When I play a game called Guardians of Middle-Earth, I don’t mind so much that it’s a Defense of the Ancients clone that doesn’t do anything different or memorable. I have Awesomenauts and Monday Night Combat for that. I don’t even really mind that it copies a game I already have — League of Legends — so shamelessly.

After the jump, what I do mind

But when I play a game called Guardians of Middle-Earth, I mind that it does so little to invoke Middle Earth. There is only the shallowest of expressions of Tolkien’s mythology, almost solely in the names of the characters and their abilities. This isn’t a visually memorable game, with its various second banana dwarfs and D-list orcs slinging splashy spell effects down the lanes. Who can tell who is who, even if you know who they’re supposed to be? Do you remember Hildifons and Felgrom? How about Runsig? Or Ugluk? These are among the characters in the game who aren’t Gandalf, Gollum, or Galadriel, who are themselves only barely Gandalf, Gollum, and Galadriel. In a game with about twenty characters, why were so many plucked from appendices?

There is no effort made to give the match any sort of Middle Earthen flavor beyond, “Hey, we’re doing this because this is how it works in Defense of the Ancients!” Why are Galadriel and Muzgog the orc — are they pulling my leg? — on the same team, fighting against another team where Galadriel and Wulfrim are paired? Who knows. Who cares. Not Guardians of Middle-Earth.

It does, however, offer specific nods to the release of the Hobbit movie. For the low low price of two dollars each, you can get four characters you know from the movie. This is in addition to the fifteen dollars you already paid for the game. Now Bilbo Baggins can slay Sauron! Repeatedly. What a shameless money grab.

Speaking of shameless, Guardians of Middle Earth is unabashedly grind-based. As you play, you earn ingame currency you spend on new characters, on slottable character improvements, and on potions that you can use once. Potions that drain your resources so you have to keep playing to stay competitive. Weak potions are cheap. Powerful potions aren’t. Spend to win.

The level of detail is very PC, with lots of numbers with little incremental improvements sprinkled hither and yon. These little increments are mostly where you build your character and choose what you’re going to do during a match. If you’ve played League of Legends, you’ll know the drill. But there is little sense of choice as you’re playing the game. In most DOTA clones, you spend resources to buy skills and/or gear during the match, changing how the game plays. In Guardians of Middle Earth, you only get an occasional point to unlock your next skill level, in a very set order that allows for minimal wiggle room. Basically, all the character choices you make are decided before the match even starts. Your build is locked in.

To Guardians’ credit, the controls are a passable solution to the lack of a mouse and keyboard (this is only available for the 360 and Playstation 3). You can upgrade defensive towers and the monsters that spawn down a lane, but there’s no real strategy in the upgrades; it’s just a bit of busywork to stay competitive. Along with actually playing to keep up with the grind.

By the way, don’t bother with certain character skills, and therefore certain characters. If it requires any precision or careful targeting, you’re going to be at a serious disadvantage due to frequent lag issues. I’ve played plenty of games on my 360 with up to ten players at a time; I can’t think of any that routinely suffer lag this bad. And these are not launch issues because the game has been out for a while now. But you’re going to have to put up with it if you’re dying to know who wins in a fight between Hildifons and Ugluk.

1 star
Xbox 360