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Guardians of Middle-earth

Guardians of Middle-earth is a MOBA. That stands for Multiplayer Online Battle Arena, not a music award show. My toe was first dipped into these genre waters via Romino Games’ Awesomenauts formerly this year, an instantly accessible title with online splitscreen play. Monolith’s entry offers a proposition of more intricate depth that’s cast against the extensive background of Tolkien’s world.

Two teams of five ancient warriors are pitted against one another in conflict. One is crowned victorious upon destroying the opposing tower base, or achieving the highest score during a timed match. Before the main tower is reached, defence structures must first be smashed. These can be upgraded by warriors of a high enough level making them stronger. AI control soldiers are automatically dispatched in waves and can be improved too, turning them into cavalry to help battle the opposing guardians or giant creatures that smash through enemy structures.

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This is tower defence where you get to play a hero amidst the war; and this makes Guardians surprisingly easy to get into, even with its lacklustre tutorial. There’s a single melee attack and then four abilities that are mapped to the face buttons. Your attack range is displayed as you hold the corresponding button, highlighting enemies that’ll be affected, and then unleashed by releasing the button. This makes for a smooth and consistent mechanic.

There are many Middle-earth guardians to choose from. Some are instantly available, others featured on a weekly rotating basis, a few via DLC and the remainder can be purchased with in-game currency. Rather than good vs. evil, the teams can be a mix of the two, letting you pick your preferred character regardless of the team you’re on (and presuming you did so before someone else picked them).

Every warrior begins each encounter at level one. As experience is gained you’re able to upgrade and/or unlock one of the unique four abilities. A clever twist is that you cannot level up the same skill twice in a row, forcing you to use all of their powers. This works as many of a character’s abilities can be used in conjunction. Using taunt will pull the affected guardians towards you, presenting a short gap to then unleash a highly powered attack. Add in a slowed movement modifier or an area affect spell and huge rewards can be reaped.

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With the abilities locked down, in-depth micromanagement comes from the loadouts. Firstly, there’s the Belt system. A belt can be worn with pride displaying a number of sockets that can be filled with relics or gems, of which are earned as rewards or purchased. Each relic grants bonuses that are activated during battle as you progress, leaving you to decide which one you believe more urgent. By placing coloured gems into the relics they further improve, granting increased benefits like health regeneration, more ability strength, kill bonuses, and so forth.

There are also Commands and Potions. Commands have a long cool down but give instant gratification, such as healing or a high-damage strike. Potions are one-off boost modifiers to be used strategically. The only problem with this system is quite simple: without clear and comparable statistics it’s hard to instantly see the benefits, and so early on trial and error is required.

As Agandaur, an evil Enchanter, thrusting into the mêlée would be certain death, leading to a wait to respawn back at the base. So pre-battle I created a loadout dedicated to healing buffs and improved ability power. By casting the Dark Assault and Northern Bolt spells his Overcharge ability was enabled. Emitting this then improved the efficiency of the next time one of those skills was used. Unable to take the enemy on head-first, the solider infantry were my target. By focusing my attacks on them, Agandaur was able to level-up without direct threat.

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As the abilities were upgraded and a superb lightning spell unlocked he could then support other guardians from the rear by launching a sudden burst of crippling attacks and then backing off, letting the powers cooldown and repeating. Once you understand the flow of each character the rhythm locks in and it’s an enjoyable competitive ride. Well, it should have been.

You see, this’d be all well and good if attempting to play the damned thing wasn’t such a chore. The reasons for this are multiple but share the same root cause: the net code.

In my first six hours with the game I’d managed to make it to the end of no more than five battles, two without any lag. Over ten minute waits – if not twenty – to join a game and incessant lag are common place. It’s terribly frustrating. Opening the recent copy of Sight & Sound magazine out of sheer boredom, I caught up on some film related articles whilst waiting for matches to be found. Once found, it was a dash to select the warrior I wanted before it was taken. Then the battle began.

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Every full match would commence with a message stating it was waiting for one of the players to connect. This usually ended with them being disconnected, leaving one team with an immediate handicap, and then, if another player wasn’t also affected, combat began. Only it too often took off with a stutter and a fumble as lag settled its damned claws in.

It’s a bloody nightmare trying to chase down or flee from someone with constant latency hiccups. Sure, you wouldn’t have made it without the lag but that’s not the point: everything becomes increasingly irritating when it does. Then another player or two will lose their patience and disconnect. Not a single game made it to the end with both teams at full capacity.

For ancient king and Elvish lord, Guardians of Middle-earth is stuck in the Mystical Bog of Latency Irritation. Its system’s solidly built and there’s the appearance of depth crying to be uncovered. However, those cries aren’t being heard. This isn’t the first time a multiplayer-only XBLA title has effectively been broken online. It deserved a better fate than this.

4 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is the Deputy Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in December 2010. Get in touch on Twitter @shaneryantb.

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