League of Legends (LoL for short), is a 3D fantasy MMO by Riot Games where players choose from one of many champions and fight it out against their enemies. Although each individual ‘game’ or ‘match’ doesn’t take place in a persistent world, players earn experience points for winning matches, which can be used to permanently improve attributes in all future games. League of Legends is actually very similar to a popular Warcraft 3 mod called DotA (Defense of the Ancients).
So League of Legends is the next evolutionary step for the Defense of the Ancients mod, colloquially known as DotA. Back in the Warcraft 3 days, DotA was nearly the only thing about Warcraft 3 that I actually liked; it felt like the game mode that Warcraft 3 really wanted to be at all times, instead of the inconsistent mash-up of action, RPG, and RTS that it really was.
If you are unfamiliar with DotA, let me sum it up: you command a hero unit in the midst of a war. Friendly and enemy (and even some random wild card) troops stream at each other across the battlefield, generally grinding into one another with little more than casualties to show for it. As the hero, you need to intercede in key places, kill enemy troops, gain experience, level up, get beefier, and eventually guide your side to victory over the enemy team. It takes the base and resource management out of Warcraft 3, leaving you free to concentrate on micro-managing one bad-ass guy. And it worked out pretty well.
League of Legends duplicates the same basic gameplay, but expands upon it considerably. First up is the Summoner – that’s you. You have your own separate experience value, gain your own abilities, and have your own stats to track. Your summoner is the only persistent element to the gameplay, as your hero is selected fresh at the start of every match, and always begins at the lowest level. As you level up and gain ‘influence,’ you gain access to more champions and special abilities. You also start earning abilities in three trees of masteries – basically special skills and abilities for your summoner.
The special abilities, by the way, serve as global events that the summoner can call down. You can bring two spells to any fight; these spells have considerable cooldown, rather than some kind of mana cost, but can make some pretty huge changes to the gameplay. The summoner can also bring along runes to buff up his champion – they run the typical gamut of buffs, increasing damage output and defense and speed. They feel well balanced and add a lot of punchy entertainment value to the game – it’s fun to bring down hell on your opponent in Technicolor, all while curving your champion in on the key kill.
The game’s graphics are obviously influenced by its Warcraft 3 roots – seen in the right light, we could call it an homage. They’re bright, colorful, and really put you in mind of the sentinels storming the scourge’s fortresses. Plenty of abilities have sudden explosions of color to threaten your epilepsy, so be prepared for a bigger lightshow than a night at the disco.
The gameplay has a distinct grace and flow to it. Generally, one team will be pushing and the other will be attempting to blunt or deflect the assault. The moment the opponent’s momentum is redirected, you’ll see the defending team push out on the offensive, trying to seize positioning. With carefully thought out abilities and spells, the game has a very tactical bent to it. Every champion has his place and value, and there’s a sort of rock-paper-scissors-alien-nuke-sledgehammer-shotgun game going on. Some heroes utterly trump others, but almost every hero is, itself, trumped by another. The result is that a balanced team has far more potential than a team that tilts towards one style of hero or another.
The game also has a lot of nice touches for helping you play competently – between little pop-up suggestions for hero and item choices, to auto-matching, to well displayed power limits and fields of effect, the game does not prove to be as hard to get into as you might expect. This is a pretty major accomplishment for a game of the breadth and complexity of LoL – I can think of games that charge $50+ to play without the level of finesse shown here. I suspect they learned a trick or two from Left 4 Dead.