[Featurama] Guardians of Middle-Earth: First Impressions

I’ve been in a hardcore Lord of the Rings mood lately. After recently watching the whole extended series on Blu-Ray and completing War in the North (It’s actually not that bad I swear!), I’ve been on a hobbit-fueled high. Guardians of Middle-Earth (GoME for short) conveniently just released while I was still on my LOTR kick. Even though I’ve been burned by LOTR games in the past (*coughTheTwoTowersOnPS2cough*) I decided to give this one a shot. After spending some time with this game, I decided that I cannot truly review it yet due to the myriad of technical issues the game is currently suffering from.

I first learned about Guardians of Middle-Earth at PAX this year. While I’m not a fan of the MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) genre, I have spent some time playing all of the big ones (DotA, League of Legends, HoN). I’m just terrible at these games, something about them doesn’t click with me. Because of that, I tend to stay away from them. However after watching part of the tournament at PAX, I knew that I’d have another MOBA to try out. Something drew me in. Maybe it was the familiarity I already had with the characters. Maybe it was because the people playing weren’t inventing new insults to hurl at each other.

The game just released this week on Playstation Network & Xbox Live Arcade. Console MOBAs are… uncommon to say the least. Awesomenauts is really the only one I can think of, and it’s not a traditional MOBA at all. No these games are normally designed around PC gamers. The control you get with a mouse and the layout of the keys is incredibly important when performing skill shots and trying to get last-hits on creeps. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that playing this game is very easy and the controls make sense.

Gandalf is permanently free when you complete the tutorial!

I hate to use the word “simplified” to describe this, because there might be a negative connotation to it, but it’s really one of the game’s strengths. You don’t need to worry about buying gear for your character; when you level up, you just upgrade one of your abilities. Instead of buying gear each game, you create loadouts that you carry with you into each game. In a loadout, you can equip yourself with potions, set your command abilities and create a belt that you fill with relics and gems that you purchase with in-game gold. These relics and gems provide different bonuses so you can super-customize your character to fit your playstyle.

Like most MOBAs, the goal is to take down all of the enemy towers in a lane so you can reach their final tower and destroy it. GoME offers the traditional 5v5, three-lane map that most MOBA vets will be familiar with. Also included is a one-lane map that leads to some chaotically fun team fights. The option to play against bots is also included at launch so you can get familiar with the characters that are currently available.

Combat gets crazy.

The game is a complete blast. The included tutorial goes over a lot of the basic MOBA stuff that vets will already know, but will be useful to newbies. It feels like a lot of thought and effort has gone into the design of the gameplay. HOWEVER, at the time of this post, I CAN NOT recommend that anyone buy it. Despite the great gameplay, the game is currently stricken with some horrific connectivity issues that render the game nearly unplayable in some cases.

For whatever reason, the game was designed around a peer-to-peer system to host the game, instead of utilizing dedicated servers. What this means is that your gameplay experience is directly tied to how good (in most cases, how god-awful) everyone’s internet connection is. If one person in the game has a bad connection, you’re going to experience a TON of lag that ruins the experience. The person causing the lag is normally disconnected from the game, which might fix the lag, but then that team is permanently at a disadvantage for the entire game. Sometimes the game just cannot keep up with the lag and it terminates the session, sending everyone back to the main menu.

The connectivity issues make completing a match extremely difficult. Seeing as you get zero experience for quitting or being dropped from a match, frequent disconnects are incredibly irritating. There are also a ton of issues with matchmaking. I almost exclusively have played this game with a buddy of mine. After clearly partying with each other and queuing up, after the 1-6 minute wait, one of us may not get put into the game at all while the other one gets in. If you want to play with your friend, then the person that got in has to leave and suffer the 2 minute lockout punishment for leaving. Today we had an issue where he would get into the game, and seconds later it would pull me in without warning, and we’d end up on the OPPOSITE team! This just happened to us three times in a row. We’re trying to work on strategy, but the game refuses to let us party together.

Hard to do this when you're frozen with lag...

These issues are upsetting. The fact that the game utilizes peer-to-peer instead of dedicated servers was hidden from customers until it was too late, which is unacceptable.

Here’s the bottom line: this game could be one of my runners up for Game of the Year IF these issues weren’t present. Hell even with the issues I’m still debating it, because the games that I have played with minimal issues have been overwhelmingly fun. Guardians of Middle-Earth is so good that it makes me sad to think that it could just be dismissed as a botched game.

There is hope though. This game just released, and first-week jitters are not an uncommon occurrence in gaming nowadays. Plus the community has been good about feeding information to Monolith, and they’ve been listening to player’s concerns. According to a forum post, a mini-patch will be issued this weekend that removes the lockout penalty for leaving a match. A full patch will be released tomorrow (12/9) for PS3 and on the 14th for Xbox 360 players that is supposed to fix matchmaking issues, along with a skin for the 3-lane map.

So here’s hoping that the development team can get to the bottom of the issue and get this game rolling! I’ve had so much fun with it despite the issues and I truly want it to succeed so I can continue enjoying it.

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