A multilayered, Online Battle Arena (MOBA), Guardians of Middle Earth is based on the ethos of Lord of the Rings - as the title would suggest. You take on the persona of one of the characters from the movies, and then battle across an arena in 5 vs. 5 matches.
There are some 36 Characters that you can eventually unlock, and each of these have two alternative in-game skins which makes for 72 Guardians in all. They hail from both good and evil sides of the fence, with notables such as Gandalf, Gollum, Kili, Frodo, and Sauron. If you want to take a different route you can play as a Barrow Wight, a Great Goblin, Bert a Troll, and Ungol the Spider. They are all beautifully rendered in the game, and each has a set of unique abilities. Yes, that is 36 uniquely different characters. Each are divided into five different types (Warrior, Striker, Defenders, Tacticians, and Enchanters.)
Prior to the game, you can set up a set of commands and potions - in addition to your character's basic abilities. These "super" abilities are subject to a longer refresh timer than the normal skills. You start a match with three basic abilities and all the players begin the match at level one. As you defeat enemies you level during the match and you can allocate upgrades to your abilities to make them more effective while also unlocking a fourth ability which - as you would expect - is more powerful than the rest.
Abilities can go from the basic power or area effect attacks, through to creature summoning, push backs, and healing - each guardian has their own unique set. Mix these with Potions, Commands, and Relics that can be purchased, and you have a very complex character system to get your head around. As you win more matches, you also gain gold that you can use to buy additional items and unlock new characters.
This level of complication is carried over to the gameplay itself. As the fight progresses, you level your character and there is no time to take stock or decide which abilities you upgrade. You have to quickly pull up the character screen make a very quick choice, then carrying on fighting. As you get more familiar with your character, you develop a set upgrade path that works best for your play style. The pace of the game is such though that - depending on your opposition - you can find yourself quickly out leveled and quickly overpowered.
The arenas themselves (there are two at the time of writing) consist of either a single or three channel pathway to the opposition's flag (tower.) To make things interesting, there are a bunch of towers between you and the opponent's home base that can quickly annihilate you if you spend too much time inside their range. To get around this, you also have towers that generate troops that charge down each pathway and attack the nearest target. The defending towers attack them as a priority, so the trick is to guide them to the tower protecting them from opposition Guardians, and once they engage a tower you join in yourself. Just to spice this up a bit, once you hit levels 6, 9, and 12, you can upgrade your towers by standing next to them and pulling up a simple upgrade menu. The same applies to your troop producing towers where, once again, you upgrade to more powerful units.
Arenas also include monsters, or boss fights that you can undertake to unlock additional abilities to aid you in the match. If you die, you respawn at your base, with each death producing an increased respawn timer. You can - if you feel you are in danger of being killed - select to recall back to your base.
The interface and arenas are well laid out. Movement is by way of your mouse and the abilities are keyed to the QWER buttons, potions to the numbered keys, and Commands to the ASDF keys. It takes a bit to get used to at first but after a while playing a Guardian you work out a combination that works for you.
The arenas have places you can hide and cross between pathways if you want to take advantage of a weakness in the defense. The arenas themselves are quite tight. There is no long haul to get into combat, so matches are very quick to get started in earnest.
The production values of the game overall are superb. The graphics draw heavily on the movies and there is the promise in the future that as more of the Hobbit films are released you will see more characters added to the game.
So how does it play? Well I have to admit I pretty much suck at arena games and this game is no exception for me. The complexity and nuances associated with each of the Guardians means there is a steep learning curve for each of them. This in turn means that to be successful you really have to play each one for an extended period to get to know them and to become effective in a match. The pace of the games makes this pretty much impossible in an online match. To get around this, the game allows you to set up private matches and a bots-only match where you can familiarise yourself with a particular character loadout. These bot-only games, though, can be equally as tough as a real online match, so the only real benefit is that you can feel like a noob in private.
Where the game also struggles is in the combat itself. There is a lot happening on the screen, and often I found I lost track of my guardian in the melee. I was either following the wrong one or just generally could not see it with all the flames and explosive effects, which usually resulted in me wandering solo into the range of a tower. This is a game that requires practice and perseverance to become good at it.
The online experience is hampered at the moment by a lack of players. Often you can find yourself in matches that have a lot of AI controlled bots. Over time, if the game gains some traction, the social aspect of the game looks promising. There is a worldwide leaderboard where you can see how you rank ... or not, in my case. Currently there are only the two maps, which is strange given how much work has gone into creating so many different guardians. The game tactics therefore revolve around the Guardian selection at the beginning of the game and which lane you place your attack efforts into if it is a three-lane map.
This is a well thought out game with a huge amount of complexity. Unfortunately the steep learning curve means the ladder to the top looks almost impossible to climb when you first begin.