Gather around and prepare yourself for a story of joy, despair, and a game that you probably didn't play, but maybe should have.
The game is Monolith's Guardians of Middle-Earth, and it arrived for the Xbox 360 and PS3 on a cold December morning in 2012. One could argue that Monday Night Combat was technically the first console MOBA, or that Happy Wars scratched that itch with it's crazy 30-player action, but GoME was a classic multiplayer online battle arena in the line of DotA or LoL. There was a map with three lanes, an isometric view, towers, jungle creatures, and most importantly, a great line-up of both canon and non-canon heroes pulled straight out of Lord of the Rings lore. Hell, it even had one of those "very MOBA" trailers that looked way less epic than the music led you to believe!
By now you may be wondering why I continue to refer to GoME in the past tense. I mean, you can technically go buy the game on either console or PC right now, so the game is still a thing, right? Sure, it's still a thing the same way Halo 3 online multiplayer is currently still a "thing." The difference is, Halo 3's online multiplayer lasted for around five years before it started winding down. Guardians of Middle-Earth, one of my favorite games of 2013 and the most fun I've ever had in a MOBA game, "died" less than a year after launch.
I have heard time and time again that MOBA games simply "don't work" on consoles. I've heard several reasons, ranging from "Controllers aren't precise enough" to "Console gamers aren't interested in MOBAs." I am not here to talk about whether a console MOBA can work on a console, but rather to tell you that Guardians of Middle-Earth did work on a console. It worked so well, that after several months of playing nothing but this game, I found myself in the top 10 player list, which isn't something I have achieved for any other game... ever. As with many leaderboards, this doesn't mean I was the best at this game. It simply means that I played the crap out of it over those few months! I wasn't playing to be a top-10 player, I was playing because it was some of the most fun my wife and I have had playing an Xbox 360 multiplayer game.
The game is played using the left stick to move, the right stick to aim auto-attacks and abilities, and the face buttons to activate three regular abilities and a single "ultimate" ability. Abilities with an area effect don't require aiming, and show the range of effect when you queue the ability to use it. GoME features various options that, when enabled, allow even more control over attacking and casting abilities. Each 3-lane map (there were 1-lane maps as well) featured jungle creatures that offered minor personal stat bonuses when killed, along with shrines at the top, bottom, and middle of the map that provide slight HP regen and resistance bonuses for the whole team.
One of the big critiques I've heard for games like DotA and LoL is the amount of time that can pass before something exciting happens. This is not the case with GoME, with team and group fights happening within lanes or around shrines within seconds of the start of a match. After that, the action continues, as towers with lower HP (and attacks that double with every consecutive hit) require heroes to stay in lane to defend them, and do more damage to players who like to rush early. The maps are also much smaller than DotA or LoL maps, and a bit smaller than Heroes of the Storm maps.
GoME has the most interesting loadout system of any MoBA I've seen. You can create various "belts" that contain slots for seven gems. There are a variety of gems with various stat bonuses based on their color. However, you can also add relics to your belt. These relics take up various gem slots depending on their effects, and require specifically colored gems to be placed in them. For instance, if you were building a DPS "striker," you would want to use red (attack/crit) and yellow (speed) gems, but a relic you want to equip may require some purple (cooldown) or blue (ability) gems instead. The gems and relics you place first in your belt are activated first, with each gem activating every two levels (up to fourteen), and relics being activated at specific levels depending on which relic was chosen. You can certainly create a belt that is all one color, but you are sacrificing using other helpful relics that mix up the color of gems a bit.
This loadout system allows for great experimentation with various guardians and play-styles. I've seen some crazy combos work, such as running a DPS as a tank. You don't usually see this kind of dramatic customization in PC MOBAs. The relics also provide balance to the game. I should also mention that four one-time use potions (consumables) can be added to each loadout. Each can be activated once per game for a very short buff. All of these items are only available to purchase using in-game gold. There is no pay-to-win in this game.
