Guardians of Middle-earth is a brilliant game.
It's also a fundamentally broken one in its current state.
As an attempt to bring the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) genre of gaming to consoles, it has succeeded. Pulling inspiration from PC titles like League of Legends and Heroes of Newerth, Guardians of Middle-earth does a great job of translating a precise style of gameplay designed around a mouse and keyboard to the more limited console controller. Where it fails horribly is in its network performance. Outside of this singular failing, Guardians of Middle-earth is otherwise an excellent game.
For those unfamiliar with MOBA play, the genre was born from a Warcraft III mod called Defense of the Ancients. Although individual strategy can be complex, the overall concept of a MOBA game is relatively straightforward. Players are split into teams, with each player controlling an individual hero. Heroes are supported by low-level AI troops that are spawned at regular intervals. The goal is to work together as a team, destroy the enemy defenses and, ultimately, eliminate your opponent's base.
Teamwork is absolutely required in any MOBA game unless you want to get slaughtered. The same is true in Guardians of Middle-earth. Each game, your hero (called guardians here) starts as level one and must gain experience to level up and gain access to additional abilities and attacks. The most direct way to level up is to kill creeps and enemy soldiers, but the most advantageous is to kill enemy guardians. This is because killing a guardian gives you an experience boost while temporarily forcing your victim off the battlefield.
If you can get a two-on-one fight going, it's possible to knock out an opponent rather quickly. While a random death won't matter much, repeatedly killing a single guardian is an effective way to handicap the opposing team. It keeps that specific guardian from leveling and limits the damage he or she can dish out. Since Guardians of Middle-earth features five-on-five combat, limiting one or two of your opponents can be a solid path to victory.
Assuming you and your teammates can work together — a major assumption when it comes to Internet pick-up-games — the other big component of a MOBA game is micromanagement. Yes, you may just be controlling a single guardian, but it's massively important to know where to move, how to attack and which skills to level. Stand a few pixels too close to an enemy tower, and you'll get slaughtered by the additional damage. Manage your range, and you can keep your damage to a minimum.
Since there's no mouse on an Xbox 360, movement is controlled with the controller's left analog stick, while aiming is controlled with the right analog. To compensate for the lack of precision, every attack has a range of effectiveness. It's basically a cone of damage within a circle. If an enemy is within the cone when you strike, it takes a hit. Larger, area-of-effect spells don't have a cone; they simply utilize the entire circle. It's straightforward but extremely effective. Anyone who's ever played a twin-stick shooter will immediately feel right at home.
Abilities are mapped to the four face buttons, while extra add-ons, such as potions and commands, use the d-pad and left trigger, respectively. Having the face buttons control abilities is great because everything is available at a moment's notice. When you start out, you won't have any potions or commands unlocked, but as you earn gold and level up, you'll be able to purchase some and use them to customize a character build on the loadout screen.
Gold and experience are earned in battle, but the gold isn't spent during a round. Unlike PC-based MOBAs, Guardians of Middle-earth doesn't have a shop on the field. Instead, gold is used in the main interface and can be spread across potions, commands or additional guardians. You can also customize your belt with passive abilities. These are specific to each loadout but automatically become active once your character reaches a certain level. All in all, gold in Guardians of Middle-earth is more of a way to pace the speed at which content becomes available. If you have to purchase items and guardians (only about half of the guardians are initially available for your use), it entices players to keep earning gold. One nice touch is the fact that unowned guardians are temporarily featured as playable characters, giving you a chance to try them before committing resources.
With a solid control scheme, a high level of strategy and a good mix of guardian types, Guardians of Middle-earth could have easily been a must-play game if not for one fatal flaw: the networking code. Instead of designing the game with a client-server architecture, Monolith opted for a peer-to-peer system. This means you are at the mercy of the slowest connection in the game and, with 10 players, that often means horrible lag.
At its best, the lag merely reduces the frame rate, making all movement choppy and jittery. That happens if you're lucky. At its worst, the lag causes randomly teleporting characters, instant death and disconnects. When a player disconnects, the corresponding team is simply down a player, which also puts it at a disadvantage. In short, the lag makes the game unplayable a majority of the time.
Adding to player frustration is the matchmaking code. The estimated wait time to join a match usually hovers somewhere between one to two minutes, but in reality, that's more of a minimum wait time. There's nothing like seeing the estimated wait of less than two minutes when the time elapsed shows nearly 10 minutes.
It's disappointing to see such a promising game sidelined by a single debilitating issue, but in this case, that single issue is essential to playing. If the network code worked, Guardians of Middle-earth would have come highly recommended, but an online game that delivers a poor online experience simply isn't worth your money.
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