You probably haven't seen Gandalf, Sauron and Arathorn fight side by side before, but in Guardians of Middle-Earth it's a regular occurence. And while the game delves deeply enough into Tolkien's Lord of the Rings mythology, that most of the playable characters will be unfamiliar to those who have only seen Peter Jackson's films - it doesn't care much for official canon or chronology. Here the powers of darkness team up with the powers of good on regular basis.
Guardians of Middle-Earth focuses on being fun, and the subject matter plays second fiddle to gameplay. And that's a good thing.
It's a MOBA game, DotA clone or Lords management, depending on who you ask. It's a genre that has seen explosive growth in popularity over the last few years, most notably with League of Legends - probably the most popular game on the PC platform these days.
The roots of the genre are with the RTS genre and Warcraft III, and games like Dota 2 and Heroes of Newerth also populate this space. It's a deep and complex experience, and naturally feels like a genre that can only really be successfully experienced on a PC with mouse and keyboard.
It's a good thing that Monolith thought differently. They set out to create a MOBA for console, no matter what it took, and somehow they managed to pull it off. Guardians of Middle-Earth is a pure joy to play, and it turns out you can play this kind of game with a controller in your hands.
If you're unfamiliar with the MOBA genre here's a short summary: Two teams with five players each face off and try and take out the opposing team's base. The level you play is divided into three "lanes", or tracks if you will. Computer controlled drones (creeps) flow at a steady pace towards the opposing base, and it's up to the players to defend your own troops, fight enemy troops and kill opposing players. You earn experience points (XP) by killing enemies, and as your level rises you gain access to new or improved abilities. Each lane also contains a defensive tower that needs to be destroyed before you can attack the base proper.
In many ways the limitations of the platforms seems to have been of benefit to the developers. The original Defence of the Ancients (Dota) had its roots in Warcraft III, and it controls like a classic RTS with a combination of mouse clicks and keyboard shortcuts - something that simply don't translates well to controllers. This forced Monolith to rethink the concept from the ground up, and in doing so they came to break some of the established conventions of the genre. Guardians of Middle-Earth is more streamlined than its competition, and therefore also more accessible.
The main difference lies with the controls. Where you click on positions and enemies to command your character in other MOBA games, you assume direct control over them in Guardians of Middle-Earth. You move using the left stick and aim with the right one, launch standard attacks with one of the triggers, and activate special abilities with the face buttons on the controller. More complex interactions such as upgrading your abilities or buildings are dealt with just as swiftly, and it's impressive how painless the experience is. I tried a demo version of the game at Gamescom this summer, and it had me excited to a point where I went ahead and joined the Dota 2 beta upon my return. But I was so put off by those controls that I soon stopped playing the beta.
There are also some areas where Guardians of Middle-Earth is likely to be criticised by longtime MOBA players. First of all there is no "last hitting" - in other MOBA's it's often just the player who gets the last hit on an enemy who receives gold or XP for killing him. That's not the case here - all players that are nearby are rewarded. This has two effects. First of all, you can't come in and "steal" XP from a teammate, so there is no risk of greedy teammates ruining your experience. Second, it results in quicker levelling, and that in turn results in shorter matches - as they routinely clock in under 20 minutes - the time limit in the standard mode. Meanwhile matches in League of Legends or Dota 2 often take 40 minutes to an hour to complete.
Another difference is that there is no shop in your base where you can spend gold or XP on items. It definitely takes away some of the depth, but given that a game like Dota has over 1000 items in its shop it also makes the game more streamlined and accessible.
Finally there are no mana costs for using your special abilities - instead they are only limited by the cooldown time.
While these changes have a major impact on the experience, they don't really influence the core concept of the game. It's still of the utmost importance to play together as a team in order to win, and skilled players can still excel in the game and lead their team to victory.
There is also a progression system, that unlocks so called Commands, magic that can be used across all characters, as well as Gems and Relics - that can give you small advantages such as increased speed or damage.
All in all there 22 characters (more to come through DLC), but you only have access to a handful at the start of the game. The rest is unlocked with gold coins you earn by competing. Add to this an alternating selection of characters all players have access to regardless of whether they have used coins on them or not. It's a nice model that allows players who may not play that much a bit of variation when it comes to characters.
The MOBA can be harsh and unforgiving on new players, and while Guardians of Middle-Earth thanks to its streamlined nature has shed some of the overwhelming complexity the genre is known for it can still be merciless on newcomers. I played for several hours before I won my first match, but I was still smiling throughout that experience. The core of the game is simply so entertaining that you'll still enjoy it even if you're losing, and when you finally get your act together enough to win - then you'll really enjoy.
My biggest complaint is that the game is very sensitive to lag. If the host has a poor connection, you're going to suffer through some choppy gameplay, which can ruin your experience. Another thing to note is that if a player leaves mid-way through a game, the rest of his team is severely hampered and stand no real chance of winning (unless they were up by a big margin), but this is a problem that exists in all similar games.
Monolith have also decided to include an alternative level with just one lane, subsequently tactics are less important and your combat skills are all that count. Personally I don't really like this map, but you can always opt out of playing it.
Other than that Guardians of Middle-Earth is an impressive accomplishment. The developers have managed to take a genre that was thought impossible on console and made it work - and in some areas it actually improves on the games it was inspired by. At least in my opinion. When everything turns out for the best and you end up on a team capable of co-operating, and the connection doesn't cause any problems, then it's a wildly addictive online experience. If you've been curious about the MOBA genre without ever really giving it a try before then this is definitely a game you should look closer at.