YOUUUUUU... SHALL NOOOOOOT... PUUUUSH!
Multiplayer Online Battle Arena—a term that's practically alien to console gamers. This is mostly due to the assumption by developers that since the genre was born out of PC strategy games, it can't work on a console in any way. I don't think that notion is at all true, though, and thankfully neither do the people at Monolith. Lord of the Rings: Guardians of Middle-Earth is a well-thought-out distillation of the traditional MOBA concept, and though it won't give League of Legends or DotA2 players a reason to switch, there's plenty to enjoy here for anyone looking to dive into the genre, especially newcomers.
For those of you wondering what the heck a MOBA is, let me give you the short version. It's a multiplayer game that mixes RPG with real-time-strategy elements and sees two teams of 5 players vie to destroy one another's bases on either side of a symmetrical map.
In practice, there's a lot more to it than that. So much more, in fact, that even some of the most well-versed gamers can feel intimidated by it. The good news is that GoME does a great job of teaching new players what they need to know. Besides the lengthy tutorial, there's also a glossary section to look up common terminology, as well as gameplay pointers on handling various situations and playing different guardians. Some of the data's a little more hidden than it should be, but overall, the game provides you with the resources to learn without having to consult a Wiki.
If you're familiar with LoL or DotA2, you may be skeptical about whether GoME could possibly have the complexity of the two MOBA heavyweights on PC. Frankly, it doesn't, but that winds up being totally fine. Monolith has made some extremely smart decisions in adapting the formula, and it all starts right where it should—with the controls.
Mouse evangelists can go on as much as they like about precise targeting, but for precise movement of a single character, analog sticks really are king. In GoME, the left stick moves, while the right stick rotates a targeting “cone” that represents your attack radius, which changes depending on the character and type of attack you're aiming. The right trigger gives you a basic attack, and the face buttons loose one of your four abilities. It really couldn't be any easier to control. Just make sure you go into the settings and turn off all the dumb “assists” which actually make controlling your character harder rather than easier.
Still, some concessions had to be made—there are only so many buttons on a controller, after all—and rather than find awkward ways to shoehorn everything in, Monolith just cut things out wholesale and amended the MOBA recipe accordingly. The first things to go were purchasable, in-match items. In their stead is a robust system of equippables that you can assign to your character before the match.
At the center of it all is your belt, which has seven slots for you to fill with runes and gems. Every two character levels, a slot becomes active, augmenting your powers in various ways depending on what you have slotted. Gems come in a variety of colors and confer a range of basic stat buffs. Runes are what really make it interesting, though. They house multiple gems that, once activated, grant powerful passive skills to their beholder. The order in which you arrange them is vital as well, since that determines what character level they'll become active at. You'll need to think about what you need most at different stages of the battle and tailor your gem/rune choices accordingly.
Likewise, you also pre-equip potions and up to four of 16 universally available skills called commands. Akin to LoL's summoner spells, these are powerful tools with very long cooldowns for use at key moments in a match. All this customization makes for practically limitless possibilities. Experimenting to find the best combinations for your favorite guardian is really rewarding, especially, when it directly translates to victory on the battlefield.
And there's nothing else in gaming quite like a MOBA battlefield. It's like an elaborate cross between a gladiatorial arena and a football field, but GoME takes a relatively simple approach here for ease of navigation. Still, all the mainstays are present and accounted for: three lanes, towers, barracks, a jungle, and powerful neutral creatures to slay. Monolith even threw in some original touches, such as upgradable barracks and mystical shrines in the jungle which give the controlling team bonuses to resistances and health regen. Considering that every neutral creep camp also gives a stat buff of some kind, controlling the jungle becomes something the entire team wants to help out with, rather than being the sole domain of one player.
Pushes, ganks, and team battles are all very much a part of winning as usual, but vets may be disappointed by how simplified the laning game is. Since the targeting mechanics don't afford down-to-the-unit precision, elements like last hitting, denying, and creep equilibrium simply aren't a factor. Because of that and the lack of shops to buy items mid-match, gold isn't a resource you'll have to earn or manage. Neither is mana for that matter, as ability use is curbed only by cooldowns. It may sound disheartening but in exchange you get early pushes, constant harassment, and non-stop gank attempts, all of which makes for a much faster-paced, dangerous game.
That speed and danger cuts both ways. Regardless of how approachable GoME is compared to other MOBAs, it's still a MOBA. Lack of communication or even just one bad player can make it nearly impossible for a team to win, and when you're that bad player, it feels awful. These games are punishing in a unique sort of way, and no other genre prepares you to play them. While that isn't really the game's fault, it also fails to do much in terms of presentation to keep you enthralled while taking your knocks.
Guardians of Middle-Earth is a $15 downloadable title, and it really looks it. Everything from the menus to the spell effects settle in at being passable and never a jot better. Even the inherent wonder of the LotR franchise is entirely lost amidst forgettable music and a faded color palette. Of the 22 playable characters, only a handful are recognizable and many will be completely unknown to all but those who have The Silmarillion committed to memory. You really need to love the gameplay, because it's the only hook here. But at the end of the day, there are much worse things you could say about a game than that.
Presentational woes aside, Monolith has succeeded in bringing a traditional MOBA to the console market by remaining sensitive to what doesn't work well on a controller, and balancing accordingly. While it doesn't in any way approach the bottomless pit of technique and understanding required to play LoL or DotA 2, it has more than enough depth to be engaging in its own right. For the $15 asking price, you'd be hard-pressed to find another multiplayer experience on a console with this much meat on its bones.