League of Legends Review: Season 2 and Beyond
Well then, this might require some explanation. After our site’s recent redesign, we were looking over our reviews of the various titles we’ve covered here at OnRPG, only to discover that there was never a written review made for League of Legends (LoL). With the game just moving into its second season, now seemed like the perfect time to finally give the game a proper review.
League of Legends is a game in the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) genre, the first to call the genre that at all, in fact. The game was made by former DoTA developers and ex-Blizzard employees who wanted to make a more accessible experience than the original DoTA, free from the limitations of the Warcraft 3 modding tools. A number of features of DoTA were stripped away, like denying (the ability to kill your own units), gold loss on death and the secret shop (A secondary shop found in the centre of the map), but were replaced by other features, such as long grass that obscures enemy sight, summoner spells, and the ability to see enemy mana and levels.
When anyone begins talking about MOBAs, it always sounds like such a simple subset of the RTS, with a few light RPG elements. After all, you only have one character, and that character only has four abilities. Yet beneath this simple facade lies some incredible depth, and LoL is certainly no different from its peers in that department. While the goal of the game is simple (destroy the enemy base), how you achieve that goal can be incredibly complex. A player has to constantly be reacting to the decisions made by their enemies, both in the long and short term decisions they make.
Before I get ahead of myself, the basics. In League of Legends you play the role of a Summoner, a mage of near demigod power, who in turn commands a single Champion who fights on their behalf. Alongside four other summoners, you pit your group of champions against an opposing team to destroy the enemy base (called a Nexus) while preventing your own from being destroyed. Much like other games in the genre, you cannot get to this base until a number of key objectives have been completed beforehand. First, a row of enemy towers, referred to as a lane, must have fallen and left a special structure called an Inhibitor exposed. Once the inhibitor is destroyed, it leaves only some token defensive towers in the way of the enemy base, and victory.
The gameplay is deep, compelling and dynamic. No match of LoL feels the same, and the change of champion selection, both on your part or that of your enemies, can completely change the pace of a game. It’s fast and furious while still allowing for calm, slow moments that grant a much needed respite during its lengthy games. The game length itself though can often be a problem, lasting between twenty minutes to an hour and twenty minutes. The Dominion game type is a welcome addition when you don’t have the time to spare in an evening, with its far shorter games that will last twenty minutes at a stretch.
Mana usage is low, allowing you to make frequent use of your abilities, but each of those abilities are (compared to other titles in the genre) relatively weak. You won’t be killed by a single misstep in LoL, but instead killed by a major failure in critical thinking on your part, or a bold bit of aggression from an enemy. This, to me at least, makes a loss in LoL feel justified. You didn’t lose the whole game on a minor error, or because you failed to spot a slight bit of movement under heavy latency, but instead you went into something knowing it was risky and the move didn’t pay off. Feedback is very quickly given in LoL, once you get past the initial learning curve and are able to ‘read’ what is going on with greater clarity.
In LoL, there is a greater emphasis on teamplay than in other titles in the genre. One person in other MOBAs can simply pick a dominant, high damage late game character (often referred to as a carry) and simply dominate the game. In LoL, you simply will not win unless your team as a whole is better than your foes. You’re not entirely reliant on that one guy on your team to help you win the match. On the flip side though, this does mean that, yes, you can be playing great and your whole team can fail so hard you lose anyway, but that’s the game. In spite of your own efforts, your team as a whole was terrible, and they handed the enemy a victory. It’s unfortunate, but I still think it’s a better lot to be dealt than to lose just because your one point of failure was a complete moron.
Outside of the main game itself, the Summoner system was one of the major selling points of LoL when it was first released. Every player has a persistent account, referred to as a Summoner, which not only is critical to the game’s free to play business model, but is also tied into a leveling system that unlocks more perks for a player the more they make use of the game. After a game, your account will earn experience, and one of the game’s currencies, influence points. These are gained whether you win or lose, though you get a much larger sum for victory than defeat. Levels will allow you to put points into mastery trees, which work in a similar manner to World of Warcraft’s talent trees, letting you give a character a number of bonuses before they begin a match. Another way of tailoring a character to your own preferred style of play is using Runes, which give further boosts to a champion before a match starts. These are purchased using the influence points gained from playing games, and cannot be bought using real cash.
While the Summoner system has its advantages, it is also one of the more frustrating things about LoL’s design. Leveling an account is a good way to encourage new players to play the game more, as each level presents new things for them to try out, while the IP cost of the starter champions is very low. However, the advancement can be punishingly long for those that just want to play with their level 30 friends, taking around 100 hours of play to reach said maximum level, where most consider the ‘real’ game to begin. Also, the difference between those with and without runes can be a slight edge that feels insurmountable to newer player, especially ones just about to breach the level 20 threshold where their enemies are likely to be carrying runes while they might still be without.
The runes and masteries are a good idea, but do suffer in their execution. While it’s great that oddball builds can be made more viable through the use of clever mastery and rune page set ups, what usually happens is everyone sticks to a single optimal build for a given character. Riot have been aggressive in hammering the more heavily abused runes and masteries over the years though, so they are clearly trying to make more viable options available to players.
