Games based on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy have been a little underwhelming as of late. Sure, last year’s LEGO mash-up was a hoot but other games, namely War In The North and Conquest, failed to deliver despite how promising they both looked. Underwhelming may sound like an unfair way of putting it, but when you cast your mind back to the original flock of tie-ins (Battle for Middle-Earth, LOTR Online, Third Age, Return of the King) it seems like a just statement.
Last year Warner Bros. tried a different approach with the franchise, delving into one of the industry’s emerging genres: the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA). When first announced, Guardians of Middle-Earth came as somewhat of a surprise but over time it made sense. Since the ascension of League of Legends, DOTA 2, and their ilk, studios around the world have been crossing swords to get a slice of the action. With developer Monolith at the helm and one of the world’s strongest fantasy licenses at its back, Guardians actually looked like a winning formula.
The crown jewel in this recipe for success was Warner’s strict focus on consoles. Guardians is by no means the first console MOBA but it was the first to emulate the genre in its traditional form. Top down, tactical combat across huge, tower-laden battlefields.
Using a simple control scheme, Monolith was able to replicate that classic MOBA feel, at least where combat and the flow of battle were concerned. Elsewhere the studio devised a clever workaround for the genre’s item shop feature, something which even PC MOBAs struggle to nail down.
Instead of having players rush back an forth to buy trinkets and upgrades, Guardians uses Relics. These are created and customised outside of matches, each one studded with a set number of gems and sockets which grant a variety of bonuses. The best part about Relics is that they don’t instantly come into place. Levelling up will steadilly unlock portions of your equipped Relic, providing a great balance.
Though it may have succeeded in its primary goal, Guardians’ console focus proved to be a double-edged sword. MOBAs traditionally launch on PC and, more importantly, launch for free. This gives publishers/developers a means to compete within the market, and also gives gamers an accessible entry point. MOBAs usually make their money by offering cosmetic upgrades and game upgrades, such as new characters, costumes, UI skins etc.
However, Guardians refused to tread the path so many had taken before it. The game launched at a premium price and even hit shelves in brick and mortar outlets. Buying the core version would give players a foundation: a small pool of unlockable guardians along with the game’s core modes and maps. However, new content started to appear on the horizon and, rather surprisingly, came at an additional cost.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is that Guardians of Middle-Earth over-valued itself. It’s a strong title, sure, but when compared to other, better MOBAs, the pricing seems a bit odd and creates a barrier.
Close to a year later and Guardians is still a solid MOBA. Server numbers have dwindled despite a continual drip feed of content, to the extent that finding a full 10-player match is rare if not impossible.
With heavy hitters such as Uncharted 3’s multiplayer, Tekken, and Soul Calibur going free-to-play, it’s a surprise Warner hasn’t followed suit. Guardians is a great product, yet the hefty asking price is what’s holding it back.