E3 2012: Hands on with Guardians of Middle-Earth

For some odd reason, the massively online battle arena (MOBA) genre has taken a while to move over to consoles. We could discuss the reasons behind this for hours, but the important thing to note here is that this will soon no longer be an issue: with the upcoming release of Guardians of Middle-Earth, Xbox and PS3 gamers will have a chance to get their hands on a top-down, classic-style MOBA game with all the bells and whistles one would expect from the genre, and a few extra.

Guardians of Middle-Earth is, as the name suggests, set in the Lord of the Rings universe. This is no doubt to pull in a bigger crowd that would otherwise probably pay no attention to the game, but rest assured that there’s a lot more to Guardians than the Lord of the Rings hook.

Anyway, enough of that, let’s take a look at the game itself: Guardians of Middle-Earth includes a few different ways to get into the action. All of these feature the DotA-standard concepts of lanes, towers, creeps and structures that must be defended. If you’re not familiar with DotA, I suggest you hit this wiki link for the details, but in a nutshell: it’s a tactical strategy game in which you and four other fantasy heroes must fight to destroy the opposing team’s base. The main game mode in Guardians allows you to select the traditional three-lane style of play or a more chaotic, action-focused single lane for a bit of spice. Another mode sees a match-made human team battle against five AI opponents (this is suitable for those just starting out), and a final mode allows players to fully customise both teams, adding in AI-controlled heroes where necessary or even choosing to play imbalanced teams if they so wish.

As this is a console game, the controls need to be adjusted to accommodate a gamepad. The left analogue stick controls player movement while the right adjusts targeting. The four face buttons are mapped to skills and spells (big impact, activated abilities with generally long cooldowns) while the d-pad activates potions (shorter cooldown, lower impact abilities that provide brief passive bonuses like increased movement speed, health regeneration and so on). Players can also use a basic attack by holding the right trigger. Finally, players can pan around the map at will, while a detailed mini-map gives you a good sense of the status of battle.

Customisation is a large part of Guardians. While you won’t be able to buy items in individual matches, your chosen hero will gain levels throughout each match that will unlock access to abilities, potions and gems that you’ve set up before-hand (similar to the concept of loadouts in a typical FPS). Each loadout has a gem belt which can accommodate a number of gems in a single line; each gem provides a passive bonus to your character’s stats, and when they’re placed in a particular pattern, will provide a large bonus that could turn a struggling character into one that suddenly dominates the battle. These gems also only unlock as your character gains level, which means that each character will have a turning point that you will strive to meet; while your opponents, if they’ve played with you before and are familiar with your loadouts, will strive to ensure you don’t meet. In a sense, the concept of gems replaces that of shops, but keeps the action in the game and the planning in the lobby.

After each game, your character will earn you XP and coins that are persistent across your entire account. Your player level determines the number of skill, potion and gem slots you have available for your characters, and coins are used to unlock new things to put into those slots, as well as new playable characters (the developers are aiming for 20+ at launch). And, before you get worried: no, the game will not feature real-money microtransactions to unlock content. Monolith has listened to player feedback from their previous game, Gotham City Impostors and will ensure that the unlocking of content in Guardians feels smooth, natural and rewarding – there is no such thing as “pay to win” here. Additional content is planned for but there’s currently no idea of pricing. As it stands, they’re planning to launch the game through digital distribution only at a price point of $15/1,200MSP, although it could be a touch higher.

My brief time with the game and the developers has certainly left me feeling good about the future of not just Guardians, but Monolith as a whole. The game looks and plays well and the studio seems to have the right focus and frame of mind needed to tackle this project and the inevitable wave of scrutiny that follows the release of any type of eSports-focused game.