League of Legends MOBA - A review
League of Legends is a MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) inspired by the Warcraft 3 mod Defense of the Ancients (DotA). It also includes RPG elements in the form of a summoner character that gains levels, trains "abilities" called masteries, and gears up with runes.
GRAPHICS in League of Legends (LoL)
What really makes the graphical quality of League of Legends is the high quality art and stylized art style. The game does not use any intense, high end graphical features but the game still manages to look quite good. The decision to focus on quality of art rather than high performance graphics is a smart one since the game is all about competetive Player vs. Player action. Throughout this review you will see screenshots and character art that demonstrates the impressive art quality in LoL.
SOUND in League of Legends
The sound effects are a minor part of the game, but they do add to the overall experience and League of Legends strategy. Many players tend to play with the sound effects off completely or turned very low in order to hear ventrillo / teamspeak communication with their team. There is, however, an occasional benefit to hearing combat sound effects from beyond the fog of war, inside brush, or on the other side of a wall. For that reason, it is recommended that players at least keep the sound on low.
The voice acting is really the best sound aspect of the game. Most characters are very well done in this department and have a nice variety of comments, jokes (type: /joke), taunts (type: /taunt), etc. that they use while you issue commands.
USER INTERFACE in League of Legends
This is really the only serious weak point of League of Legends. The user interface design lacks many features that one would think were industry standard from 10+ years ago. The most glaring example of this is the cap on maximum zoom out. At maximum zoom out you cannot even see your own character's visual radius on screen. This forces you to play with the camera unlocked in order to have any idea what is going on around you. The result of this is that while running around the map, you have to constantly slide your mouse cursor off the edge of the screen to slide it in a certain direction. This is a completely unnecessary and growingly uncomfortable way to have to operate a user interface.
There have been official polls on the issue of zoom and around 90% of players want to be able to zoom out further. The problem has become so bad that the player's community has developed numerous hacks, config file edits, and even memory edits in ordet to increase the max zoom. Instead of listening to what the players want, Riot has chosen to ban people who modify their UI for more zoom. This is a very unusual reaction because in almost all other areas of community management and customer service Riot performs very well.
It would appear that this is an issue where the developers have chosen to dig in their heels and be a bit stubborn. Hopefully they will see the error of their ways here and eventually increase the max zoom. If they made this one change to the UI, I would change this rating from a 1 to a 4. The only other UI weakness would be an inability to move around your UI elements.
To someone who has not played LoL, it may seem that I am obsessing over this one issue. But I really cannot overstate how dramatically and negatively the lack of a better zoom out affects the user interface and ability to operate the game. The more you play the game, the worse this problem gets. That is one of the many reasons why I consider it such a glaring problem. It starts off bad, and gets worse right when you start to love the rest of the game.
Update: August 19, 2011
This remains to be a huge problem for League of Legends. It makes the game feel aged and dated with the forced perspective of being so incredibly zoomed in.
I asked President Marc Merrill about this at GDC Online in October of 2010, and he didn't seem to care that 90%+ of his own customers hate this aspect of the UI.
For companies like Valve making DOTA 2 and the huge crop of MOBAs in development, they would be wise to actually give people more zoom out so they can have a more comfortable user experience.
In this day and age, there's just no excuse for forcing people to be so zoomed in they can't even move 2 seconds worth of distance without having to painfully scroll their screen manually.
GAMEPLAY in League of Legends
The gameplay in League of Legends is extremely refined and well developed. Some of this is certainly owed to many years of practice working on the Defense of the Ancients mod to Warcraft 3. Many of Riot's staff worked on that mod, and some even worked at Blizzard (creators of Warcraft 3).
League of Legends basically functions in this manner: Each side has a base that is guarded by towers. At the core of their base is a nexus that you need to destroy in order to win. There are three open lanes through the terrain that lead between the two bases. Within each lane are two additional towers for each team. Every few seconds a spawn of NPC controlled mobs (also called minions or creeps) spawn for each lane and begin moving down the lane towards the opposing base. Along their path they will attack enemy towers as well as enemy minions.
Basic Gameplay Strategy
The core strategy in League of Legends is to progressively break the enemy's towers and then eventually break their nexus. Along the way you kill enemy minions to earn gold and experience to level up your "champion." As your champion gains levels you train points in your 4 abilities and spend gold on a wide array of gear options. You can also kill the enemy champions for large amounts of experience and gold. Whenever an enemy champion dies, it stays dead for a period of time. This starts off low (around 10 seconds) and is eventually 60+ seconds once the game has reached the 40+ minute mark. Eventually, killing the enemy champions so you can freely attack towers is a major part of the game's strategy.
Champion / Hero Balance in League of Legends
Character balance is never easy in any MMO type game, whether it is an MMORPG or an MMORTS. In a game that focuses primarily on PvP balance is even more delicate. One important factor that helps prevent a lot of balance problems is the fact that while nobody on the same team can play the same champion, a specific champion CAN be played by both sides. So even when there are problems with certain champions being overpowered, at least both sides of a match can potentially play the character.
There are a few characters in the game that are considerably overpowered at this time. The most glaring example of this is Twitch - a character with range, stealth, crowd control, and potentially the highest damage in the game. Part of the core issue here is that stealth in general is a bit broken in League of Legends. You can stealth while being attacked, people can walk right on top of you while you are stealthed, and you stay stealthed. The counters to stealth are expensive, short term, and frequently ineffective (especially against Twitch since all stealth counters have a range limit, and Twitch attacks from long range).
