Guardians of Middle-Earth shows traditional MOBAs can be fun on console

Developers Monolith could have been content with bringing the highly complex, nearly exclusively computer-based MOBA genre to the console. But with Guardians of Middle-Earth, the developers didn't just transport the gametype to a new platform, they also tweaked and improved it.

Developers Monolith could have been content with bringing the highly complex, nearly exclusively computer-based MOBA genre to the console. But with Guardians of Middle-Earth, the developers didn't just transport the gametype to a new platform, they also tweaked and improved it.

Commanding well known, and some lesser known, heroes and villains of the Middle-Earth saga, players find themselves leading a constantly spawning army of underlings against a like-sized force out to take down the enemy base. The maps upon which you do battle are all symmetrical, littered with the same number of upgradeable defense towers.

The ability to upgrade those towers are one of the changes Guardians brings to the genre. Since they are upgradable, the longer you play, and the longer it takes you and your side to take those towers down, the harder it is to eliminate them.

Also spread throughout the maps are shrines which, once captured, give a buff to the team that holds them. There are also a number of neutral characters that can be killed for a buff.

The biggest change, of course, is how you control the game. The genre usually makes use of a variety of keystrokes, hotkeys and a mouse, all of which had to be mapped to the relatively limited buttons, triggers and sticks of a gamepad.

In mapping those controls to a Xbox 360 or Playstation 3 controller, Monolith had to rework some of the basic conceits of the genre. Instead of pointing and clicking with a mouse to target and attack an enemy, players use one thumbstick to select the direction of an attack and the other to move the character. Buttons on the controller are used for special abilities and spells. Players pull the right trigger to attack and the left trigger to deliver the "ultimate" attack.

While players can still level-up to level 14 over the course of a match (You select their upgrades by bringing up a screen with a button push), Guardians doesn't have the item store found in most MOBA games. Instead players augment and customize their character's abilities and load out with consumable potions, commands and, most importantly, a belt.

The belt can be modified with a vast array of gems and relics that deliver special modifiers and abilities.

"The belt is the more nuanced element of play," game producer Bob Roberts said. ‘This is where you have more 100 items that have complex interactions."

It takes a few minutes to adjust to the game in action, especially for those used to playing a Multiplayer Online Battle Arena game with a keyboard and mouse. But once you adjust, the controls are surprisingly easy to use.

I tried my hand playing on the side of the often-maligned bad guys, taking on the role of the Witch-king. The other players on my team were in control of Gollum, Ugluk, Gothmog and Sauron. We were taking on Legolas, Gandalf, Hidifons, Thrain II and Galadriel.

As with most MOBAs, the trick is to level up your character by taking out the low-level mobs of enemies that are streaming toward your front line towers, while avoid being overwhelmed.

Most of the characters in our 15 to 20-minute match had area or cone-shaped attacks, making it easier to direct their offensive spells with the thumbstick. The gameplay was fast and fluid, and once I adjusted to the new controls, felt every bit like a traditional MOBA.

The match we played was in the Battlegrounds mode, which meant it featured a map with three lanes connecting opposing teams. This mode also has single-lane maps for simpler, faster matches. The game will also have a skirmish mode, which Roberts described as a mode that lets players take on bots. It's a great place to learn characters or experiment with loadouts, he said.

The game will also include the ability to create customized matches where you can experiment with the settings to create things like one-on-one matches with four bots on each side, or anything else you can think of.

All three modes still allow you to earn experience and coins for your profile. Leveling up your profile unlocks access to more potion slots and commands.

The game will launch with 20 playable characters, all of which were pulled from the Middle-Earth lore.

"We dug down a little deeper in the lore and fleshed them out to make them playable," Roberts said.

He said that the developers have a team who will be keeping an eye on the community and constantly working to balance the characters and gameplay. The team will also be building new guardians "all of the time, so the ecosystem is always evolving."

While Roberts declined to give a specific release date for the game, he did say it would be coming out on the Playstation Network and Xbox Live Arcade this fall ahead of movie The Hobbit, which hits in December.

This isn't the first time that a MOBA-like game has come to consoles, but it feels like the closest consoles have gotten so far to recapturing the look and feel of the genre. Perhaps with its success we will see other MOBA, like League of Legends or DOTA 2, start popping up on consoles.

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