Preview | 6/29/2012 at 10:30 AM

An Inside Look at Guardians of Middle-Earth

Breaking the MOBA Mold for the Better

We first saw Guardians of Middle Earth a few weeks back at E3.  The game immediately impressed us, not only for the slick use of the Lord of the Rings license, but for the way the team at Monolith appeared to have successfully brought the MOBA genre to consoles.  We were also incredibly excited to hear the game would have full co-op support, something many folks strongly desire in a MOBA, as to not face the stress (and verbal abuse) of versus games.

Recently, Co-Optimus sat in on a conference call with two members of Monolith - Ruth Tomandl, the game's producer and Scott Thompson, the game's Lead Designer.  Scott and Ruth chatted up the game and how it came to be, what exactly went into designing it for a console, and how focused the team is on making the co-op experience just as good as the versus.

The team actually started to develop Guardians before it was a licensed title, creating prototypes of control schemes for MOBAs on a console.  Once the Lord of the Rings license came into play, things started to fall into line.  Console shooters were a big inspiration for the game's two control schemes - basic and advanced.  Because each of the game's 20 characters play slightly different - these control schemes were designed to give players the freedom and flexibility to make the game feel more to their liking.  For instance in the basic control scheme players simply tap a face button to trigger an ability, or hold a face button to prep and charge an ability.  In advanced mode tapping it would bring up a reticule allowing players a little more control and visual feedback of exactly what's going to happen when they press the trigger to set it off.

This control method gives the game a more action feel, but it wasn't the only way the team wanted to tweak things for the console.  Instead of the normal hour long matches you sometimes find in a game like DOTA 2, the team wanted something quicker but they also wanted to retain the same depth.  Your hero will be able to gain 14 levels during a match and at each one they can customize their abilities further.  There's still a player shop to buy items for use during the battle as well.  When players die, they'll be transported back into battle much quicker instead of spending a large chunk of time just watching and waiting.  We've already talked about some of the advanced death stuff in our E3 preview, so I recommend you check that out as well.

The levels themselves still follow the three path setup that we've seen from other MOBAs, but there are several things on the battlefield besides towers that mix things up.  Maps contain shrines which help augments the survivability of the Guardians that hold them and there's an RTS style upgrade system on the lanes which do things like spawn better (and bigger) units.  

All this talk about action, accessibility, and features is meaningless without talking about introducing players to the game.  Tutorials are a huge part of keeping the intimidation factor low.  We were told that there will be numerous tutorials covering everything from basic map objectives to strategies you might form with your team.  Because of this AI had to be put into place which means Guardians gets the benefit of some good ol co-op gaming.  Guardians of Middle-Earth will support up to fives players in online co-op.

We were told there is actually a dedicated group of folks working on the bots for the game to make sure the AI is not only challenging and unpredictable, but also that they play fair and feel natural.  Every guardian in the game is being carefully balanced for co-op play with specialized tools to adjust levels and timing of how they behave.  "During play testing we've seen that the co-op is one of the most satisfying experiences," says Scott Thompson.  

Better still for co-op players is the game's built in match making tools allow you to form groups or parties of players and stick together through co-op games.  You can even play unbalanced co-op if you want the extra challenge of being out numbered.  

Guardians of Middle-Earth was definitely our surprise game of E3 this year, and after talking with Scott and Ruth I'm frothing at the bit to get my hands on the title again.  This is a game that's not a quick licensed tie-in, but rather it's a game that's been carefully crafted and created that just so happens to also contain a licensed property. 

Guardians of Middle-Earth is slated for Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network later this year.