While many consider The Lord of the Rings perfect source material for high fantasy videogame adventures, the franchise has not yet delivered the experiences it so clearly is capable of. A series of scrolling beat-‘em-ups coinciding with the motion-picture releases and a welcoming stab at real-time strategy (RTS) is all consoles have seen. Perhaps it’s simply the magnitude of developing such a grand adventure as a role-playing game (RPG) that scares off developers, after all a leniency is afforded to massively multiplayer online (MMO) videogames that is not granted to single-player experiences. And thus The Lord of the Rings Online is the only such RPG gamers have yet been offered, and on consoles the franchise must take other paths.
One such path is a more action-orientated experience, as is the case with the forthcoming Guardians of Middle-earth. Arriving as a tug-of-war style multiplayer experience that has been around for many years, though more recently has been dubbed ‘MOBA’ (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena), Guardians of Middle-earth sees two teams of up to five players going head-to-head in an attempt to dominate the map. This is done by pushing forward and taking control of designated points across the map; a direct line to the enemy’s base must be established before being able to take control of this final destination. It’s a simple formula that has become rather fashionable of late, but of course here with Guardians of Middle-earth it has a special The Lord of the Rings coat of paint.
Taking on the role of one of more than twenty unique characters – now revealed to include characters from the upcoming The Hobbit motion-picture trilogy – players will play a commanding role on the battlefield. Troops are automatically produced and will march towards the enemy base, entering into combat with enemies they may find en route. However, these troops are easily disposed of, and as such are only realistically useful as living shields for the players. Each of the available characters have special moves at their disposal, with members of Monolith Productions suggesting they were defined as one of five broad classes, specialising in a specific area of attack. Abilities range from heavy damage to slowing enemy movement, with shades of support and stat increases thrown in for good measure. These basic abilities are limited by way of a cooldown period after use, but each character also has an ‘Ultimate Ability’ which can be unlocked once the player has passed a specific point in the match: players always begin at level one with new manoeuvres and upgrades unlocked with progress, the Ultimate Ability being at level five.
Unsurprisingly, the Ultimate Abilities can be particularly damaging/helpful depending on whether it’s an ally or enemy using them. However, more important is teamwork. A team spread across various ability types all working in tandem can quickly turn the tide of a match: during Electronic Theatre’s time with Guardians of Middle-earth, an assault which was clearly failing was turned into a devastating counter-attack by the enemy. It was only when all three players on the team began working with one another, timing their ability use for maximum effect on the enemy forces, were they able to push the back and eventually take control of the match.
A great variety of gameplay modes and maps is promised for the final build of Guardians of Middle-earth. The matches Electronic Theatre took part in were short three-on-three skirmishes, though the matches will have a default twenty minute setting with a scoring system determining the winner should no one reach the opposition base within that time. A classic MOBA gameplay mode will be available in addition to customisable skirmishes, which will allow for AI players should there not be enough human participants. Sadly however, no split-screen functionality is included in Guardians of Middle-earth.
Looking set to deliver a confident, approachable new leg for the MOBA genre, Guardians of Middle-earth was thoroughly enjoyable during Electronic Theatre’s time with the videogame. Whether or not it can maintain interest for a lengthier period of time will depend greatly on the community it develops, but at this point it’s easy to see that Monolith Productions has laid the foundations for an absorbing MOBA experience. With a release date confirmed for December, it won’t be long until gamers are able to the final build is with us, and of course Electronic Theatre will keep you updated with all the latest details on Guardians of Middle-earth.