J.R.R. Tolkien's legendary warriors unite to battle for supremacy across fantasy lands in the MOBA Guardians of Middle-earth (Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment and Monolith Productions, reviewed for Xbox 360, rated T for teen, 1,200 Microsoft points or $15).
So what, my liege, exactly is a MOBA? It's a multiplayer online battle arena challenge, of course, pitting teams of gamers against one another with the goal of destroying the opposition's monolith of a base.
Normally relegated to the PC realms, this action-packed, real-time-strategy genre has arrived, full force, to home entertainment consoles. And it's tied to the beloved "Lord of the Rings" and "Hobbit" franchises.
It's a five-versus-five war within a top-down perspective as each player chooses a famous or infamous Guardian in matches that mix tower defense, resource management, character loadout customization and team tactics to deliver highly addictive matches.
It sounds simple enough, but throw in legions of troops that automatically spawn from barracks to attack the opposition, an array of powers (guided by statistical minutia) for each Guardian, and pockets of powerful creatures to help or hinder progress.
Players eventually have a choice of more than 20 characters in the classes of Enchanter, Defender, Striker, Tactician and Warrior with more stars to come (tied to the "Hobbit" films).
For the Guardians, whether they're familiar — such as King Theodon's daughter Eowyn or the vile Gollum — or more obscure — such as the Orc leader Gothmog or Dwarven King Thrain — each comes to life with common attacks wielded with the right trigger and superpowered attacks using the left trigger (with a long cool-down period). The characters also have four regenerating powers (accessed gradually as a Guardian levels up in matches) tied to the controller buttons.
Take the case of the Striker Legolas Greenleaf. He deals heavy damage to foes with his bow and use of the Elven Onslaught attack and can quickly hide in the brush with his Silvan Agility maneuver before launching long-range attacks through the Woodland Shot.
Battle arenas feature ornate, stone lanes with one or three paths that are speckled with defense towers, barracks, greenery, health pickups, shrines and neutral monsters looking for a fight.
Besides a 20-minute timed match and no-limit battles within the five-versus-five format, warriors can enter a Skirmish mode where they fight against computer-controlled opponents with an AI that never quits.
Where life gets infinitely more complex is during those three-lane fights. Clearly, teammates need to speak and set up an effective attack and defense plan with a balance of Guardians as controlling a trio of routes won't be easy.
As far as tactics, I learned quickly that simply rushing into a battle like a heavily caffeinated Boromir almost always will lead to a quick death.
Keeping the game more balanced, a player pays a penalty each time he dies as it takes longer and longer for him to regenerate and return to the action. I actually appreciated the occasional break as a very cool and controllable death camera keeps track of everything taking place on the battlefield as the player waits to respawn.
Nuances to the action include killing legendary creatures (such as Uruk-Hai), adding to XP and temporarily boosting attributes to the team; spawning siege soldiers such as Ents and Trolls into battle; complex load-outs tied to belts holding purchased or acquired gems (such as the Topaz of Agility) and relics (Anvil of Isengard); and use of potions to give that one-time competitive edge.
Characters level up by killing the enemy and collect gold used to unlock more Guardians and those helpful gems, relics and potions.
Having never played a MOBA, I was pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable and addictive the wars became. Also, batches of help screens and tips spelled out the depth of building characters and succeeding in matches. Completely playing through the tutorial even unlocks Gandalf the Wizard.
Additionally, the design of menu screens ties in the love of trading-card games (characters' stats are pulled up via illustrated cards) and those mini-figures on the field got my pop-culture collectibility geek roaring with approval.
Although Tolkien purists will consider the teaming of villain and hero sacrilege, (Would Gandalf ever help Sauron, ever?), the character models and their power effects on screen bring beauty to the chaos while plenty of well-known war cries from "Lord of the Rings" legends are inspiring.
Guardians of Middle-earth will not only please the casual fan of the Tolkien fantasy world, but also give new gamers a way to enjoy the MOBA experience through its watered-down appeal while not completely alienating the hard-core audience of the genre.
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