Review

Guardians Of Middle Earth

Token Tolkien

Guardians Of Middle-Earth strips away J.R.R. Tolkien’s lore and sticks to the fighting.

By Ryan Smith • December 12, 2012

The game of chess exists in a universe dictated only by its own arcane rules and nothing else, which means we don’t think or care about the backstory of the individual pieces. Does it matter what a knight’s hypothetical motivations are for moving only in an L-shaped pattern? Do we wonder if a pawn has been cursed with an unfair lot in chess’ caste system before we sacrifice it to save a bishop?

Similarly, the highly artificial construct of multiplayer deathmatches doesn’t typically lend itself well to the shackles of narrative. That’s why I find it strange that the makers of League Of Legends are hard at work figuring out how to flesh out the lore of their popular free-to-play MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena). They want to somehow turn their random cast of ninjas, vikings, and sad mummies into the next Don Draper or Tony Soprano. (Sidenote: I can’t wait until Teemo gets an emotionally stunted wife).

Contrast that with Guardians Of Middle-Earth, a game that mimics League Of Legends to the point of absurdity (right down to the omniscient female narrator who comments regularly on how remarkable of a killer you are), but wisely knows when it’s best to leave the lore alone. Developer Monolith could have certainly invented some far-fetched reason for a loner like Gollum to form an alliance with the Dark Lord Sauron and a saintly elf queen—“Mind control!” “It’s all a dream!”—but instead, Guardians treats the 22 elves, dwarves, hobbits, orcs and men that make up its cast like interchangeable pieces of a board game rather than part of a living breathing story.

Guardians Of Middle Earth

There are, of course, small aesthetic touches that work hard to reassure you that, yes, Guardians Of Middle-Earth is indeed a Lord Of The Rings game. This is important for the publisher, WB Games, which is pushing the game’s as a sort of tie-in to the release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in theaters. Many of the characters look like their movie counterparts and appropriately spout key lines of dialogue borrowed from Peter Jackson’s film adaptations. A grey-cloaked Gandalf shoots fireworks from his gnarled staff, a mop-headed hobbit runs around barefoot, and hey, that sure looks like Orlando Bloom as Legolas!

But Guardians link to The Hobbit is tenuous at best. Strip away the thin coat of Tolkien-colored paint, and what you get is a game about as faithful to the fiction of Middle Earth as the Lord Of The Rings edition of Monopoly.

Instead, Guardians’ demonstrates a slavish devotion to the MOBA, an emerging genre of PC games popularized by the aforementioned League Of Legends and Defense of the Ancients. Like those games, Guardians pits two teams of heroes against each other in a race to eliminate a heavily guarded structure deep in the enemy stronghold. Playing against the computer is an option, but it’s just a warm up session leading up the main event—a fast-paced five-vs.-five battle between human opponents.

Guardians Of Middle Earth

You’re given only two scenarios to choose from—a three-lane fight over a forest covered map or a chaotic single-lane battle on a crumbling ancient bridge—meaning that variety only emerges from the many different combinations of heroes you can choose from. In one game, you might have to contend with Gollum, who hits surprisingly hard for a shy, emaciated creature thing. Another might feature the hobbit Hildifons Took, who favors siege equipment over swords and sorcery. Hildifons has something of a glass jaw when confronted by heavy hitters like Sauron, but when laying down his exploding traps and barbs to create a quagmire of fire and thorns to clog up a lane, he can be quite effective.

Sometimes, however, you’re only as good as your four other teammates, and the jury is still out on the quality of the community on consoles. When playing MOBAs on a PC, the communities for those games tend to be highly vocal and negative. Do something that deviates slightly from the standard approach, and you’re likely to get called out in team chat for being “a fucking noob.” The in-game communication in Guardians, meanwhile, falls on the opposite side of the spectrum. The majority of players I’ve come across don’t use microphones, and the ones that do aren’t too concerned with the teamwork necessary to win a match. Chess, anyone?