Finally, GoME features both known and unknown characters from the Tolkien universe that are simply a joy to play. Gandalf can shield himself and has an ultimate that sends fireworks to the sky that damage players in an area. Sauron swaggers around with a giant mace and has an ultimate that damages, slows, and fears every enemy player on the map at once. Frodo can put on the One Ring to become invisible at the cost of losing health every second. While invisible, the screen has the crazy blurred effect seen in movies, which is a great touch! The voice acting for each guardian is also generally entertaining and/or funny, if not spot-on.
If you've made it this far, I hope I've piqued your curiosity. You may even be thinking about looking this game up to see if it's on sale somewhere. Perhaps you are a fan of both The Lord of the Rings and MOBA games, and this sounds like a perfect combination of the two! Let me assure you that. yes, it could have been that. It was well-balanced, the loadout system allowed for a massive variety of play-styles and hero builds, and the tight controls and awesome abilities made it extremely fun to play, even for my wife, who had never touched a "classic MOBA" before GoME. (Though she played Monday Night Combat all the time, so she wasn't unfamiliar with the concepts.)
Those first few months were glorious. Monolith was active in updating the game and listening to the community, and players were excited at the potential of such an easily-accessible game getting into the hands of more and more players. Who knows? Maybe we could see official GoME tournaments some day! Take that, DotA and LoL!
Netcode. We hear that term thrown around all the time while discussing various online games, but what is it, exactly? In old online games like Quake, "netcode" referred to the source code of a game that handled communication between a game's server and its clients. For developers, that word still means the same thing, albeit modern netcode is certainly more complicated than it used to be. However, consumers tend to use the word "netcode" as a reference to anything even remotely related to online play in a game. As in, "I shot that guy but he didn't die! This netcode SUXS!!1"
Let me be very clear that, when I say this, it's not just as a consumer, but as someone who is also familiar with programming and game development.
The netcode in Guardians of Middle-Earth SUCKS.
From launch date to today, GoME players have suffered from many of the following issues:
- When the host quits the match, everyone else gets booted.
- When someone who is not the host quits the match, everyone else gets booted.
- Everyone gets stuck on the match loading screen.
- Everyone else gets booted in the middle of a game, leaving the host by themselves
- Everyone else gets gets booted from the match at the start and the host is by themselves.
- Everyone gets stuck on the match loading screen.
- Getting booted from the match lobby for no reason.
- Horrible lag effecting movement, abilities, etc.
- Getting put into a completely different game while matchmaking with a party.
- Getting put on the opposing team while matchmaking with a party.
- Getting left out while the rest of your party joins a game.
This list doesn't even account for the matchmaking system itself, which seemed to have no awareness of player levels, prestige, length of time in queue, etc. It was bad. It is still bad. I don't have the source, but I remember that, at one point, one of the developers actually admitted that their multiplayer testing took place on a closed network.
Yet we continued to play this game.
But wait, there's more! Just a couple months after launch, Monolith released a patch that they said would fix most of the multiplayer issues. The community was more than excited. Monolith hadn't necessarily been forthright with the bugs they were working on, but we knew they were active in the community, and that they were aware of what was going on.
The patch was released. Almost nothing was fixed. Dropping in games seemed to lessen from 50% to around 25% depending on who you were, but it was still there along with the slough of other issues. No sir, the biggest thing the patch did was add a huge new bug, affectionately labeled the "Gold Mode Glitch" by players.
This wasn't just any old bug, it was a game-breaking glitch that actually kept paying customers from playing the game online with friends. Basically, whenever the game was launched, there was a good chance that the game would go into "Gold Mode," also known as the "you-haven't-paid-for-this-game-yet mode." That's right, players could not play the game they paid good money for. There were plenty of various workarounds for this bug. Some worked for some people, but oftentimes the best way to get around gold mode was to just restart the game over and over again until the bug went away.
We restarted over and over and continued to play this game.
The community was outraged over this issue, and Monolith promised a fix. It took a long time, but they finally released a patch that they claimed physically removed the "gold mode" check when the game starts up. PS3 versions of the game seemed to work fine after this fix was released. Xbox 360 versions of the game remained unchanged. The new workaround involved removing all of your downloaded content (new guardians, maps, etc) before launching the game, then re-downloading all of it. It was a huge hassle.
