so, brought down by a costly business model, poor optimization, and a lack of depth needed to anchor a devoted audience.

Guardians of Middle Earth’s construction speaks to one overriding principle: create a MOBA that anyone can play. GOME trims much of the fat that overwhelms newcomers to this overwhelmingly popular genre. For starters, there is no economy. No gold is earned from minion kills and laning, only XP that levels up abilities and basic stats. There’s no returning to base to buy items, and no construction of character builds that optimize different playstyles. There are the heroes, the creeps, the lanes, and the towers, and little else in the way of meta-strategy (I don’t count the tower and creep upgrades, because they rarely made a difference in the matches I played, console and PC).

In place of the common item-governed economy is the belt and gem system. A’la Call of Duty’s perks, this is a passive, slot-based equipment set that can be customized outside of play to grant different benefits to players once they reach certain levels. As someone who mainly favors tanky heroes, I kitted myself with gems that stacked health and armor in accordance with kills and proximity to other heroes. The combinations and buffs can get pretty complex, but in my opinion they simply can’t replace the chase of a good item build and the importance of economy control. GOME’s system is nice in that it ensures newcomers won’t be smothered with research and responsibilities, but it can’t guarantee that they’ll stick around once they see just how satisfyingly complex the competition can be. Especially when that competition is free.

GOME’s basic SKU on Steam is $19.99, which gives you all modes and 12 champions to start. The rest of the game’s 36 total champions and their (frankly dull) alternate skins are split up into six different DLC packs, priced at $14.99 each. For those who favor a bulk-and-discount route, the entire kit and kaboodle can be purchased for a ludicrous $79.99. I’m rarely one bring cost into a review, but these prices seem tone-deaf in light of GOME’s novice-level design, and the fact that its two biggest competitors offer more out of the gate for absolutely nothing. This decision isn’t helping GOME’s case in the least, and my inability to find a full 5v5 match in my time spent playing is stark evidence of that. Furthermore, this business model could have been mitigated by the quality of the port, but here too the good news is pipped at the post by caveats.

As remarkable as it was to witness Monolith pull off such a complex game on a controller, I always looked forward to an eventual PC port. Sadly, GOME is still best played on a controller, which is frustrating, not because of navigability or any degree of PC elitism, but because those who want to play this using a mouse and keyboard will be subject to poor spell-feedback, attack commands that don’t consistently register, and champions that won’t pathfind their way around obstacles when chasing an opponent or creep. I encountered none of these problems on console, or when using a controller, which feels like a sour affront to those who waited to play this on a computer. On a console with no peers to prove oneself to, these problems are negligible; on PC they are hot, immediate death.

The gameplay feedback is the biggest problem here, because the art and animation doesn’t consistently help players keep track of where their targets are and if their spells are hitting who they want to hit. This is less of a problem for melee oriented characters than it is for enchanters. The tanky dwarf Thrain can easily disrupt the opponent’s formations with his knock-up and stun spell, but a spell caster like Ori, who needs to target specific heroes with his spells, often proves ineffective because the spell certainly looks nice when cast, but provides little to no indication of who it has hit, aside from some small white text that will pop up to say if the enemy is rooted or stunned. The spell effects are flashy, but don’t consistently tell players if they’re being accurate, aside from something like a can’t-miss AOE attack. Some champions fare better than others, and some like the aforementioned Ori are rendered uncompetitive by the vague effects given to their spells.

This exposes a problem with Guardians’ art-style, which simply isn’t bold enough to help players keep track of what’s going on. The soft, earthy color palette makes it easy to lose champions in the fray, and I frequently mis-targeted my attacks when taking up the chase through a large group of creeps or in team-fights. This is another issue that isn’t really manifest on a controller, because GOME’s aim-assist is yea mighty, but the mouse and keyboard setup can’t make up for lost ground. While it’s still fun in a basic sense, it’s hard not to conclude that GOME is DOA on a platform where it should thrive.

I hope that Monolith and their PC assistants Zombie Studios can bring GOME up to speed. If it receives the proper care and dedicated tinkering that most other MOBAs do in this space, then it could fully realize just what makes it valuable: fast, accessible MOBA design that teaches as it thrills, with a delightfully deep representation of Tolkien lore on top of it. The market could desperately use a title like this to bridge the skill gap, but the servers are already replete with tumbleweed, the mouse and keyboard control is a shambles, and the meta-game is missing the little flavorful fat it needs to keep the audience on the hook instead of just taking the bait and fleeing. To crack an old chestnut, Guardians of Middle Earth has the potential to turn newcomers into fans of the genre, but it certainly isn’t up to their standard.