Guardians Of Middle-Earth
Developer: Monolith Productions
Publisher: WB Games
Platforms: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Reviewed on: Xbox 360
Price: $15
Rating: T

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655 Responses to “Token Tolkien”

  1. Mercenary_Security_number_4 says:

     This game brings up a fundamental tension in universe continuity — what in deed is the crux of character?  To what extent is a character’s allegiances germane to his essence, and to what extent is said allegiance simply a tool — an identity macguffin, if you will — to get the characters to move the story along?  If Frodo had been befriended by Saruman and sent on a quest which ultimately was a lie, would that have fundamentally altered who Frodo was?  Is Legolas not the same person whether he is fighting alongside a dwarf or imprisoning them in his Mirkwood palace?  Therefore, could not this game itself be seen as a form of literary criticism — a postmodern interactive treatise in which characters are stripped from their normal friends and foes in order to see whether or not the very concept of identity breaks down when the social framework is in upheaval?  Might we perhaps see this format be expanded to test the internal cohesion of other literary works, such as Ahab and the whale fighting side-by-side to defeat Ishmael and Bartleby?  Would MacBeth facing off against the three witches make him less of a warrior?  Or does the kernel at the heart of this game indeed prove something fundamental about mankind — that those he calls friends and foes are indeed fleeting and the true core of humanity is not actually the desire to find resolution but rather, in the end, to continually seek conflict . . . no matter who the enemy?

    • Spacemonkey Mafia says:

      Pipe-weed joke!

    • Ardney says:

      While I can’t speak to it being literary criticism, I do agree that it makes some interesting statements about character and story in games. In the comments section of an article on Gamasutra a while back a question was posed along the lines of ‘Is it possible for a game to have interesting characters but no plot(story?)’

      My personal experience with these games comes from Heroes of Newerth. HoN has a setting that pits 2 factions against each other and buried in the official website is lore for each of the playable Heroes. This information is only found there though and if all you did was download the game you’d never encounter it. Through aesthetic and the many unit responses though the characters each have a distinct feel and personality and if you bother to read the (sometimes intentionally nonsensical) back stories for the heroes on the site you’ll see that these 2 sources of character building align quite well. But what is the story of HoN? Well, largely there isn’t really one and it doesn’t need one due to the nature of the game.

      And now we come to the interesting case of this Tolkien themed game. As Mr. Smith points out there ‘aesthetic touches that work hard to reassure you that’ this is a LoTR game. But, being what it is, there isn’t really any plot to it and if there were it’d be fairly nonsensical from the perspective of the established canon. So what we’re left with is character. And is that enough to sustain a game? I’d argue yes, depending on the game. If it were a point and click Adventure title then the lack of a cohesive plot that faithfully adhered to LoTR lore would naturally be seen as detrimental. Heck, you could make a similar (though probably looser) argument for an LoTR themed beat-em up style game. But given a game in this genre the mere presence of characters from the universe could well be sufficient regardless of the lack of coherent plot.

      Put another way: Would a game in this genre be workable or fun using chess pieces as oppsoed to characters? Possibly. But is the experience greatly enhanced by using distincive characters? I’d say definitely yes.

      • Ryan Smith says:

        Well argued, Ardney. I have an attachment to League of Legends characters like Amumu and Blitzcrank even though there is no story involving them in the game. I haven’t even read their backstories on Riot’s site. I just like their in-game personas and powers. And that’s enough for me in this case.

        • RCIX says:

          I would urge you to read their backstories (They can be seen in the client as well), League of Legends has a really interesting lore set!

      • Fyodor Douchetoevsky says:

        Dota has weird lore for every character that I don’t really care about, but some of the characters are rivals  or friends or whatever. These characters usually have special voice lines that trigger when you kill their rival/sibling/whatever. It’s a pretty cool touch.. The characters also generally have recognizable personalities, even though a lot of them are just “rargh, i’m gonna kill stuff.” 

        Some characters I like to play because I think their voice work is awesome, like Enchantress or Puck, though those two are both fun anyway.

  2. RCIX says:

    On behalf of sane MOBA gamers, I do apologize for anyone who ventures to try it and gets their hand bit off by some nasty excuse for a GIFT-affected human. We’re not all like that.

    • Ardney says:

      It is a weird situation in that the games themselves are extremely deep, engaging, and enjoyable but the communites are just about universally considered to be atrocious.

