MOBA (or multiplayer online battle arena) games like League of Legends and DotA may call PCs their home, but this spin on the traditional real-time strategy genre has started making its way onto consoles, to favorable results. Awesomenauts was the first, and now Guardians of Middle-earth shows us that anyone can get a taste of a quality MOBA game without the need of a keyboard or mouse.
As its name alludes to, Middle-earth takes place in the Lord of the Rings universe and features over 20 iconic characters--or guardians--that you can unlock from the world of J.R.R. Tolkien. Guardians are divided into five different classes--Enchanter, Defender, Striker, Warrior and Technician--and the game does a great job making each one feel and play differently. Each also has a unique set of four abilities (which are inspired by the mythos of the book), allowing for a substantial amount of replayability and experimentation.
When it comes to gameplay, Guardians of Middle-earth plays like your basic MOBA. Two teams of five players need to work together to take out the opposing side's base, all the while getting help from an endless supply of AI-controlled soldiers and defense towers. Matches are 20 minutes long and can take place on either a traditional 3-lane map or on a 1-lane map, which contrary to what one may think, makes for equally lengthy back-and-forth since there’s only one route to the enemy’s base. All its mechanics make for a very traditional MOBA experience that is translated very well on consoles.
Guardians of Middle-earth is a fine translation of the MOBA genre onto consoles.
True to its genre, the game’s RPG components let players further customize and power-up their characters during a match. Killing foes, both other players or neutral creatures, nets you experience points that let you level up and improve your abilities, soldiers, and defense towers. Shrines can also be captured to further improve your team’s attributes--but your enemies can snatch them too. All these components give the game a nice blend of action and strategy, making for many intense and calculated matches.
Middle-earth also features an extensive loadout system that adds a much-welcomed layer of complexity to its otherwise straightforward gameplay mechanics. As you play matches and increase your personal rank level, you’ll gain access to potions, special abilities, and an extensive accessory system that can greatly affect your Guardian during a match. With dozens of stat-specific runes to choose from, the choices can be overwhelming for new players. The game does a good job anticipating this, though, and defaults to wholly respectable loadouts that will keep new players competitive.
With so much to keep tabs on in a match, the game’s announcer does a good job of calling out what’s happening so you never feel removed from the action. The same can't be said of the game’s tiny mini-map icons, which make it difficult to keep track of player movement. You can’t move your camera and scope out your surroundings either (except when you die), so it’s sometimes hard to know what towers you should be defending.
MOBAs are traditionally best played with others, and Middle-earth is no exception. Friendly AI-controlled Guardians often stand around waiting for you to do something, and enemy Guardians are easy to defeat. Thankfully, human-only match-making will reliably pit you against living, breathing foes, eliminating the worry of being paired with a bot that won’t strategize with you. The game also features leaderboards, profile accounts, and a tab to invite friends to battle, making the game, and match search times, directly dependent on player involvement.
It’s easy to see how Monolith has made Middle-earth as accessible as it can be for first-time MOBA players without skimping too much on all the trimmings of what makes the genre so much fun on PC. The developers have also created a game that manages to capture the magic of the LotR universe without alienating those unfamiliar to the series. Truly a crowd-pleaser, Middle-earth is a great example of what a console MOBA should feel like and easily sets the bar for more games to come.