The MOBA games have become quite popular in recent years. Riot Games found a very simple, and yet very elegant formula, and made a killing in the process.
Defenders of Middle Earth is what happens when a new formula becomes popular. In addition to the cheap knock offs (Gameloft’s Heroes of Order and Chaos) there are the themed tie-ins that stick a popular franchise into the same formula. Guardians of Middle Earth does a good job of bringing Riot Games to Tolkien, though I have some reservations about the game’s longevity.
Each player controls one hero on a battlefield (five heroes on each side) that is designed entirely around choke points. Most of the time you’ll be fighting on a three-‘line’ battlefield, meaning there are three major paths connecting your base to your opponent’s, with a couple of minor avenues connecting those paths.
Once in control of your hero the goal of the game is to run around defeating enemy leaders, levelling up and defending your own base. Each hero has a few special abilities that level up with them, but in-game customisation is minimal, as the pacing of the game is actually quite fast.
Thanks to that speed and the expert balance between units there is a beautiful sense of ebb and flow to the combat. A handy mini-map in the corner shows the weak points and areas where your side is making real progress. Because the typical map features five heroes across three ‘lines’ there will always be at least one ‘line’ that is only going to be protected by one hero. Being able to figure out which ‘line’ is the weakened one at any point in time and exploiting that weakness is the key strategy driving the game, and it is surprisingly strategic.
Additionally, it’s impressive that the game is balanced in such a way that the team that falls behind is not necessarily doomed. With many “strategic” games, once one side has a slight advantage they’re able to sit back and grind out an inevitable victory. But with this game, if a team gets an advantage, smart play can reverse that minor victory.
Games only last for around thirty minutes – if there isn’t a direct winner by then the side that has the most points accumulated through play is given a by default win. There are plenty of heroes to chose between and they range from the most famous of Tolkien’s characters through to some of the most obscure. Between rounds there’s a great upgrade system to play around with to tweak in-game performance. The presentation is quite nice too. It’s a touch too generic to really to justice to the Lord of the Rings license, but it’s pleasant and engaging.
In every way this is the best Lord of the Rings title that we’ve seen since the brilliant EA RTS Battles of Middle Earth 2. So it’s unfortunate that the game is so reliant on an online community that just is not there yet. In any game where the heroes per side can’t be filled with human players the AI fills those roles, and as competent as they are they’re also bland – it’s just not as much fun as butting heads with real brains.
The problem is that it’s very hard to get a game going with a full complement of heroes. With any luck the fact this is going to be a PlayStation Plus game soon will bolster the community, because as it is it’s a real drag on the entertainment value of the game.
That said this game deserves props for doing such a great job in taking the League of Legends formula and adapting it for the console audience. This is a greatly enjoyable game, and a very easy recommend for people who like the Lord of the Rings license, or multiplayer competitive games.