The other problem I have with the system is that it doesn’t allow all summoner spells to be unlocked from the start. Summoner spells are two additional abilities you can give to a character that are accessible from a pool of abilities any character in the game can access. Well, anyone except those played by people on accounts below level 12. The key problem with this is that many consider Flash, a short distance blink spell, to be a good crutch for new players, while also being a highly versatile tool for experienced veterans. Not giving access to this crucial ability right from the start, when many consider it to be a core part of (or problem with) LoL is a very unusual choice. This is even weirder when many characters rely on certain summoner spells in order to function at full effectiveness, essentially locking those characters out to newer players.
Features outside of the robust summoner system are currently light, but are being added over time. The game’s main features are its three maps, split between two game modes. The first map, Summoner’s Rift, houses the standard MOBA gameplay I described earlier, which is considered to be the ‘core’ experience of LoL. The second is a 3v3 map called Twisted Treeline, which is largely considered to be a complete joke. The third, The Crystal Scar, houses the Dominion game type, which is fun diversion from the main game, if a little lacking in depth.
Observer mode and clan support are recent additions to the game, giving more tools to the competitive community. I love the observer mode’s UI. It’s slick, and gives all the relevant information at your fingertips. It’s a shame that currently the observer mode is only limited to two observers though, and cannot be used to observe any normal matches in progress in the manner that Dota 2 can.
The game’s last key feature is the Tribunal, a peer review system that allows anyone to act as jury for any filed reports. While things have gotten better since its introduction, the community remains a virulent cesspool. Not only are players frequently abusive, racist or homophobic, there are weird hatreds between the game’s regions. This last unusual twist is likely exacerbated by the lack of any means of transferring accounts between regions, so each region is very isolated from one another. This last issue wouldn’t be a problem in most other games, but in a game where the competitive scene is taken very seriously, and where international championships occur regularly, you see far more xenophobia than should be necessary. The question of “Which region do you play on?” sometimes feels like a “Horde or Alliance?” sort of question, where an individual will defend their own region out of a form of misguided patriotism, despite the fact they have no involvement or bias in the professional scene at all.
In light of the terrible community, it amazes me how good Riot’s customer support has consistently been, from launch to today. Not only are they always on top of any major issue the moment it happens, but they are also found doing a variety of fun extras like the Summoner Showcase, a weekly show that features various fan works created by the community. The thing that really sets Riot above par though is that their developers, artists, programmers and other internal staff are all able to speak freely on their forums, letting the community speak directly to those who have a hand in making their game, rather than having to always work through middle men. While their handling of the community has had its missteps in the past, the game has had relatively few major disasters since its release.
Riot’s support for the game has been very good, overall. The game is patched on regular, two week cycles, adding in a new character with each update. While some of these can feature very minor buffs or nerfs to individual champions, more often than not there’s some major new upgrade or change made with each and every revision. The whole game can shift dramatically each fortnight, bringing to light new strategies and possibilities. I’ve often suspected that LoL’s high retention rates could be attributed to the blistering pace of its update schedule, keeping the game fresh with each new iteration.
Riot’s success in this area is no lucky break though, I believe. The summoner system’s leveling, IP gains and other out of game perks give a new player a definite sense of progression that will help them tough out the game’s painful learning curve. Once the lengthy leveling game is done with, there are still a number of things to look forward to in the long term, while the immediate rewards of steadily improving your game become apparent. Further, all this leveling, earning champions and runes requires a significant time investment, making few loathe to outright leave their earnings behind.
In addition to the high number of long term players that LoL has retained, the game’s free to play model helps to get lots of players in. The obvious part of this is that there is no upfront cost to giving the game a shot, much like any other free to play title. However, the important part of the system is you don’t pay for game time, better equipment, new maps or any nonsense like that. You can only pay for more champions, progression speed boosts and aesthetic changes. There is only one lord of the league, and Riot does not sell power.
This one golden rule helps the game feel a good deal more ‘fair’ than other games using the same model. You can get everything in the game for free except cosmetic changes that do nothing except make a character look a bit more interesting. It’s simply much, much easier to get what you want by simply putting in a bit of money rather than spending the time on getting that next champion you want to unlock. This horizontal expansion rather than vertical progression often draws comparisons with deck building in various collectible card games, which is a parallel that fits well.
I like this game a lot in spite of its faults. It has issues, chief among them the absolutely atrocious community, but I feel that the game is incredibly fun as it is right now. What issues that can be sorted by Riot are slowly being worked out, while the company continuously rolls out fixes and updates that, while not always on the mark, allow the game to improve dramatically over the long run.
If you weren’t expecting this opinion from the guy who writes about champion releases every two weeks, you must lack focus. You’ve likely already played this game and are just looking for my own thoughts on it anyway. If you haven’t, why not? Its free, and is a good deal better than most multiplayer pay to play games on the market right now. Grab some friends, jump in and let your rage reach the heavens.