You would think that all of this is enough to break any game. Nope, there was room for one more bug in Monolith's growing entomology experiment.
To address constant complaints about lag issues in their game, Monolith released a final patch that they said would solve in-game latency. Much to no one's surprise, the update made things worse.
This update introduced what the GoME community and many other online gamers refer to as "ice skating." As you can see in the short video above, ice skating happens when a game aggressively tries to predict your movements and actions before they happen. If you are running one direction and quickly move the opposite direction, the game can take upwards of 1-2 seconds to catch up to your commands. Also, any abilities you use take an additional second or two to activate. This bug was completely random, and could start at any time in the game. When it did happen, it essentially turned a hero into food for the opposing team. People would often quit a game as soon as the skating glitch started happening. I don't blame them.
We skated and restarted and continued to play this game.
At this point, Monolith had essentially thrown up their hands about the "Gold Mode" glitch, and almost completely stopped posting in the community forums. The forum admin, who was not directly part of Monolith, informed us that she was passing along our bugs to the team, but we never heard any responses, and there was never a new patch to fix a single existing bug. Instead, Monolith decided to update their only purely-human ("elite") matchmaking playlist to offer less gold for playing, while buffing their humans-and-bots playlist to offer more gold. Bots in this game are terrible, but the majority of players moved to where the gold was. Thus, the only truly competitive matchmaking queue in this game died in what seemed like a final "fuck you" to every single fan and player who had stuck with this game for so many months.
AGAINST OUR BETTER JUDGEMENT, WE RESTARTED AND SKATED AND GOT MATCHED WITH CRAPPY BOTS AND CONTINUED TO PLAY THIS GAME.
The player population dropped drastically, meaning you were generally going to either wait a long time to play a game with humans, or settle for playing a game with horrible bots that often ended up being horribly unbalanced. Members of the community, including yours truly, took it on ourselves to arrange various events and tournaments to bring back old players and entertain new players. This worked for a few months, but pretty soon even old players just moved on to new games, and new consoles.
LIKE CRAZY PEOPLE, WE RESTARTED AND SKATED AND WAITED IN LONG QUEUES TO GET MATCHED WITH CRAPPY BOTS AND CONTINUED TO PLAY THIS BROKEN AND GODFORSAKEN GAME.
Why?! Why would we put ourselves through such hell for what seemed like a quick, LotR-licensed cash-in?
Because, when it worked, Guardians of Middle-Earth was the most fun my wife and I have had on a console in years, and we're not alone in those feelings. In fact, to this day, at least two or three of my old GoME friends are still playing at any given moment. It's kind of crazy how good this game was... when it worked.
I don't doubt that the developers at Monolith felt bad about leaving a game they worked hard on in such a broken state. The studio is known for some fantastic titles like F.E.A.R., F.E.A.R. 2, and the Condemned series. Not to mention the fact that their upcoming game, Shadows of Mordor, looks quite promising as well. I think that Monolith is really good at creating engaging single-player experiences, and it seems that, after Guardians of Middle-Earth and the slightly less broken Gotham City Impostors, they may want to stick to their single-player guns for a while.
If you've stuck with me this far, wow! Let's end things on a positive note, shall we?
There is no doubt in my mind that, had Monolith released a working game and continued to support it with new guardians and balance/fix patches, it could have been HUGE. The ease of entry for new players combined with the massive variety in loadouts and play-styles, tight controls, and action-packed gameplay places Guardians of Middle-Earth far above many popular PC online battle arena games in my book.
There are many lessons to learn from this bitter-sweet tale of success and failure, but there is still a glimmer of light creeping out from behind those dark clouds. GoME has shown it's fans that "classic MOBAs" can completely work on consoles. More importantly, GoME has shown us that these kinds of games aren't just for the PC master race anymore. Maybe one day there will even be a console MOBA that entices PC gamers to step down from their glimmering thrones to play amongst us peasants!
Eh, let's not get too carried away.
Matt "Smi1ey" Dunn is a former mobile gaming journalist (which is why you haven't heard of him) and newly-minted member of the TAY crew. Learn more about him and get in touch here!