      They’d easily be the best multiplayer games around if it weren’t for all those other players! ;P

    • Ryan Smith says:

      Agreed. It’s mostly the vocal 20 percent that overshadows the cool players.

  3. Ardney says:

    Am I the only one that despises the MOBA acronym? It’s the worst description for the genre possible, IMO. A multiplayer Online battle Arena can describe any number of games ranging from Team Fortress 2 to Smash Bros. Brawl!

    If we can have Rogue-likes I don’t see the reason we can’t have called these games DoTA-likes/clones. But if that seems too closely identified with a particular brand then equally viable is the acronym LPG (Lane Pushing Game) which I’ve sadly seen used only once in an article on the subject a while back.

    Ah well. Sorry bout that. Sometimes I have to rant about trivial things I have no control over :)

    • RCIX says:

      Problem is, by that standard, FPSes could be called DOOM-likes or RTSes Dune-likes.

      • Ardney says:

        I wouldn’t really have a problem with that, but as I said in my post I can certainly see the issue with brand identification.

        That being said, I think the acronym they settled on is still atrocious for its vaguery and pretty inferior to the LPG descriptor. But hey, that’s just me.

        • RCIX says:

          I can’t seem to find it now but there was a great Extra Credits episode on how genre naming is really screwed up now, and they compared it to classifying movies by editing/filming style. Basically, genre classification is really screwed up right now.

      • Merve says:

        Well, FPSes actually were called “Doom clones” back in the day.

      • Fyodor Douchetoevsky says:

        And Roguelikes should be called… oh… nevermind.

    • Fyodor Douchetoevsky says:

      I also hate the MOBA genre descriptor, and headed down into the comments to complain about it.  There’s actually a pretty interesting history of DotA and the guys who made LoL that’s full of drama and people being weirdo internet guys. Spoiler alert, some of the guys who went on to make Riot/LoL are huge jerks. But they basically coined the term MOBA so they wouldn’t have to use Dota-clone.

      Anyway, some people prefer the term ARTS or Actions Real Time Strategy, as it’s a bit better than MOBA. ARTS is what Gabe Newell prefers though, so make of that what you will. I like the term LPG or Lane Pushing Games, because it applies to applies to the other game in the genre (Super Monday Night Combat, Smite, etc) without being super generic.

      Unfortunately, MOBA seems to have caught on. Oh well. 

      DOTA IS WAY BETTER THAN LOL YOU GUYS SERIOUSLY.

    • Xyvir says:

      You are amazingly correct. I from this day forward will use LPG instead of MOBA to everyone else’s confusion and chagrin. Seriously, LPG is in every way a better acronym than MOBA, except in ubiquity. 

  4. Brainstrain says:

    LoL is frighteningly popular, but I don’t understand it at all. How do these games with no way to introduce new players to the gameplay pleasantly survive? It’s such horrid design, but it doesn’t seem to matter. I guess it’s just pointing to gamers being pretty huge masochists.

    • Ryan Smith says:

      Brain,

      There is a decent tutorial in both Guardians and LoL. And if you’re not ready for primetime, you can do custom games against all bots. It’s different playing against real players, sure, but I think both games do a decent job at holding your hand.

    • Fyodor Douchetoevsky says:

      There was a good article on RPS about Dota, trying to figure why it was popular and what it meant. Let me see if I can find it.

      On second thought, maybe it isn’t as relevant as I was hoping, but it’s still a good read.

      • Fixda Fernback says:

        Actually, it links to his Eurogamer Diaries which look to be incredibly relevant… his experience of attempting to learn DotA from a newcomer’s perspective, and trying to determine whether or not it’s worth the trouble. Having never played DotA, I now curse you for linking to this article and piquing my interest in it, because it indeed sounds like running a gauntlet in order to merely become acquainted with it.

        • Fyodor Douchetoevsky says:

          Isn’t it great? This same writer started a board game blog where he reviews cool board games with equal enthusiasm. It’s infectious.

    • STOP_RIGHT_THERE_CRIMINAL_SCUM says:

      I don’t get them either