Guardians of Middle Earth sounds like the surest bet ever made on paper: take a genre that up till now has thrived only on PCs, the “MOBA,” and pair it with a fitting, popular license like “The Lord of the Rings,” stir for flavor, and release to a ready-made audience of Tolkein fans and folks eager to shepherd minions from the comfort of their couch. Monolith, developers of the excellent free-to-play shooter Gotham City Impostors, have made fairly good on their bet. Guardians of Middle Earth is both a fun diversion for Tolkien enthusiasts, and a solid Action-RTS for consoles. Regrettably, finicky online performance and a stodgy learning curve hold it back from being as good as it could be.
For those uninitiated in the ways of Action-Real Time Strategy, or Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas (ARTS and MOBAs, for short), Guardians probably isn't a good place to learn, but here's a quick primer: Players are split into two teams of five and select a “champion,” a unique character with special strategic skills and powers, starting at opposite ends of a map with three discrete lanes traversing from one end to the other. The object of the game is to for players to assist small, AI-controlled “minion” units to the other side of the map where they can destroy the opposing team's base. Along the way, enemy towers need to be destroyed to clear lanes, and monsters lurk in the underbrush, granting team-bonuses and other rewards for the players who kill them.
The pace of each match is what takes getting used to. It's easy to look at a game like Guardians without any foreknowledge of League of Legends or Dota and assume that it's just a top-down hack-and-slasher with light strategy elements, but this could not be more inaccurate. Everything in Guardians is fine tuned with Swiss-watch proficiency from movement speed, to attack range, to ability radius, to health regeneration in such a way that without a plan or hardline tactic in mind it's easy to lose grip on the match and find the enemy steamrolling their way to base.
Likewise, the game is upfront about punishing players who don't perform well, delaying their respawns exponentially with each subsequent death. It can be maddeningly frustrating to play against a skilled team, because the game is balanced to reward those who are already doing well, but the upshot is that canny tactics and strong cooperation prove immensely satisfying through this.
Guardians is definitely built for people who have already earned their stripes in other MOBAs, but it still eschews some of the deeper layers of more popular titles in the genre. There's no economy or meta-resource gathering- in its place is the belt and gem system. As players level up, they can add lengths to their belt in which they can socket gems that add buffs and perks to whichever Guardian is in use. These belts and gems can be customized and rearranged in a bunch of different custom loadouts, and keep the strategy going on the backend in between matches.
Given access to the Peter Jackson movie license, everything in Guardians is transferred from that aesthetic. It's a competent, if extremely familiar style. The animation is fairly basic, and there's a lot of aliasing when viewing models up close, but this keeps the framerate rock solid (when the online behaves) and that's what matters most in the middle of the game's hectic skirmishes.
Guardians has a rigid and meticulous appeal to its see-saw strategy, but it asks for a lot of commitment from more casual players. The game benefits from full knowledge of MOBA tropes such as kiting, jungling, lane control, and AD and AP Carries, but it offers no method for teaching these elements to newbies. There are basic tutorials, but they focus mainly on the gamepad controls, which are quite well handled, and the basic loop of following minions and upgrading from level to level. It's a tutorial in the medium, not the means, which feels like a crucial misstep for a game developed for systems without real MOBA presence.
Tolkien fans will appreciate that the roster doesn't go for many of the no-brainer characters who could be easily lifted from the movie. Sure, Gandalf and Legolas are present, but Monolith has mined the broader legacy for some pretty deep cuts. Ever wanted to play as Thrain, father of Thorin Oakenshield? Now you can. Ever heard of Mozgog or Hildefons Took? Probably not, but Guardians has thrown them in for good measure, and it's a great use of the license.
Accessibility issues aside, the only real problem Guardians has is pretty significant: online performance. Matches, which can take some time to find, are often laggy, which can be a real problem considering how many abilities and player to player combos rely on precise timing. Trying to arrange a root/AD combo with another player and missing because the enemy skipped around is costly and infuriating. Not to mention that dropped connections are far too common, and result in a loss of all experience earned in the moment. Needless to say, it's trying and disrespectful of the player's time. Hopefully Monolith can find a way to improve stability, but until they do, the state of the game is uncomfortably composed.
For representing an untested genre on consoles, Guardians of Middle Earth acquits itself pretty well. If only the online functionality was as airtight as its core strategy, we’d have a truly great mashup on our hands.