I won’t lie. Seeing the phrase "free to play" associated with a game will prompt me to run for the hills more often than not. This is a little odd, as usually the word free draws me in like an ice cream truck to a Weight Watchers convention. In the world of video games, however, I associate F2P with half-assed, graphically challenged boutique games littered with bugs and ads. Due to these prejudices, I approached League of Legends with a bit of trepidation – but its combination of strategic depth and devilishly addicting, competitive team-based gameplay kept me logging in on a nearly daily basis.
League of Legends is the spiritual successor to Defense of the Ancients, an enormously successful mod for Warcraft III which has now spawned its own genre. (If you’d like to know more about DotA, there’s a detailed Wikipedia entry here.) League of Legends is a 3v3 or 5v5 team-based game that is played on a map with a home base for each team: one in the southwest corner and one in the northeast corner. There are “lanes” that connect these two bases, and AI-controlled creeps spawn periodically fight their way towards the opposing base. These lanes are also lined with turrets, which are defensive structures that fire powerful missiles at any enemy that comes within range. The goal for each team is to invade and destroy the enemy base.
League of Legends presently features 49 different champions to choose from, though not every champion is available for use at all times. The way it works is that there are 10 champions that are free to play, and these 10 free champions are rotated every week. You can unlock permanent access to champions by spending influence points (earned at the end of every match) or by spending Riot points (bought with real-world cash.) Champions have different pricing levels associated with them, with the most expensive running 6300 influence points or roughly 7 dollars in Riot points. There are also quite a few “cheap” champs that you can unlock rather quickly.
These champions are split into different categories such as tank, support, mage, and assassin. You won’t find re-skinned champions with identical skill sets; each champion is unique. Now balance can be a bit of an issue (from time to time some champions emerge as “overpowered”) but developer Riot Games has been very quick to implement changes to keep the experience as fair as possible.
While champion variety is one of LoL’s strengths, it can also be one of the barriers to access for new players; that long list of champions is daunting at the beginning. Luckily, LoL has a solid but quick tutorial that introduces you to the game and a single hero. There is also a practice mode where you can play against other players or AI controlled bots. Practice games play exactly like the official matches only without the pressure to win. (I’m a very experienced player with over 250 matches under my belt, but I still play practice matches when I want to try a new champ.) There is a lively community on the game’s official boards with a plethora of useful information for new players (and the requisite trolling, QQing, and so forth – this is a highly competitive game, after all).
So how do the matches actually play? At the beginning, your champion starts at level 1 with a set allotment of gold and one skill point to spend on skills. As you kill creeps and enemy champions or structures, you gain experience and gold. Each level (the level cap is 18) awards you a stat increase and an additional skill point to use as you see fit. One important element of strategy in LoL is your skill build order. Some skills are more useful early in the game, while others don’t really play a major part until later in the match. Whether it’s best to try to max out one skill as soon as possible or to build your skills in a more balanced fashion depends on the type of hero you have selected.
The next element of strategy is the item system. Each home base houses an item shop where you spend your gold on items and/or consumables. The shop interface is very well-laid out with items categorized by the stats they enhance. Aside from browsing the shop, LoL also provides recommended items for each champion. Though these builds are not “ideal,” they often get the job done and make a good starting point for new players. You’ll also find a huge number of build recommendations in the official forums along with the expected debates over which build is best.
I’m a bit of a number-cruncher at heart, and LoL most certain scratches that itch by way of its deep and complex item system. Two identical champions can play completely differently based on their item choices. My main champion at the moment is Sivir, a ranged DPS champion. Some games I elect to focus on damage and attack speed to attempt to squash the enemy, while other times I can choose to build aura items. Aura items affect all champions within a certain range, and building Sivir in this way focuses more on making the overall TEAM better, and focuses less on my individual performance.
If that’s not enough depth for you, there is the added element of the summoner. The summoner is a persistent profile associated with your account that levels up as you complete matches. Your summoner has a three-pronged mastery tree (ala WoW) and the ability to equip runes to enhance your champion’s abilities. In addition, you select two summoner spells in each match; these are powerful abilities (with long cooldowns) that do things like heal or teleport your champion.
The overall look of the game is excellent. The graphics won’t blow you away by any stretch, but they are clean and help keep track of what’s happening on the often chaotic battlefield. I’m sure they could have invested in fancier spell effects, but I believe that would be a detriment to the gameplay. The interface is well-designed with a bevy of tooltips and hotkeys, with all the information you need is well-placed and easily accessible.
As mentioned in the intro, League of Legends is completely free to play. You can elect to spend real-world cash to buy Riot Points, but these points can only be spent on optional skins, IP or EXP gain enhancements, or to unlock permanent access to new champions. You can’t really “buy power” in the game, and people who elect to spend cash on LoL don’t get any sort of preferential treatment. Now it would take quite awhile to unlock all the champions without spending any money, though I don’t see the need to have ALL of them unlocked. Since I’ve enjoyed the game so much, I had no problem investing 20 bucks in the boxed collector’s edition, which unlocked 20 champions gave me a few other extras, like a couple of skins and some Riot points.
There are two significant issues I should point out. Games are joined based on a matchmaking system which, in theory, matches players in such a way to make the game relatively even. While I find it works fine for the most part, there have been times where one side had an obvious, huge advantage over the other. In my experience, that is the exception rather than the rule. The second issue revolves around “leavers.” Success in LoL is largely dependent on teamwork and good team composition. If a player disconnects, rage quits, or otherwise exits the game, that particular team finds itself at a huge disadvantage. While there are presently some penalties for players who leave often, they are not significant. The majority of the time you find yourself in a match down a player or two, you will lose.
Taken together, all of these elements make for an incredibly deep and amazingly competitive gaming experience. Even six months in with 250+ matches under my belt I still get the itch to log in as much as possible. If I find myself getting bored with the game, all it takes is a switch over to a new champion to rekindle my desire to play. Even after all those matches, I don’t see myself ever mastering all the champions, especially since Riot is adding new champs at a steady rate. Although there are still only two different maps available for play (one map for 5v5 battles and one for 3v3) I don’t see that as a problem. Because map knowledge and awareness is such a huge factor, it actually helps that the map choices are somewhat limited. Also, every match plays entirely different as you rarely see the same players or champs on both sides. And while I’ve had my share of bad matches, the majority of them have been a lot of fun. If you’re a competitive gamer looking to try something new, I highly recommend giving League of Legends a whirl – it won’t cost you anything to try. Well, other than the next 6 months of your life, perhaps.