Gaming as a legitimate sport has been debated for years, and while some console games are tailor made for a competitive environment like Street Fighter or Halo, the majority of them are created for the PC and not consoles. Lord of the Rings: Guardians of Middle Earth is an attempt to create for the console the same magic and style that League of Legends does for the PC.
Booting up the game for the first time you’ll be greeted with a quick, but informative tutorial on how to play the game. However, the simple tutorial does not begin to teach you the broad strategic depth of the game, and how much micro-management is needed to make the best possible build for your character. The entire game is a 5 vs. 5 match against any combination of AI or human opponents. There are currently 2 game modes, 3-lane and 1-lane, which is how many lanes connecting the opponents base with yours. Each team will have their base which has their stronghold, towers for defence, and barracks for upgrading troops. Each team also has addition towers going towards the opponents base until they meet in the middle for the traditional stalemate scenario. The goal of the game is very simple: Destroy the enemy’s stronghold before the timer runs out, or try to kill as many enemy guardians and buildings to go for a points victory.
Guardians features your favourite characters from the books and movies but in a unique way. Some characters are unlocked from the beginning, while others need to be bought using coins earned through matches, and further still are the weekly featured characters that are only available for a limited amount of time. As this review is being written before even the first week is over with, it can only be reasoned that they will rotate characters in and out of circulation to keep the game fresh and add new strategies for dealing with over-powered and under-powered characters. As every character has different abilities, with very few overlapping, it becomes a choice of play style. You could be the tank that heals your comrades, or the tactician using traps to slow down and harass the enemy.
Graphically this game is not a masterpiece, nor should it need to be as it is a strategy game. The character models look generic, and the guardians look like their movie counterparts, but they would not even push the engine of the PS2 let alone the PS3. The only time you will see more than an eagle’s view of them is during character select while waiting for other players.
As the game is meant to be played online against other human opponents, Monolith decided to be creative and make bots usable during match-making. During the beginning of the game’s life finding other players won’t be too difficult, but as it requires 10 players it could be rough sailing even as little as a year from now depending on how the general public receive the game. So even if you pick up the game late and no one is online, at least it can be played with bots instead of throwing it back on the shelf.
Sadly for an online game Guardians of Middle-Earth is plagued with connectivity issues at the time of this review. Staying in a match is all but luck, as you or your partners or both could get booted from the game. This brings up a rather interesting at best, or game breakingly annoying at worst, problem that if a player disconnects they are not replaced with an AI. The game is designed to be played with even teams, as even a 5 on 4 could prove a significant advantage that ruins the fun. The game will kill off an AI bot to even out the teams, but if all ten players are humans, then welcome to the hurt locker as it’ll be a mismatch.
The controls are also suspect as I was finding myself holding the controller in odd ways to use abilities, as the controls are set like a twin stick shooter but all of the abilities are mapped to the buttons and not the R/L triggers. It might not seem like a big problem but trying to weave through combat while aiming with the right stick and needing to press square at the same time without letting go of the right stick gets annoying, especially since the targeting cursor will change direction to where you are moving immediately after letting go of the right stick.
What keeps the Guardians of Middle-Earth fresh each time you play it are the RPG elements that add depth to the game. Win or lose you will gain money and ranking points to level up your profile, unlocking extra abilities, relics and gems for equipping on your character. As your character levels in the match, equipped gems will unlock their powers every 2nd level if attached singularly, and an additional relic ability will unlock if you are using a relic. It is all about mapping when you think a given ability will be needed most, and how fast you can get the level required for unlocking it. You start every match at level one, so taking the time to plan your character is essential for long-term success. Do you want to be a glass cannon, dealing massive amounts of damage but can be taken down by Gollum? Or the walking tank that can shrug off Gandalf’s thunderbolts at will? Those are some of the infinite decisions you will have to make as each match will have you analyzing your battle plans and tactics.
Overall this is the best attempt seen on the PS3 for a PC-like competitive strategy game that does not require the use of a mouse and keyboard. Monolith needs to fix the current connection issues, but once they are fixed don’t be surprised to see a healthy competitive scene emerge for this game or see it at a Major League Gaming event near you. This is a game for those wanting a competitive PC strategy experience on a console. If you love Lord of the Rings it will only add to the enjoyment, but as there is zero storyline to the game being a LOTR fan is not needed. However, if storyless pure strategy is not your kind of fun, then this is not the game for you as it is unforgivably hard with an ever-evolving metagame due to the infinite character builds and teams your random opponents will throw at you.