It's been almost nine years since we've seen a chapter of The Lord of the Rings in theaters, with Peter Jackson's original trilogy coming to a close with the thunderous Return of the King.  But this holiday season, he'll be returning to theaters with the first chapter of a new trilogy in the Hobbit series, featuring a number of returning faces from the original films, along with some new ones.  To coordinate with the film's release, Warner Bros. is preparing a pair of games to entice its Lord of the Rings audience.  The first, Lego Lord of the Rings, is more of a family-friendly approach to the original trilogy, while Guardians of Middle Earth may be just the thing for those seeking a full-blown battle for the world of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Being produced by Monolith Productions, who previously engaged in multiplayer mayhem with the Batman-inspired Gotham City Impostors, Guardians of Middle Earth is being primed for a fall release on Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network.  At first glance, it definitely appears to be on the same level as most Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (or MOBA, for short) games, with dozens of players engaging in full blown battles for control points.  However, there are a few distinct differences that set Guardians of Middle Earth apart from its cohorts.

The first is the control scheme.  Most games of this ilk require a keyboard and a mouse for commanding your soldiers and executing attacks.  But Monolith felt that a controller-based set-up would be more suitable for Guardians of Middle Earth, where players could easily maneuver through commands for their units and use their character's special abilities with the press of one of four buttons on the face pad.  Though the method is bound to be considered crude by dedicated PC players (like the ones feverishly waiting for Valve's DOTA 2), we found it to our liking and had no problem engaging in a few devastating battles with Sauron and his dark army.

Battles are set up with two five-player teams set up against one another -- one side controls Gandalf and the human (or elf) warriors of Middle Earth.  The other side controls Sauron, a dark lord, and his evil army, who are hell-bent on controlling any Middle Earth territory they can get their hands on.  The game provides options for practice rounds, to get you used to the control set-up and tactics, and then a Skirmish mode, where you can battle friends either locally or online through Xbox Live or the PlayStation Network.  The goal is to destroy towers that are pre-set in certain locations on a map, and cutting down any forces that stand in your way, using a variety of soldiers and recognizable characters from the Lord of the Rings universe.

The pacing for matches in Guardian of Middle Earth has been sped up quite a bit.  You won't need to fight over an hour in a mindless battle to gain control of a map point.  Instead, battles usually take 15 to 20 minutes at best before a clear victor emerges.  That's not to say the fights diminish any power by being shortened.  You'll still have plenty of epic encounters, especially when Gandalf comes face-to-face with Sauron, seeing who can do the most damage with their coordinative attacks.

Monolith also did away with buying items or acquiring gold within the game, something that would break up the momentum of fights as you level up.  You do earn skill, however, and they tie in to your character's abilities.  Thrain, for instance, can increase his hammer attacks for even better damage and the power to knock down smaller enemies.  Gollum also proves worthy in a fight, despite his size, as he can pounce on foes with physical attacks, provided his health doesn't diminish first.  (Maybe he should go find "his precious," eh?)  Additional characters will be revealed for the game as its development continues, but don't be surprised if you see more warriors show up, and maybe even a few Hobbits like Frodo and Sam-wise.

Though the game first appears to have the same design as most MOBA games on the market, Guardians of Middle Earth does have a distinctive Lord of the Rings style design that's hard to miss, whether it's the animations of the characters or the richness of the Middle Earth realms that you're protecting.  Some locations even appear to be taken straight from the movies -- both the older and possibly even the new Hobbit trilogy.  No word yet if the original actors will be stepping in for voice-over duty, but you never know.

Now that Lord of the Rings fever is back in full swing, we suggest checking out Guardians of Middle Earth when it releases later this year.  It's got all the power of a full-blown assault between both sides, but without the complications of PC controls.  Hey, that suits us just fine.