Before I got my hands on the DOTA-inspired Guardians of Middle-earth and talked to the development team behind it, I thought MOBA (Massive Online Battle Arena) was some type of Asian drink. My roommate plays League of Legends obsessively and I’m familiar with the RTS sub-genre’s history, but I don’t know the first thing about how you play these games.
That’s okay, though -- Monolith Productions and Warner Bros. are making a new starting point for gamers and it’s all wrapped around a faithful representation of the fantasy genre’s most popular franchise. Best of all, you can play Guardians of Middle-earth on your couch with a controller and it’s a complete blast.
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For the most part, Guardians isn’t trying to break the MOBA mold. Rather, it’s trying to streamline it for consoles while appealing to the dedicated DOTA players and everyone else. The standards of the sub-genre are intact: You control a hero, you customize your hero, AI-controlled soldiers do your bidding, and protect and destroy towers/resource points to win. It’s kind of like playing a PvP match in an MMO as someone else plays an RTS in the same area. If you hate resource management, but love beating the shit of out things, you might want to pay attention.
The game starts with the hero selection process. You’ll choose between 20 iconic good and bad characters in the Lord of the Rings universe. For the demo, I picked Galadriel who had a long-range default attack, healing spells, a useful area-of-effect stun spell, and other offensive attacks. On the other hand, she was rather weak.
Properly balancing the characters is a challenge that faces MOBA developers and players alike. Although Monolith will be tweaking the game and adding content after its release, GoME puts a lot of responsibility in the player’s hands with its extensive character customization options.
In Guardians, there is no one Gandalf to rule them all. At the character loadout screen, you’ll be able to equip potions (health, defense boost, etc.), commands, and 100+ items to attach to your belt. This opens the door to a 1,000+ combinations that players will be able to explore and tweak to their liking. Unlike other entries in the MOBA genre, there are no in-game purchases or pay-to-play elements here. If you want new gear, you’ll have to earn it by leveling up your character.
For a genre that relies so heavily on quick action and perfect key mapping, GoME feels great with a controller. Using the left stick to move and the right stick to direct action, I felt I had total control over my character. Pressing the right trigger to attack and other buttons to cast magic has a great tactile feel that will please action junkies that were scared off from genre’s keyboard/mouse setup.
It also helps even the playing field, since everyone has the same controls, controller, and movement speed. The game will offer two control setups, one for advanced players and one for those starting off. There are also a series of tutorials to ease players into the genre, although there won’t be a story mode.
One thing that may not ease players into the game is the crowded HUD. From the minimap to your available potions, the game’s screen is overloaded with information. I can’t imagine it’s all necessary and you do get used to it, but it’s still kind of a mess. Otherwise, the presentation of the combat, characters, and menus are top quality.
I never touched a MOBA before and as much as I want to jump into one now, I’ll hold out for Guardians of Middle-earth. Between the controls and deep player customization options, it looks like it will scratch an itch I never knew I had. Look for the game on PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade this fall.