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League of Legends

Reviewing free to play games can suck. When you buy a game you’re making a personal investment. You’ve spent your money and formed expectations of what you believe the game should deliver. League of Legends doesn’t cost one cent to play. Like many free PC games (Korean MMOs I’m looking at you) it uses a cash shop interface with microtransactions as a business model. So what can you expect from this online Defence of the Ancients successor when you choose how much to invest? Well, it certainly provides engrossing, team based gameplay. It also expands on ideas made popular from predecessors who pioneered this relatively new genre of real-time strategy, arena action. As an overall package though, it does suffer at times, and being free only allows so much leeway.

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If Defence of the Ancients (or DotA as it’s more commonly called) is foreign to you, it’s a custom mod map created using Warcraft III. As time went on and Warcraft’s expansion pack hit, DotA continually gained popularity. Like Counter-Strike did with Half-Life, it exploded into a game in its own right. Inevitably, success breeds imitation and League of Legends (LoL), as well as several other titles, have been developed as the naturally progression to DotA as fully fledged games. Players in DotA take control of a single hero; an avatar that represents them in a team to conquer an opponent’s stronghold.

LoL replaces heroes with champions, each with different strengths and weaknesses. As you attack your enemy’s base, minions are continuously spawned for both sides, assisting player champions and creating an appealing dynamic of tug-of-war for dominance. Towers defend specific locations of both bases, and only coordinated team attacks have any chance of causing them to crumble. Difficulty increases the further you charge with your assault, as slower the reinforcements arrive. When a champion dies in battle, it sits out for a specific time, giving prime attacking opportunities for foes. Games begin with all champions at level one. Like a RPG, they level and upgrade, each learning specific abilities unique to their design. Gold is awarded for successful kills, and is used to buy items that further augment strengths of champions. The combination of these elements leads to the best organised teams winning clashes and progressively becoming stronger until someone achieves victory.

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If you’ve never played a game like LoL, it can be daunting. While its controls are like a typical RTS game, it feels much more intimate having singular control over one central character. Between the 60+ champions, and the hundreds of abilities, items and skills, beginners have their work cut out for them. To its credit LoL does its best to initiate newbies with a tutorial and online guide. Be prepared for the worst though, as you are going to die. Die, a lot. It’s the nature of the beast that this game genre is unforgiving to start with. And being a team game, it’s unfortunate you will only make things harder for them. You may even start feeling embarrassed by your levels of fail, compounded by nasty player comments you’re bound to receive at least once. Stick with it and you’ll be rewarded with one of the most enjoyable types of team games ever conceived. Those with experience will find LoL a familiar feeling, overlapped with many distinctive changes. It definitely has a broader appeal than DotA, and not just because it’s free to play. Compared to the extreme competitiveness DotA expels, there’s a level of casual appeal found here, which can be a blessing or a curse depending on what exactly you’re looking for. Those who want a more direct copy of DotA will probably apply to the existing Heroes of Newerth, which has carved out a niche of being a near exact replica of the existing mod.

What LoL does well is to emphasise action and teamwork. From the get go, the game shifts direction towards being aggressive. Synchronising your side to attack and arranging yourselves correctly in relation to the enemy becomes a necessity. When champions reach their max level of eighteen, team fights often become the decider of victory, with all five players on a side clashing together. Unfortunately, I found the margin of error in these circumstances dead tight, rewarding those who position themselves better on the battlefield. It certainly should be a factor, but when your champion dies before you can blink late game, you feel powerless to have done anything at all. This is attributed to the scaling of power most champions will revel in by the end. Especially worse if they secured plenty of early game kills, allowing them to bulk up with items. This can be frustrating if you have team member who repeatedly struggles or dies, because it will directly affect you.

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As cliché as it sounds, the problem with this genre is you can sometimes only be as strong as your weakest link. It’s something that cannot be easily fixed with this type of gameplay, and something LoL doesn’t try to do. With matches lasting somewhere between 20 minutes to over an hour, it can be maddening to invest so much time into a single match, only to have it so heavily decided based on skills of your partners. The match making system LoL employs tries to remedy this, but struggles to find fair games. The combinations of solo players queuing with arranged teams of friends will always alter the balance of team orientated games. Your patience will be tested, particularly when facing a losing streak due miss matchups. Even worse is when you’re the worse performing player. There’s not much you can do but learn from your mistakes and develop thick skin from angry team mates. It will still suck though. No one likes being the scapegoat of a loss.

While champions start each match at level one, there is a persistent levelling system for players going from one to thirty. This is obviously used to help matchmaking, but also provides bonuses to the player as they finish matches and level up. Like a talent tree from World of Warcraft, skill masteries can be learned to give small boosts globally to any champion you play. Likewise, summoner spells unlock; unique abilities used in combination with champion skills. It’s a nice incentive to give you a more constant item to chase between bouts.

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When it comes to the cash shop, you can earn most things simply playing the game. Of course, using real dollars will get you those things much, much faster. We can all breathe a sigh of relief that LoL does not sell power. Buying champions provides the bulk of purchasable content, along with custom skins to tweak their look. Those who would rather save their money will be pleased to know a random selection of champions are freely available to use each week. A good variety is provided, with only newly designed champions being initially omitted for obvious business reasons. LoL keeps fresh with new champions joining the line up every few weeks. Good for content, but dubious for balance, as each new component that enters the game causes rippling effects. Patches are released frequently to try and equalise the balancing act. With so many champions though, perhaps Riot the developers, should concentrate on fixing what they have now to ensure the game remains competitive.

Competitiveness is undeniably a part of the game thanks to the genre. Riot have stated they want LoL to make it big in the competition scene, just as DotA flourishes on tournaments. Some key features are still missing which stalls progress in this regard. There is still no way to observe custom matches, leading to in-game commentary being almost obsolete from high ranked play. Worse still, replays of matches are nonexistent, making it indefinitely harder to watch skilled players or clan matches. Riot has plans for them in the future, but they have been promised since the beta release over a year ago. Confidence dwindles when other things such as new game modes or maps drag on after announcement.

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It’s these types of things that make reviewing a free game tough, because it’s harder to draw the line on what settings should be included in the first place. For the lasting appeal of this genre, it helps to have competitive players, which Riot has seemingly understood. As it stands now, Heroes of Newerth gathers more of this action. It’s not because LoL has cartoon visuals comparatively (which look great may I add) or that it’s closer to DotA; it’s because it has the features to compliment the scene. Despite some shortcomings and lack of some key features, the game can just be so damn fun to play. Many games provide thrills when you’re dominating and LoL is no different. Conan the Barbarian said it best, there really is no other feeling than crushing your enemies and having them driven before you (minus the lamentation of women in this case).

You may not have to spend anything to play League of Legends. Though, you will be spending something precious, your time. Those coming from DotA will find a familiar experience, coupled with a more friendly approach to certain game mechanics. Which is certainly not a bad thing, since the game still plays great in the same spirit that DotA made popular, yet more accessible. Those wanting more of the same, or stronger competitive aspects may be hesitant. Yet being free, there is nothing to lose trying it and seeing if Riot will finally make good on their promises. League of Legends is worth your time, but how much is up to much you’re willing to compromise. Improvements are constantly being updated and although team mates make or break many matches, there is genuine fun to be found. Only you can decide if it’s worth investing your time, but hey, at least it didn’t cost you to start playing.

7 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in January 2011.

Gentle persuasion

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