Multi-player on-line battle arena (MOBA) games are a bit of a rarity for the PS3 gamer in an age of polished graphics and epic cut-scenes so Guardians of Middle-earth is quite a brave choice, relying on good old RPG statistic driven game play.
Even to someone like me with very little experience of the MOBA genre the tutorial explains the basics of how the combat works and the victory conditions very well. Beyond this the game more or less leaves you to figure things out yourself.
There’s a rather comprehensive glossary and decent documentation available in game to help you on the way but one of the most confusing parts of the game is when you first get to customize your classes and equipment where getting stuck in and figuring it out yourself is the best course of action. There is also a very cool “slang” dictionary made up of terms people use on-line.
There are 22 guardians available in GOME most of whom are classic characters made popular by the Lord Of The Rings books and film trilogy but there are also a lot of characters from other places in the Middle-earth lore. There’s definitely a good cross-section of characters and there should be enough to ensure everyone has a choice of someone they want.
You can have any of them for 5,000 gold as soon as you have the funds available. This isn’t quite as straight forward as it sounds because 5,000 gold is a fair bit of cash in GOME the best way to earn gold being to level up or complete challenges with different characters both of which will reward you a cash bonus.
The guardians are varied and there is a great selection of unique abilities and varying health, damage and ability stats between guardians which gives a great contrast to the different classes and characters. The same can be said for the abilities and none of the 22 guardians feel “tacked on” or half-baked. Each weak a different six guardians are available as “featured this week” which allows players to use a guardian without having purchased their card.
Getting access to a guardian you want without paying is a great way to try before you buy and ensure you don’t waste your difficult to acquire in game currency when you finally come to purchase them but it is annoying that someone could choose them in a lobby and stop you choosing the same character you might have paid for.
In any match each team can only have the same guardian once and if you’ve spent 5,000 gold on a new guardian it is possible to consistently get added to a game after someone else picks that guardian essentially disabling your guardian of choice.
CUSTOM CLASSES & “BELTS”
A much wiser investment is in the “belts”. Belts apply to any guardian you are using so it seems until you have a good belt setup, ideally consisting of all top-level stuff, belts should really have your attention. At first the custom belts are incredibly confusing but looking back I’m surprised it daunted me even at first as it’s very simple when you get into it.
Each belt has seven slots, each representing two in-game levels, that you can allocate a gem to. Once your guardian reaches an even numbered level the gem you assigned to the corresponding belt slot will have its effect activated. Guardian level two activates slot one, guardian level four activates slot two and so on to a maximum of slot seven and guardian level fourteen.
There are five different coloured gems depending on the effected stats or abilities of the gem, and any colour can go in any slot. Until you start adding “relics” to your belt.
A relic limits you to only specific coloured gems in specific slots but once your guardian reaches the level corresponding to the slot at the end of the relic its ability is activated along with the gems’, and these really are game changers. Once you have your belt set up you can select it with any guardian before going into battle and making sure you have a couple of good belt setups is crucial to success.
The gems and relics really give you something to work for and have kept me coming back to the game, earning cash to upgrade my belt. There is absolutely tons to unlock, unlocking anything takes work, and the potential combinations make for huge replay value, especially for the completionist.
Any of the maps will have shrines to take over which reduce the damage all your teams guardians will take and are well worth having. A good struggle to control these is part of any good match on GOME.
Other than shrines towers must be destroyed in order down any lane until you eventually reach the enemy base and achieve victory. A steady stream of soldiers will pour from your barracks and the same for the enemy and you can upgrade your defensive towers and barracks depending on your guardian level.
As you destroy towers and kill enemy soldiers and guardians your own guardian will level up to a maximum of 14 (this has nothing to do with the main “profile rank” that can be found in the menu and starts at 0 every game). If you reach a tower on your own without soldiers the tower will attack you, and it will win, even if you’ve leveled up and the tower hasn’t. It will also attack you if you are in range and attack an enemy guardian.
So when attacking your soldiers are essential cannon fodder and when defending you can keep guardians at bay by positioning in front of towers to make yourself a target and get your own tower to retaliate.
The battle system is a little strange at first but as you proceed deeper into the game it becomes obvious why Monolith made the choices they made. Holding “R2” will attack continuously and to unleash your powers you simply press the corresponding face button.
Although a basic battle system it really just frees you up so you can concentrate on positioning, taking over shrines and upgrading your own defenses and barracks. Usually this will lead to tactical game play and more or less eliminates the possibility the game will just become a very basic Lord Of The Rings team death match, although at times guardians do just move back and forth attempting to get towers to shoot at enemies, especially when the AI is in control.
MATCHMAKING & GAME MODES
There is actually only one game mode in GOME and you can choose whether it’s three lane or single lane. The three lane games are the standards and are a much more balanced experience so this is definitely where you want to be.
The standard on-line games have five players on each team and if there aren’t enough players the game adds AI to occupy any remaining spaces. The only problem with the AI substitutes is that usually someone backs out just before the game starts and gets replaced with AI which leaves that team at a disadvantage.
To answer this “Elite Battlegrounds” are unlocked once you reach profile level two which make the game up of only human player regardless of wait time. The wait times are longer than “normal” matches, roughly three minutes gets you into a lobby rather than about the two minute mark to start playing.
You can also play a skirmish game with any combination of AI or real players with a choice of difficulty for the AI as well. The punishment for playing against AI in this way is a lot less XP, however it does still contribute to your overall profile rank so if you want an easy life and are prepared to accept the low XP you can play this way.
The AI is actually very good and doesn’t ruin the game just because one player isn’t there but don’t get tempted (like I did) and stay off-line against the AI for too long because you’ll just eventually realize how much XP you could’ve had and that the on-line isn’t really that different or intimidating anyway.
Matchmaking is slow but once you’re in a game it can last a long time (especially without the twenty minute timer), lag is rare and disconnects are not really an issue.
The graphic styling represents Middle-earth well but both the character and map design lend themselves to substance far more than style. With the exception of a handful of the abilities there isn’t anything likely to wow anybody but with a game of this style functionality needs to take priority and Monolith did just that.
Don’t get me wrong it doesn’t look bad at all, but it’s no AAA title. That is apart from the opening cut scene, which is absolutely superb. It looks great and there is a load of over-the-top guardian fighting so definitely don’t skip it at least the first time.
The sound effects are good and again adhere to the lore of Middle-earth whilst providing notifications when you are targeted by towers along with other notifications announced by a lovely sounding female voice-over. The guardian specific sound effects are varied enough that even between Legolas and Haldir the noises their bows make are noticeably different.
With clear, concise and easy to hear information from the voice-over Monolith again seem to have aimed for functionality and hit it, doing so while keeping the iconic LOTR sound effects in place is well achieved.
A reasonable looking and deep MOBA makes a rare addition to the PS3 and I’m glad I gave it some time to get going. Despite feeling very slow at times it’s well worth your time to get to know it and just at least try it. Getting into the customization is rewarding and will be the addictive hook that keeps you coming back for more time and time again. For LOTR and strategy gaming fans alike, GOME is a definite success.
One thing that must be remembered is that this is a PSN/XBOX LIVE title. Priced at 1,200 Microsoft Points or £11.99 on the PSN (or free for Playstation Plus members) this is one of the best and cheapest network titles available and in some respects is worth thinking of as a full title. Lord Of The Rings: Guardians Of Middle-earth is available now on PSN and XBOX LIVE and is worth every penny, especially if you’re a Playstation Plus member!