Games like DOTA 2 and League of Legends have taken PC gaming by storm, but MOBA games have yet to hit it big on Xbox Live. The notoriously fiddly genre revolves around two teams of players with specific skills trying to fight each other across three different lanes, destroying the other team's defences in the process.
These basics don't sound complicated, but that's where the simplicity ends. Different characters, roles, tactics, and items create an intricate set of variables that need to be learned to achieve mastery. Guardians of Middle Earth retains some complexities while simplifying other stuff to ease new players in.
It's a sensible enough approach, but the complex stuff Monolith has kept in simply isn't exciting. Running around the map to upgrade defences quickly starts to feel like an unwanted chore, and access to detailed statistics doesn't make up for the ditch-dull characters. Each has four unique abilities, but very few feel varied or interesting to use.
Tolkien's classic muddy palette makes a it tough to tell the difference between the characters, but that's not the game's only visual problem. The interface is a clogged-up mess, the menus are dire, and we're pretty sure you need a PHD to make sense of the stats that appear when you die.
Most importantly, the dull art style means a critical lack of visual feedback. When you're in the heat of a team fight you need to be able to take stock of the situation with a glance. Health bars are always easy to spot, but status effects like stun and silence are marked with tiny icons and too-brief flashes of pop-up text. Bright colours might not make sense in Middle Earth, but this is a genre in which clarity is all-important, and the game suffers badly for their absence.
Complexity in MOBA games means nothing at all if you can't use it to claw back a win - turning the tide of an impossible battle with a moment of perfectly-executed flair. The lack of visual clarity and dull character design make Guardians of Middle Earth too predictable to be exciting. Veterans of the genre will quickly realise when they're on the losing team, and there's very little they can do to counteract that.
Newcomers get it even harder. The tutorials offers basic knowledge - though very little insight into how you're supposed to effectively play - while the devastatingly daft progression system rewards seasoned players with relics, gems, and potion slots that give you a marked advantage over new players. The main irritation veterans face is having to unlock more custom slots to create different character builds.
Editing your loadout is fiddly and time-consuming, and until you've spent the neccessary hours to unlock three or four slots you'll spend more time than necessary faffing with menus. It's feature carbon-copied from Call of Duty and its imitators, but in this case it simply rewards progression with less irritation. Guardians' main elements of depth and strategy all sit in menus outside of the main game: It's a poor decision that makes matches unbalanced, and often frustrating.
Unfortunately, that isn't even the biggest frustration. More often than not Guardians of Middle Earth simply doesn't work properly. If one player has issues with lag then it's transmitted to everybody else, meaning the whole game stutters like it's running out of petrol, and dropped players aren't replaced with bots, which makes things tough when you hit the level cap. It's common for games to simply fail halfway through, kicking you back to the main menu with assurances that leaderboard rankings haven't changed. At this stage, we can honestly say we don't care.