Lord Of The Rings: Guardians Of Middle Earth Review
One does not simply walk into Console Land with complicated controls and a steep learning curve.
And thus it was written that the MOBA genre, which specialises in both complicated controls and a steep long curving, was forbidden from the world of 360 pads and DualShocks.
DOTA 2 and League of Legends have proved more popular than Jesus with PC owners but the MOBA genre – or multiplayer online battle arena, for long – didn’t seem like it would find a happy home on console. As with RTS before it, there would be too many concessions to make, too many corners to cut so the genre would be a comfortable fit.
Lord of the Rings: Guardians of Middle Earth proves that theory wrong. It’s a typical example of the MOBA genre, being a mix of fighting game and RPG played out from a RTS view. Except, you know, with Gandalf and Sauron causing havoc.
The idea is that you destroy the tower lurking in the enemy’s base and you can only do that by pushing the other team back into their spawn point through killing them, capturing shrines for defence bonuses and smashing defensive towers in the way. It’s a game of whittling the enemy down and pushing them into a corner.
It is, quite simply, a battle.
You level up as you defeat the smaller mobs and players on the other team. Levelling up grants you skill points that can be spent bolstering your special moves. Because of this, getting off to a quick start is important, before the other players level up to a point where it’s difficult to get a kill and get your own experience points momentum going.
We know all this because we died roughly 8,000 times before getting a grasp on what’s happening. There are extensive tutorials but Guardians Of Middle Earth is top-heavy with clutter that makes it difficult to pick out the nuance underneath. The interface is cluttered, the menus are cluttered and the tutorials are split into categories and sub-categories which suggests even more clutter.
It’s tough. Really tough. If you’re new to the genre, you understand what you’re supposed to do – kill opponents, destroy towers, take control of the map – but you won’t understand how you’re supposed to do it.
It takes a lot of dying to understand the nuances. A lot of dying.
If you misjudge effective ranges when fighting against another character, you die. If you don’t know how to safely retreat, you die. If you don’t understand what every move in your arsenal does, you die. If you don’t get off to a good start and level up quickly, you get caught in an endless loop of dying again and again until the match is over.
Each character has specific tactics and techniques to use. Gollum is a hit and run character with limited range who specialises in escaping combat when in trouble, thanks to a Coward move which escapes stun and grants a speed boost. Galadriel has an area-of-effect healing spell and ranged attacks, making her formidable back-up for tanks. Legolas works from extreme ranges thanks to his arrows, allowing him to pick off players trying to hide near a tower.
The novelty factor of what each character does help dull the pain of constantly dying, as does the feel of always having something to do in the battlefield. The controls have been smartly designed around the controller, so the four face buttons correspond to four special moves,
Eventually, it all clicks and that’s when Guardians of Middle Earth becomes a brilliant, absorbing multiplayer title. You understand how to work best with your team-mates and to support them, about which lanes through the map to hold and attack, also knowing when to attack and when to retreat.
The beauty of the genre, and by extension Guardians of Middle Earth, is that you constantly have to adapt to how the match is playing out. If your team is pushing forward, you might want to support team-mates in smashing towers. If your team is being pushed back, you might want to break off from the group and sneak around the back of the enemy team, cutting off their retreat lines so you can get the kill. You’ll also spot opportunities to help team-mates out when they’re stuck in 1-vs-1 battles.
It takes time to understand the intricacies – a lot of time – but you’re rewarded for your patience with a deep, engrossing multiplayer title that’s easy to recommend to others.
Or at least, will be easy to recommend to others when one problem is eventually (we hope) fixed – the netcode.
For a game where single-player is nothing more than a token inclusion with little to recommend it, Guardians of Middle Earth has serious issues running online. It’s often laggy to the point where characters stutter and teleport around while walking and makes messy fights unplayable exercises in mashing triggers and face buttons through the lag, hoping for the best.
Other times, you’ll be disconnected for no apparent reason and have to face another long matchmaking period before you can start playing again.
Bots will fill up a lobby to replace players, which is a good idea in theory, but sometimes leads to one player with four bots versus one player with four bots. If you quit back to the menu when you realise what’s happened, you’ll be temporarily locked out of matchmaking – even if you did this before the game starts.
It’s typical of the online problem with Guardians of Middle Earth. Bots replacing human players is a neat idea but when the netcode stumbles, it becomes an irritation rather than a boon, as you presume (rightly or wrongly) that you’ve been matched up with bots rather than matchmaking seeking out human players.
It’s a shame because when it runs smoothly, Guardians of Middle Earth is a game that’s deep, rewarding, engaging and fun. But that doesn’t happen frequently enough, not for a game that depends on it. We’re reviewing it for what it is right now, not what it might possibly become, and right now Guardians of Middle Earth has done the hard work by bringing MOBAs to console yet finds itself let down by wobbly netcode.
Version Tested: Xbox Live Arcade