Cataclysm‘s less than a day away, and this is the time I decide to start playing League of Legends?! Why, you ask? Well, I do have some personal reasons, but let’s say I was tired of having my chilled face pressed to the glass of the DotA community. I wanted in! With several highly popular variations on the basic formula out there already, and even more to come, now is the time to make my mark! Plus, there was some goading by iTZKooPA.
Now, this isn’t my first time at the rodeo. I did meddle around with the WarCraft 3 mod in its prime, but shied away due to the high barrier of entry. Like many online games, the competitive collective had already achieved such an impeccable level of skill that I figured it wasn’t worth my time to match them. Coincidentally, I had also played League of Legends… when it was in beta. Despite having already popped my DotA cherry, I still feel shamefully virginal. Needless to say, plenty has changed since then, and my memories are fuzzy, but I did maintain some understanding of the fundamentals.
Each map is made up of several “lanes” and a few intermediary areas with pre-fab monster squads to farm. It’s along these lanes where most of the combat takes place, as you attempt to slowly chip away at your opponent’s defenses and destroy their core. Both sides spawn the same waves of “creeps” — groups of automated minions — at regular intervals, which can generally be used either as a defensive buffer or part of your siege force. If the game were left to its own devices, it would probably exist in a perpetual state of stalemate, neither side ever gaining ground. The whole affair of reminiscent of that old sci-fi/fantasy trope where two equally-matched opponents are firing balls of energy at each other that do nothing more than cancel each other out.
That’s what League of Legends is like; well, until you throw the Champions in. And that — the strategy — is what I still needed to learn. By my estimates, LoL currently has about 65 characters, each with varying stats, abilities, backstories (yes, there’s lore, and lots of it), skins, and difficulties to master. Though the game attempts to pigeonhole each Champion into a set of “roles,” no two play exactly the same, which is what gives the formula its incredible depth. Think of it as more of a sport, and you’re halfway there. The field will always be the same, but the skill and ingenuity of the players is what makes it so much fun to play (and watch).
That can also make it a bit overwhelming at first, especially if you don’t end up picking a Champion that you work well with right away. And since you may not know which one you are most compatible with in the beginning, it might take a few highly frustrating games (for you and your allies) before you figure things out. That said, once you do, stick with that Champion. Take the time to learn the ins-and-outs of that character and the fundamentals of the game. You’ll also gain a basic idea of how other Champions work as you fight against them, which will make it easier to pick them up down the road.
Of course, the bread and butter is learning what your abilities do and how/when to use them in conjunction with fancy footwork, daring tactics, and — perhaps most important — psychological warfare. As teams should be evenly matched (in terms of number of players), one or two killer moves can quickly turn the tide of battle. But you know what else can do that, too? People leaving or disconnecting from the game. Thus far, this has been my number one complaint with League of Legends. It’s not so much a flaw in design as it is a fact of online gaming. Despite the fact that the game allows your team to vote for a surrender after a certain amount of time, there are still scores of rage quitters and people with bad connections out there.
I admit I haven’t hit a plateau yet where I can make a competent evaluation on game balance, but with so many different Champions in the mix, most of the matches I’ve played in so far have felt fundamentally fair. And therein lies the one unexpected flaw of a well-balanced game — when the numbers aren’t even, it becomes drastically unfair at the drop of a hat. At my level, that doesn’t mean an automatic loss. Four good players can handily whoop five bad players (or some combination thereof), and I’ve seen that happen from both sides. But I imagine that at the highest levels of play (where most of the players are good), the loss of an ally can be a detrimental blow.
I’m not sure what other quality advice I can offer at this point, but like iTZKooPA, my time with the game has revealed some of its most glaring issues:
- Store Interface — League of Legends is functionally simple. Four ability buttons, two alts for special Summoner spells, and a mouse to move around with are all you really need. But as much as Riot Games sings the praises of their game’s speed and activity, there are a few elements that slow it to a snail’s pace. The in-game shop needs some serious work; time spent selecting items means time lost on the battlefield. Not good. I like iTZKooPA’s suggestion of allowing you to pre-arrange a list of items that you would like to purchase to replace the current, somewhat outdated “suggestions” the game already gives you. In order to prevent abuse of this system, Riot could always implement it at the start of each match, before creep-spawning signals the true start of the game. That way you would still get to plan out your upgrade path, you’d just have to do it quickly.
- Item Upgrades — Like the Champions, learning the properties and values of each item is something that can only be ingrained through hours of play experience. Currently, the process is confusing — upgrading is a bit like “item fusion” systems found in other role-playing games, but without the interface there to support it. You can go straight to the most powerful items if you have enough money to buy them, the game “assuming” that you’ve bought all previous ingredients and replacing any components that you already have in your inventory. It is not always immediately clear that you will be replacing something, though, which causes a lot of confusion for newbies who don’t realize they are exchanging one or two items for another (admittedly more powerful) one. Forcing players to manually upgrade from the bottom of the pyramid to the top isn’t a convenient solution, either, though. I suppose I’m questioning the existence of this whole setup in the first place.
- Loading — It’s a good thing matches last so long because the loading, oh god… the loading! I’m not sure why — perhaps League of Legends requires some sort of special syncing — but the pre-game loading can take several minutes depending on players’ connections. If there’s a way to speed it up, it need’s to be sped, because you might die of boredom before you even get to the actual game.
- Pre-game Champion Examination — This one’s for the newbies like me. League of Legends actually gives you a decent in-client interface for exploring the capabilities of each different Champion, but you’re locked out of this in the pre-game selection phase, where you might encounter Champions you haven’t seen or fought before. The only way to check their vitals is if someone has actually picked them (and you click on their portrait). Sadly, this doesn’t help you in your selection process. A quick summary when mousing over wouldn’t hurt, though this might be a limitation of the web-based interface.
I’m sure as I continue playing, I’ll begin to uncover League of Legends’ true, dark underbelly (every game has one), complaining about which Champions are overpowered and bitching about the latest balance changes. But overall, I like what I see. Riot Games is facing lots of competition from LoL‘s indie contemporaries (DotA All-Stars, Heroes of Newerth) and future contenders from industry juggernauts (Blizzard DotA, Valve’s DOTA 2), but its creative, action-focused approach to what the company terms the “Multiplayer Online Battle Arena” genre combined with a focus on keeping the game free-to-play (albeit, with a cash shop) should, at the very least, keep it in the running. It’s certainly no Demigod.