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League of Legends - First Impressions
Having spent a week or so playing League of Legends, and given a chance to enjoy it and let the anger simmer down, I will now attempt to review it as a game meant for enjoyment, rather than a device of annoyance for left-handers.

League of Legends is a Defense of the Ancients clone, which entails the players controlling powerful heroes, while significantly weaker AI-controlled minions do battle, attempting to knock down the opposing team's defensive structures and eventually destroy its base. The game is purely online, and pretty much purely multiplayer (single player capable Practice games were just re-enabled a few days ago) team PvP affairs. Games are 3v3 or 5v5, and each character has one passive ability, three active abilities, and one powerful active ability that you can only get when you reach level 6. A slew of equipment is available, though everyone is limited to six item slots, and you can accrue experience and gold by killing minions, random stationary neutral mobs, and, of course, other players.

The Defense of the Ancients (DotA) genre is an interesting one to me. I mean, this is a genre that was created by a single custom map for Warcraft 3. It was hugely successful, and a number of clones have been made since then, with varying degrees of success. The only DotA entry I'm familiar with is Demigod, which doesn't hold a candle to League of Legends, despite being far more polished and costing full retail price (or at least it did on release), while LoL is free, and unfortunately carries a deal of the lack of professionalism that often goes with that tag.

There were two main problems with problems with Demigod, and they are ways in which LoL obliterates the poor game. The first is that Demigod games break within five, maybe ten minutes of the start of the match, despite the match going as much as thirty minutes or an hour if you let it. Something in the way the game's designed and setup makes the rich much, much richer, and poor much, much poorer. As soon as your opponent gets a couple of consecutive kills on you, it's over: you are doomed to be a walking meatbag full of money. You'll be lucky to score another kill, and will be slowly squeezed to death for the rest of the match. That is precisely as fun as it sounds, which is to say, not at all.

LoL, on the other hand, is much more anyone's game. Victories aren't random, by any means - a team of three good players that cooperate will always smack down three poor players who don't. But just because you get a little behind early doesn't mean that you can't come back. Smart play can counter an early advantage. This actually keeps games going all the way to the end, and I've been in plenty where the momentum shifted several times, and a come-from-behind victory was achieved. Part of this is due to the existence of gold mines in Demigod - which you'll quickly lose if you're on the defensive, which means more gold for your opponent, which of course means better gears, which means more kills, and the whole system feeds back on itself. Part of it is due to the fact that in LoL you're awarded significant gold bonuses for killing characters who have had a killing streak (i.e. multiple kills without dying). And part of it is the way items work.

In Demigod, there are lots of items, the good ones are really expensive, and you have a limited number of item slots. If you want the most expensive item, you either save up for a long time to get it - which might never happen if you're on the losing side - or you settle for something crappier, which makes your chances of getting said awesome item significantly smaller, since you're back to being broke again. In LoL, powerful items are built out of other items. In order to get the Archangel's staff, you first have to get the Blasting Wand and the Tear of the Goddess, which itself is made out of a Faerie Charm and Sapphire Crystal. What this means is that you're not stuck in a hopeless, item-less limbo while waiting for the gear that you really want. You can keep up with a player who's winning, even if you don't do quite as well. And if you have the cash, you can buy the end item without having to buy all the parts, too.

The second problem with Demigod is that there simply isn't much variety. Actually, this issue isn't as simple as "LoL has more of everything." Demigod actually has far, far more maps - in the neighborhood of eight, while LoL has two, one for 3v3 and one for 5v5. And heroes in Demigod have far more skills than those in LoL, and, in fact, have more than you can get in a game, even if you hit max level. In LoL, you'll have the same five skills at max level in every game with a given character. Instead, what LoL has more of is heroes: roughly fifty-five to Demigod's eight. Even with a generous three builds to a character for Demigod (I only ever used one, maybe two per), LoL still more than doubles Demigod's character count. And while, were I reading this, I might tend to favor Demigod's many-builds approach, in practice, I vastly prefer LoL's approach. You have a huge variety of characters who are very distinct, which is far more exciting than having just eight guys.

There are more ways in which LoL has more, though. As you play matches, you'll gain experience for your Summoner (i.e. you), and you'll gain IP, one of the game's two currencies. New levels will unlock new Summoner spells, which are abilities tied to the account rather than the character. You can bring in two per game, and they're utility abilities like heal, restore mana, make defensive turrets invulnerable for a short time, teleport, and so on. New levels also unlock masteries, which are akin to talent trees in World of Warcraft. There are three trees with six levels each, and putting four points into a level will open the next one. Those, too, are Summoner tied rather than character tied, and grant passive abilities to your Summoner or your hero, like reduced ability cooldowns, increased critical hit chance, and so on.

Lastly, but certainly not least, there are runes, a new slot for which opens with every Summoner level gained. There's a large variety of runes available for purchase with IP, and they add passive bonuses to your champions as well, but are tied to you on a Summoner level. One rune might provide an ability power bonus, another might provide a smaller ability power bonus per level, which adds up to more in the late game, another might increase attack speed, and so on. You're allowed two configurations for runes, in case you have two characters (or two approaches to the same character) that you play. As with Masteries, you can reset them and reallocate your runes at any time - though you can't sell back runes you've bought.

The store contains a few other things, like characters, which can be bought for a great deal of IP, or a small amount of money (somewhere between $2 and $9, depending on the character). There are boosts to experience and IP gain, and there are character skins - which are my main complaint with the store. Generally speaking, I like the business model. The game is free to play, with ten free characters available at a time and rotating every week. If you really want to save up to buy your character, you can do it, and if you want to spend real money to get him or her right now, you can. Skins can only bought for real money, which is great, as they offer no real benefit, but - and here's my complaint - they're fucking expensive. I bought my character of choice, Morgana, for something like $4. The second costume for Morgan costs roughly $7. That's fucking ridiculous. I mean, in the end, it doesn't matter too much, as I'm not losing anything by not buying it. That said, I'd be happy to purchase it for $2. I think Riot Games is losing out on a lot of potential cash by pricing their costumes way, way too high.

League of Legends is a lot of fun to play - as long as you're not getting your ass kicked in - and there are a lot of RPG hooks within the game itself and within the larger framework of the game that make me want to play more and more. That said, there is one rather large caveat: pickup games suck. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes you're on a team with idiots, disconnecters, and homophobic racist bigots, and sometimes they're on the other team and you tear them up. More likely than not, though, you'll have at least one moron of some sort on your team, one guy kicking your ass on the other team, and no one on your team will have any interest in listening to strategy or coordinating attacks.

Playing with real life friends that you're on Teamspeak with, however, is an absolute blast. I think my win percentage is something like 40% in pickups and 80% in arranged games. When all five of us are present, we rarely lose. There is nothing quite like quickly putting together an ambush, surrounding the opposing team on all sides, pouncing on them all at the same time, and obliterating all five of them in the course of twenty seconds. It is extremely gratifying. And fun. League of Legends as a single-player game is good, and at $0, certainly worth the money to try. As a game played with friends, however, it is far, far better.


 
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