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It’s hard to review online games since they’re always in flux, but we’re going to try anyway. League of Legends is a fairly ambitious riff on the DOTA formula but does it hold up as a full game of it’s own?

League of Legends

League of Legends is based on the highly popular Warcraft 3 mod Defense of the Ancients, itself a unique take on tower defense games. League of Legends and Defense of the Ancients’ gameplay style has spurred a new genre, the multiplayer online battle arena, or MOBA. Some people aren’t fond of the name, but then again many people scoffed at the term ‘massively multiplayer’ once upon a time – and we see how that went.

League of Legends

The traditional MOBA style (forgive me for delving a little off subject here, but it’s necessary to help those unfamiliar understand the rest of the review) involves two teams of players, each trying to reach the other team’s base in order to defeat them. In their way are usually towers or turrets that fire upon them and must be destroyed to progress. The catch being that head-on assaults on these towers is usually suicide for players, and that’s where your mobs or minions come in to play. Each team spawns groups of minions that move across the map towards the other team’s base. Your own serve as great shields from the towers, whereas the other team’s are great for grinding and leveling up on. All of this culminates in trying to use your minions to get to the other side of the map and capturing/destroying the other team’s base before they do the same to you. You have to balance attacking, defending and leveling with your allies and work as a team, because any uncoordinated attack is doomed against a better managed, more organized team.

So, with that out of the way, let’s delve into League of Legends proper.

League of Legends, unlike some others DOTA knockoffs available online, uses wholly unique champions. They play differently from one another and the game does a great job at telling you the basics about each one before you select them. The game rotates the available champions weekly and keeps them relatively balanced so that there’s always something for every time of player to use. If you find a champion you really like, you can buy them at the in-game and keep them permanently. While cash can speed up the process, most things in the store are able to be bought with cash earned while playing, champions included. I’m a ranged player and like the cannoneer Tristana and frost-archer Ashe, but I am fond of melee-centric, yeti-riding Nunu as well.

Perhaps League of Legends best selling point is that is one of many recent free to play games. This movement has really taken off in the last year or so in the United States, starting with Dungeons and Dragons Online’s success back in September 2009. While some deride the game stores and optional subscriptions, I at least like the option. My one gripe is locked content for free players. Many games make the gated content available in their store, but some like Champions Online free-to-play design require a monthly subscription to use some of their most touted features (in Champions Online’s case, it’s open class system). League of Legends doesn’t do that. You’ll be able to get to the end of the game with everyone else for no cost at all.

League of Legends

One of League of Legend’s biggest improvement on the DOTA mold is a sense of permanence. Your champions start at level one every match, but you as summoner gain levels that persist from game to game. As you level you unlock spells to help your champion as well as slots for runes on a large chart and points to invest in a World of Warcraft-style talent tree. The best part is that you’re free to invest, change and remove both the runes and talent points at no cost to you. This allows you to freely play with builds and specs between your champions.

Online competition is at the heart of the game. I’ve played a number of online matches and not had any trouble getting in a match or being kicked from one. Lag is relatively minimal and the community seems friendly enough and ready to help. For those who don’t want to play online, the bots were – up to a few weeks ago – fun, but mostly pushovers. A recent patch upped their difficulty (if not their intelligence) to increase the challenge. I routinely had 15 kill, 1 death wins on the old bots, but these new ones have handed me my head a few times.

The graphics harken back to Warcraft 3, which is both a blessing and a curse. They’re clean and easy on the eyes but that style wasn’t cutting edge back in 2002, and certainly isn’t going to turn allot of heads today. The sounds are bright and crisp but nothing exciting.

League of Legends

Time will tell us if the MOBA genre (and acronym) will stand the test of of time, but with companies like Valve and Blizzard throwing their hats into the ring this coming year it looks like it has legs. If so, let the record show that League of Legends was one of the first out the gate, and a good game to boot. It’s fun, it’s fanciful, and most of all it’s free – you can’t go wrong with that. Alphasim out.

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