When Warner Bros. first announced that they would be bringing Middle-earth to consoles in the form of a MOBA (massive online battle arena) title, and would be trusting Monolith to do it, there were some skeptics. Not just because the studio was more well-known for the successful first-person shooter F.E.A.R., and the less-successful Gotham City Impostors. Also, because bringing a MOBA to consoles – even one with as much recognition as Guardians of Middle-earth – seemed like a risky move no matter how you looked at it.

Created and popularized with the Defense of the Ancients mod of Warcraft 3, DotA has since spawned numerous imitators, not to mention a new genre of PC gaming. Monolith has re-imagined the formula with the Xbox 360 and PS3 in mind, and the results are far more promising than we ever expected.

Speaking with the team at E3 2012, the developers behind Guardians of Middle-earth made it clear from the outset that their version of MOBA is not going to be quite as complex or large-scale as the PC offerings, which was a decision made early on. For console gamers, the extensive and ultra-refined interactions and interfaces made possible with the PC simply don’t apply. From the earliest stages of development, the game was built around a console gamepad, and with shorter play sessions in mind, and it shows.

For those unfamiliar with the MOBA genre (many of those who Monolith is targeting with this release), Guardians consists of two teams of up to five characters, tasked with leading their respective armies and destroying the opponents’ stronghold. The developers at Monolith explained the basic gameplay, and are clearly getting good practice at defining the genre to newcomers.

Guardians of Middle-earth Screenshot 1

Simply put, each base spawns a constant stream of either orcs or soldiers that will, if left to their own devices, constantly lock in an even-sided battle at the map’s middle. It then falls to the heroes on each side of the match to turn the tide. Upgrading defense towers as you press on, leveling up troops, or stepping into the battle alongside them will lead to success, with a large amount of room for players to craft their own play styles.

Players can choose one of twenty characters of differing classes, all either based on or inspired by Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings universe. As was confirmed in the announcement trailer for Guardians, Gollum, Gandalf, Legolas, Thrain, Sauron and others will all be included for fans of the series, with plenty more accompanying them.

To simply claim that a competent MOBA can be controlled using two analog sticks and half a dozen button would be met with several raised eyebrows, but that was the challenge the team was committed to accomplishing. The result is a control system that is simple and effective, but most of all, intuitive for those who play on consoles. The left stick controls movement, and the right stick controls aim (“just like a console shooter or action title”). In terms of actual gameplay, the experience isn’t very different from any top-down dungeon-crawler or fantasy action title.

Guardians of Middle-earth Screenshot 2

Monolith has removed the initial slower-paced portions of a DotA or League of Legends match, starting each hero with basic attacks that can be upgraded as experience is gained.  Gandalf’s powers, for instance, consisted of a heavy sword strike, a powerful sustained magical shield, and a sweeping attack that blinded enemies in a wide arc. Upgraded attacks unlocked area-of-effect strikes and even the ability to summon a giant eagle to drive down one of the map’s lanes dealing massive damage.

It didn’t take long before the rotation and cycle of combat began to clock in: attack, wait for an enemy defense tower to lock onto a friendly soldier, attack the tower until forces were eliminated, retreat, and repeat. The moment-to-moment combat bears an incredibly strong resemblance to Diablo 3, with each attack just as satisfying. The feeling of progress or competition was constantly being reinforced against human opponents, but those still intimidated by the notion of taking on seasoned pros also have options.

Monolith is aware that the newcomers might be outmatched, so have also included the ability to play in a group of ten players, including as many friends as you like supplemented by AI characters. So whether your intention is to hone your skills against increasingly difficult odds (taking on opponents that outnumber your side, for example) or simply enjoy some comp-stopping with a friend, the option for a brief dose of gameplay is available. The developers place the average round time around twenty-five minutes, which does seem like a wise choice given their target audience.

Guardians of Middle-earth Screenshot 3

With basic MOBA gameplay established as an existing formula, it’s the smaller details that show the most promise alongside attacks that are more than a little entertaining. The maps themselves, for example, are populated by larger creatures that can be defeated to grant one’s hero or team a buff. Persistent upgrading is also made possible through an upgrading perk system based around unique gems that the developers again believe will be familiar to console gamers.

Monolith claims their mission statement was to bring players an experience that would be familiar (from controls to fiction) while still challenging them to learn the systems and skills at work. The challenge is to strike a balance between offering the player the chance to improve their play styles, but make the experience enough fun to make the progression entertaining. So far, it seems that the team has succeeded.

After having a chance to play the game and hear that the developers behind it are committed to supporting it post-launch as much as possible, Guardians of Middle-earth seems like one game that deserves attention. Not just from fans of more serious PC-based MOBA games who want to introduce their console-gaming friends, but also those who have just been intimidated by the sizable online DotA community that already exists.

Guardians of Middle-earth is expected to release in Fall 2012 over Xbox Live and PSN, most likely around the $15 mark. If you have any questions or thoughts to share on this new direction for the MOBA genre, please do so in the comments.

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