Riot tends to be very careful and measured whenever they have to buff or nerf any champion. They have shown a propensity to go with small minor changes, give them a few weeks of testing, and then make more changes if necessary. This shows a level of game developer maturity that is not common in young companies like Riot.
Updated Champion Balance: August 19, 2011
Champion balance has progressively become worse over time. The policy of adding a new champion every 2 weeks has been a total disaster. The business side always wants the new champion to be awesome, so it will sell. But this just puts things on a massive buff/nerf cycle that never ends.
Riot has fallen prey to the worst possible thing: making balance decisions based on how much whining they hear from the community.
There are some areas where it is hugely important for a company to listen to customer feeback: User Interface and general User Experience are two of the big ones.
But game balance is NOT the place to listen too closely to players, because they are simply too biased. It is lik the old anecdote:
"Hi, devs? This is rock. Nerf paper. Scissors is fine."
Another common problem is a tendency to buff a champion, sell a bunch of new skins for it, and then nerf the champion. This has happened too many times for it to be simply a coincidence. This starts to cross over into the area of being a little unethical as well, and is a process that should be stopped.
Riot would do well to stop releasing new champions entirely for a good 3-6 months
Gear and Item Variety
Surprisingly for an MMORTS, gear is actually a pretty significant part of the game. Unlike a raid centric game like World of Warcraft, you gear your champion up from scratch each game. The way you build your gear is heavily dependent upon the type of champion you are playing (if you are heavy physical DPS, you may want a lot of critical hit and critical damage gear) and the champions being played on the other team. If they have a lot of armor, you may want some armor penetration gear. If they have a lot of magic damage, you may want to stack some magic resistance.
The only thing that keeps this from being a 5 out of 5 is the fact that about 30% of the items are basically worthless, and you primarily see the same 20-30% being used virtually every match. They continue to do a good job to improve this part of the game and more interesting gear items have been added regularly.
Customer Service and Community Relations
As is common for new, smaller gaming companies, Riot Games staff make an effort to be active in their forums and community. Some of them even play games with the customers or hang out on the Riot run ventrillo server to talk to customers. They clearly listen to player feedback from test server experiments when working on champion balance. In my time playing League of Legends I interacted with customer support for two different issues and both times I was incredibly impressive by the experience. The customer service staff acted rapidly and in both instances exceeded by expectations.
As noted at the beginning of the review, the only problem in this area is unfortunately a very significant one. The playerbase of League of Legends is absolutely begging to have the max zoom increased in the game. Their desperation has been shown through countless forum threads, polls, and even organized efforts to hack or modify the client to allow more zoom. I cannot remember the last time I saw any game community more unified in begging a group of developers to implement what is generally considered to be a standard game interface feature. I wish I had an inside source that could explain the obstinance over the max zoom.
Like any competitive game, League of Legends has its share of bad sports and rude smack talkers. But overall most of the people you meet in LoL tend to be on the higher end of the maturity scale compared with MMORPGs like World of Warcraft. Since success depends on working well as a team, good players will eventually gravitate towards each other and team up regularly.
There is a fan community of top ranked players called SoloMid where advanced strategy is discussed. One particularly impressive feature of this community is the "Institute" they run where top players take sign ups from newer players so they can play together. The highly skilled players help the newer players learn the game and develop their strategies. It is very rare for members of a competitive gaming community to possess the foresight to help grow their own competition in this way.
Riot has really hit a home run with the improved AI of their co-op bots. The only problem is they've failed to really follow up on this feature. There was an excellent thread about co-op on their official forums that received enormous positive response but not a single reply or acknowledgement from Riot:
The Unrealized GOLDMINE that is Co-Op/PvE
There are many reasons people like to play co-op or custom against bots:
1) Community. Lets face it... LoL doesn't really have a great community for the most part. A huge percentage of people you play with randomly have utterly horrible attitudes, are hateful, spiteful, mean spirited, jerks. A lot of people have zero interest in subjecting themselves to the kind of abuse they will either witness or be the target of in games with/against real people.
2) Challenge. Many people honestly cannot handle the challenge of the PvP side of the game, and probably never will be able to.
3) More Room for Experimentation and Variety: Largely because of #1 and #2, daring to experiment with radical champ concepts or team builds is ill advised.
4) General Dislike of PvP: There is a reason why the majority of computer games pit humans vs. computers, or even teams of humans vs. computers. A lot of people simply do not enjoy playing against or beating other people, but they really enjoy playing WITH other people.
5) Families: Gaming is becoming a family activity now that rivals movie watching. The idea of playing LoL as a family against a team of random people is horrifying.
This would be a full 5 stars if they'd actually give this feature more attention.
Conclusions and Final Score
In conclusion, League of Legends is an excellent game created by an up and coming developer with signs of serious promise. The gameplay is well designed, the art quality is superb, the graphics and sound are enjoyable without bogging down the game, and the competitive experience is balanced and challenging without being overwhelming. I would recommend this game to fans of RPG and RTS player vs. player content. The only thing holding this back from a 5 out of 5 and an overall score over 95% is the max zoom limitation. If they address that, I will revisit this review and make the appropriate changes.
FINAL SCORE: 90%