THQ – League of Legends review

fantasy strategy game based on a popular Warcraft III mod
Photo of THQ – League of Legends
£free or £24.99 for Collector's Pack

League of Legends is the sort of game you can laugh at. Ha! Ha! Why? Because of its acronym, that’s why; LoL. We can only expect the expansion or sequel will be dubbed Return of the Fantastic Legends, or RotFL for short. But there are only two things you need to know about LoL, aside from its jovial abbreviation. And they are that it’s an online fantasy RTS, and that it’s closely based on the famous Warcraft III mod Defence of the Ancients.

As with Defence of the Ancients, the game pits five heroes against another team of five, each with a base to defend. You can play against bots offline, but they’re pretty weak punching bags only suitable for practice. LoL doesn’t trifle with base building or any complications like that; you just control a single hero and must work together with the other players to progress to the enemy base. Along the way, as well as hostile heroes you must contend with defensive towers, plus constant streams of computer controlled minions emerging from the opposition stronghold. These minions aren’t just a nuisance, mind, as killing them nets you experience and gold, two very valuable resources.

Experience boosts your level and in turn that means upgrades for your character’s abilities. Gold can be spent on fancy swords, armour, amulets and various other shiny loot. There’s quite a selection to pick from, and interestingly the game presents combination upgrade choices, too. For example, that cloak of swiftness, amulet of life stealing and dagger of death dealing can all be combined into Dj’ghkan’s two handed sword of supreme beat-down. A weapon sure to turn your enemies’ silver chain greaves of purity an embarrassing shade of brown.

The various characters – some are mages, some archers, then there are warriors, assassins and utility types – have pronounced strengths and weaknesses. Knowing them, and how best to use a hero’s abilities, is something every new player has to learn. Master Yi, for example, has a “wuju” sword style power that inflicts extra damage on his foes. Choosing this as an initial ability is a good idea, as it makes him more likely to get the killing blow on minions, earning more gold and experience early on.

Master Yi also has an alpha strike attack which allows him to zoom across the screen to a near-dead opponent and finish them off with a flurry. There’s a teleport spell which does much the same thing (except with a bit of a delay), so any character can zip around if their player selects teleport as one of the two bonus spells they’re allowed to take into battle. But while character mastery and spell choice are certainly important, teamwork and tactics are paramount here.

A tank type makes a good partner for an archer, for example. The ranged player can stand back and fire into the melee, and should an enemy get low on health and attempt to leg it from the warrior, they can fire off a frost arrow to freeze them on the spot. The better teams work ambushes: one character on half health might draw another down a path, the enemy convinced they’re going to get an easy kill. Then an ally assassin leaps out from hiding in the brush and bam, it’s two on one all of a sudden and the enemy gets eviscerated. Flanking manoeuvres and coordinated attacks to swiftly remove hostile towers are all hallmarks of a well oiled team.

League of Legends can be somewhat vexing, however, if you don’t have an organised clan or in-game friends to party up with. The randomly populated “pick up” 5 versus 5 games can leave you feeling a bit stiffed at times. The matchmaking system is laudably quick, organising most games inside a minute, but it doesn’t do such a great job of keeping the teams even. They end up pretty unbalanced at times, and it’s hard not to grind your teeth when you discover a complete clown (or three) on your side.

There’s a limit to what one player can do, and when some plonker runs straight into enemy territory and gets killed by a tower in the positional and item buying phase (the thirty seconds before the bout starts proper), you know your team’s in trouble. Sometimes, you know you’ve lost a couple of minutes into the game, which can be quite disheartening. Players disconnecting because they’re bored, or their mum’s called them for tea, leaving you with only 4 or 3 on your side, can have a similar effect.

Some wet-behind-the-ears folks are probably scared off by the barrage of “not there, noob, don’t do that, you idiot” comments that get bandied around in chat, too. Much of which is often justified, even if the accompanying rudeness isn’t, but in fairness League of Legends is a pretty tough game to get to grips with. Learning how to use one hero well takes quite some time, and we found ourselves losing two thirds of our matches. Confusion and panic often descend when the screen is full of multiple minions, hostile heroes and spells going off left, right and centre.

But despite foolish team-mates, and indeed some very clued up opposition players the matchmaking algorithms dubiously selected at the lower ranks (who distinctly and repeatedly bested us), we still experienced some close and enjoyable push-pull battles. A closely fought game can be quite thrilling, as you defend your base one minute, killing off the attacking enemy heroes, and then rush their fortress before they have time to respawn and regroup (a resurrection timer means dead players have to wait a little while before they’re allowed back into battle).

Perhaps the biggest bonus here, however, is that you get all this tower bashing strategy fun for free. Well, sort of. As a non-paying player you have limited access to an ever-changing small selection of heroes (or champions as the game calls them). Those who fork out for the full collector’s edition of LoL get 20 diverse heroes, some runes that boost powers, and a number of “riot points” that can be used to buy yet more champions (there are 38 in total), plus other goodies.

Fortunately, those on the free version can earn an equivalent to riot points called influence points. These are awarded to all players for every match finished, with wins snagging more points. Champions, custom skins and runes can be purchased with these, although you need considerably more of them. It seems a fair system, though, as the advantages gained from paying are certainly worth having, but not so considerable that the freebie player is going to feel underpowered.

Company: THQ

This is a highly enjoyable team strategy romp, with a clever business model that makes playing for free a perfectly viable proposition. Be warned though: this game is quite difficult to master, and the matchmaking system can throw some seemingly higher level players at you, the sort who will cut “noobs” to ribbons, with both their swords and text chat put-downs. League of Legends is well worth persevering with, though, and once you've learned the basic strategies and how to utilise at least one hero's powers adeptly, things start to get easier.