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While the multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) genre is growing rapidly on PC thanks to the success of games like League of Legends, the Xbox 360 and PS3 haven’t been privy to the same treatment. The current console offerings like Awesomenauts are enjoyable, but lack the depth, lane-based strategy, and perspective of more traditional titles in the genre. Guardians of Middle Earth is the first true MOBA title for consoles and as such, it will inevitably be seen as a litmus test for whether this type of game can work without a mouse and keyboard. As it turns out, it can, and despite a bit of unbalanced gameplay, fans of the genre will almost certainly find exactly what they’ve been pining for.

For those unacquainted with games of this type, here’s a basic breakdown: Teams of combatants – either player- or AI-controlled – wage war against an enemy team on a large map dotted with towers. While you and your fellow players take control of powerful warriors with a range of attacks, each side also has a large army of basic AI soldiers that act as cannon fodder. At the beginning of the battle, each team has an equal number of towers leading down either a single pathway or spread throughout three lanes, depending on the type of match you select. Players must both defend their own towers from destruction and also take down the enemy’s structures. In the three-lane variant, there are arteries leading between the main lanes that hold bonuses, environmental enemies, and hiding spots. Once a lane has been rid of the enemy’s pillars, players can then attack the opposition’s base which, once demolished, ends the game.

In Guardians of Middle Earth, you control your hero – or “guardian” – from an angled top-down perspective, allowing you to get a glimpse of all the action unfolding around you. The characters are all drawn straight from the Lord of the Rings universe, including big names like Gandalf, Legolas, and Gollum. Each option has its own strengths and weaknesses, and victory is dependent on a well-rounded team. Some guardians, like Legolas, are designed to strike from afar, while others, like Gollum, prefer an up-close-and-personal approach.

Each Guardian has a role to play in battle, and if your team is too far weighted to one end of the spectrum, you’ll have a hard time achieving victory. For example, a team with several large, slow-moving characters from the “defender” class can take plenty of damage, but can be easily corralled by the “tactician” class which can build dangerous structures and create bottlenecks in a lane.

Despite being a Lord of the Rings title, the game does a great job of avoiding any overly cheesy touches. The characters are rendered with care and look great on the battlefield. Occasional battle cries will remind you of just who you’re fighting with – and against – and the original voices will make fans squeal with delight. Despite this, Guardians doesn’t force the LOTR lore down your throat, and MOBA fans who don’t favor the franchise will enjoy it just the same.

At the start of each match your guardian has only the most basic of attacks, and you must level up by killing enemy soldiers or guardians, or taking out some of the environmental enemies that remain neutral until attacked. Leveling up as fast as possible is the most important thing in Guardians of Middle Earth, and you’ll find that dispatching your foes is exponentially easier with an advantage of just a level or two. Your ranks of soldiers and your towers themselves can also be upgraded as you gain levels offering further strategy to the skirmishes.

However, these strategies work both ways, and if the enemy team is more efficient in leveling and upgrading than your own, you’ll find it hard to hold them off. If you do meet an untimely end, you’ll respawn back at your base and must make your way back to wherever the battle is taking place. As the match progresses, your respawn timer grows, and if you fall late in the match you’ll end up waiting for quite a while to be brought back to life, which can offer the opposition a huge advantage.

Unfortunately, the in-battle balancing act isn’t as forgiving as it should be, especially in the early going. If one of your fellow players or AI-controlled counterparts gets off to a slow start, it can doom your entire battle plan. Once a teammate falls, it becomes a slippery slope, and there’s often very little you can do to even the odds. This is especially true in the three-lane game variant where you’ll need to leave your own local skirmish in order to keep the enemy from advancing elsewhere.

When you’re winning, you’ll feel like you’re a dominant and unstoppable force, but when you end up on the losing end, it quickly becomes clear that either you or a single fellow guardian was largely responsible for the landslide. Of course, the MOBA genre as a whole has a habit of being unforgiving when it comes to ensuring every player is pulling their weight, so while this issue is somewhat expected, it’s unfortunate that Guardians doesn’t introduce an elegant solution.

As you gain experience to your overall rank, you unlock the ability to customize your loadout with things like potions and special perks that can offer a bit of aid if your team falls behind, but you’ll need to do several hours of grinding to get to that point. Likewise, many of the guardian characters must be purchased using the in-game currency won from battles, so if you want to see what each warrior has to offer, prepare to spend a good chunk of time unlocking them all.

Bottom Line: Guardians of Middle Earth is a hardcore experience in just about every sense of the word. If you’re looking for a simple hack-and-slash brawler, you’ll need to look elsewhere. Strategy is paramount here, and while the skill – or lack thereof – of your teammates can indeed doom you to failure, the rewarding feeling of waging a successful war is well worth it.

Recommendation: If you’re a MOBA fan that has been frustrated by the lack of a true online battle arena on consoles , Guardians of Middle Earth was made for you. The title offers a wealth of content that will keep you busy for a good long while, but just be prepared to deal with some balance issues, especially while you struggle to put a few ranks under your belt early on.

[rating=4]

Game: Guardians of Middle Earth
Genre: Brawler
Developer: Monolith Productions
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive
Platform(s): XBLA, PSN
Available from: Amazon(US), GameStop(US)

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