Though the MOBA genre has primarily remained on PCs under the control of keyboard and mouse, Monolith Studios is looking to change that with a literary classic.  The Lord of the Rings: Guardians of Middle Earth, an upcoming downloadable title for Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network, is introducing console gamers to the genre with an entertaining and familiar aesthetic without losing the control and responsiveness PCs players have enjoyed.

Guardians of Middle Earth delivers what MOBA fans would expect from the genre, but for those unaware, here’s a quick rundown.  Players take control of “guardian” characters, familiar and perhaps lesser-known figures from The Lord of the Rings universe.  Players will then use this character, as well as uncontrollable minion soldiers who will attack automatically, to advance on the opponent’s side of the map and destroy their tower.  Maps that I demoed were either triple- or single-laned, and both provided close competition and plenty of variation.

Each team had five guardians, each with their own special abilities, all mapped to the face buttons.  The guardians’ basic attack was activated by squeezing the right trigger and the controls did not become more complicated than this setup.  There will be an option to change how abilities are used – you will be able to target where a spell’s area of effect will be, for example – but for the demo I stuck with the default controls.  While I have not personally played many MOBAs on PCs, the controls on consoles felt not only comfortable, but effective.  Powers were easily accessible and I never felt like any control was lost in translation.

The matches themselves provided plenty of opportunities to employ your preferred playstyle.  Characters are divided into five core classes, ranging from traditional warriors to more ability-focused enchanters to tacticians focused on controlling lanes.  Within each match, characters will level up and unlock stronger versions of their abilities.  With these higher levels players will also be able to upgrade their team’s defensive towers as well as what kind of soldiers you bring into battle.  So even if you may die on a number of occasions, there is a constant gaining or losing of progress occurring that maintains an enjoyable and active pace during each match.

He may not look it, but Hildifons is a powerful choice.

Though I found some classes certainly more suited to my playstyle than others, the game appears to have a strong eye for balance, as characters I may not have succeeded with proved to be dominating forces in other skirmishes.  Some icons did feel overpowered, but the vast majority of characters all had their strengths and weaknesses. Playing as Arathorn, a warrior, for example, I originally found him weak and unintuitive, but as the match went on, I discovered how to effectively employ his abilities by jumping right into the fray.  On the other hand, one of the hobbits, Hildifons, a character only briefly mentioned in an annex published in a later edition of the trilogy, possesses devastating abilities.  In the two matches I saw him used, his team not only won but he also had the highest number of kills and assists, as well as a negligible number of deaths.  Hildifons served as the exception and not the rule, however, and I found that whomever I played as could stand a chance in battle if used effectively.

The three lane map offered plenty of situations to jump into depending on the character used, and while some characters stuck with a single lane I found myself hopping around doing what I could to contribute to my team’s advancement while avoiding enemy fire.  Dodging Legolas’ arrows or fleeing with a sliver of health left after a devastating Witch King attack proved thrilling no matter the situation.  The one lane map left little room for such strategy and unique situations but instead delivered an enjoyably organized chaos.  Characters with large areas of effect would spam their attacks as quickly as they could while a conniving Hildifons laid down traps and explosives to push the enemy back inch by inch.

The map insured, even with the higher number of deaths, that players were constantly gaining experience so that level caps could still be attained.  In many ways, this turned the map into a sort of race between the two sides, for whichever force managed to upgrade their abilities first held a great advantage to turn the tide of war.While only a hint at what’s to come, both maps showcased much potential for a title that is shaping up to smartly bring the MOBA genre to consoles.

Guardians of Middle Earth looks to have quite a bit of depth, which was on hand to tinker with, but the full extent of its implementation will only be gleaned from many hours spent with the system.  In addition to the basic attacks and abilities, players will be able to assign relics and gems in a belt to provide their character with buffs.  These inclusions can be mixed and matched for maximum effectiveness.  The belt has a limited number of spaces and each relic takes up two to four of those slots.  So if players wish, they can simply throw in whatever works, or they can learn which abilities stack and how they operate together.  Again, this system at the preview could only be sampled but indicates an exciting level of intricacy.

Also, rather than loadouts and having players navigate a clunky in-game store, the opportunity to customize is done so in between matches.  Players can map four potions to the d-pad, including health tonics and other potions that temporarily boost stats.  In conjunction with abilities that can trap an enemy, lower stats or cause massive damage, there are countless opportunities to alter your chosen guardian to play as you wish.

The final title will also include several modes so players can adjust their preferred method of combat.  Battlegrounds will serve as the traditional five versus five mode, but will allow AI-controlled guardians to battle.  Elite Battlegrounds on the other hand will be for only human players and require the destruction of an enemy’s fortress.  There will also be incentives to battle virtual opponents, including a skirmish mode of five human players against five bots and the option to build custom matches.

While I would love more time to explore how much these mechanics actually affect combat, my preview more than assured me Guardians of Middle Earth provides an enjoyable time for MOBA fanatics as well as newcomers.  The controls felt solid in all aspects, and if the promised level of depth can impact gameplay I expect to play many more rounds of the title.  I finished the preview wanting to fight another few matches, and really with a title like this, what more can you ask for?