Review: A free game that's legen... wait for it... dary
Released over a decade ago, the Defense of the Ancients mod for Warcraft III (DotA to its millions of fans) has become the most popular multiplayer mod since Counter-Strike. It was an ingeniously streamlined take on Blizzard's RTS, a 3v3 deathmatch with zero micromanagement. Players had direct control over a hero unit only, and had to work with teammates and friendly AI to level the opponent's base. Now, in present day, League of Legends is looking to inherit DotA's throne. So far developer Riot Games has made some smart moves; the game is still free to play, they've left the core gameplay untouched, and introduced a strong Meta game. Will it be enough to get hardcore DotA enthusiasts to jump ship? And what about players completely new to the genre?
As far as gameplay goes, it would take an expert to detect the true differences between DotA and League of Legends. The superficial ones are obvious. Champions and arenas have new names and fresh coats of paint, but are equivalent to ones in the original DotA. What's really likely to bother hardcore fans, however, is Riot's system of unlocking heroes. At any given time, there are ten heroes available for anyone to use. The other forty or so heroes must be unlocked, either using in-game experience points, or cold hard cash. Also, the ten free heroes rotate every week, so if your favorite hero gets put on the bench, you'll have to grind for him or just pony up. I wouldn't call it unfair, but it is confusing, and could deter old school fans.
Despite the monetary implications, the persistent gameplay elements are the most compelling thing League has added to the DotA formula. It's given the game everyone's favorite MMO aspect- leveling up. With this comes effective matchmaking and bragging rights. It's also centralized the community; League's official forums are abuzz with conversations between players and developers. Expect players to be asking for more maps; as of now League only has two, one of which is from DotA. If the developers were afraid multiple maps would be destroy the DotA formula, they're playing it a little too safe. Numerous maps would be a real step forward, as well as a catalyst for converting DotA holdouts.
While veteran fans might stick with the completely free mod version, League has a few nice features to help newbies ease in. An important part of DotA was the shop, where you could buy gear that combined to make high-powered items. You needed to have a buy order in mind, or you'd get steamrolled by players who planned their shopping. League has simplified the arms race with in-game tech trees that show what's needed for every item. It's not exactly spoon feeding- you'll still need to determine the best gear for your champion; the developers have left the challenge intact with minimum homework for the player. Unfortunately, the same is not so for the meta-store, which has a rather overwhelming amount of characters and perks to choose from. Some late night forum trolling may be necessary to get a truly effective build.
Tech trees are nice, but nothing beats old-fashioned practice. The introduction of bots is League's most newcomer-friendly feature. Just like DotA, League's gameplay is fast and unforgiving. New players will be glad for a little AI practice before stepping into the online arena. Choosing, leveling, outfitting, and maintaining your hero is a balancing act, and novices should expect to fall directly on their faces a few times. That doesn't mean you wont have fun doing it, but a thick skin is needed for Internet play. The DotA and League community do not suffer noobs well, nor do they mince words.
Graphically, League is almost identical to DotA, and therefore Warcraft III. While purists may enjoy the familiarity, newcomers could find it dated. The lack of overhaul is justifiable; this is, after all, a free game. The visual styling is Blizzard-esque, a mix of high fantasy, steampunk, and pulpy occult horror. Again, veterans will appreciate it, but it could bore beginners. However, Riot games has been adding more detailed character models since the game's release, so players can expect a little visual variation.
Sound design is one place League could stand some variety. The soundtrack is well-executed but entirely familiar, not great, but good enough. It's the character dialogue that gets old fast. The unit confirmations are repeated ad nauseum, and some of them are needlessly lengthy. The mechanical warrior Blitzcrank's motto that ?a rolling golem gathers no rust? is a mouthful, especially since he says it every time you direct him to move. A simple ?Ok? would suffice, and couldn't have been that cost prohibitive to record.