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The WoW of MOBAs?

Joseph Sanicky Posted:
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Since its release a mere two years ago League of Legends has experienced a meteoric rise to fame within not only the MOBA community but within the hearts of PC gamers everywhere.  With over 15 million accounts created and 1.5 million unique users playing every day Riot Games has clearly struck a chord with PvP fans everywhere.  Considering its ubiquitous hold over both the genre’s player base and competitors many have likened League of Legends with the most successful MMO to date, World of Warcraft.  

Whether it is to laud or condemn them Riot’s vocal fans are quick to judge their multitude of trend-setting decisions which include but are not limited to: a player-powered banning system, bi-weekly champion releases, various e-sports offerings, oft radical balance changes, and most recently a new map and game mode.  Never has the time been better for League of Legends players to take to the Fields of Justice to exactly their deadly plans, however, does the game hold up the scrutiny of millions or is all the success just an enormous, hype-driven fluke?  It’s time to find out!

Aesthetics – 9.5

League of Legends sports a cartoon-inspired visual design at its core with hopes of accomplishing the goals of being incredibly scalable while still looking the part.  Similar to how this worked out for the MMO which needn’t be named the art style does a respectable job of conveying events accurately while simultaneously looking stylish and appealing.  Unless players are anathema to stylized, anime-like graphics there isn’t much to fault about how the game looks.  To Riot’s boon they’ve lately been enhancing old models with more modern looks, animations, and sounds to complement the ever increasing quality of the new champions and they continue to tweak the engine to blend the more inspired art direction with a darker, more detailed end product.  Unfortunately “Project Shiny,” the eventual graphical overhaul that’d been in development for ages, is still nowhere to be found despite relatively recent teases in PC Gamer.

Counter to the detailed environs and pleasing champion visuals things tend to become muddled and confounded in the heat of larger battles.   The vast amount of life bars on both champions and minions overlap ad infinitum while spell effects combine in a blinding cacophony of shiny and sometimes plain obtrusive, particles.  While time spent playing will help alleviate the annoyance that this can cause and considering the fact that distinctive visual and audio cues help to make certain events notable it is still an ever-present mar upon the relatively pristine presentation of the game.  Likewise the UI and map design on the traditional map, Summoner’s Rift, inexplicably hide often vital visual components to fights depending on the player’s position.  The only official way to work around this is a UI scaling slider in the options menu; however, you trade ease of access to vital information for more screen real estate in the process.  Furthermore the active units are highlighted to stand out from the environment which does create a somewhat jarring presentation while simultaneously making tracking moving units easier.  These problems are mostly just nit-picking though as the presentation is just too incredibly solid otherwise. 

Of specific note should be the sound direction.  All audio work sounds very professional; even if there remains some questionable choices by Riot (the sheriff sniper law-woman extraordinaire has a tea time English accent?) concerning certain voiceovers.

Welcome to the game client and storefront, get used to spending plenty of time and money here!

Gameplay – 8.25

When the developers of League of Legends set out to create the game a few of them who had previously worked on the original DOTA decided that there were some aspects of the game that were just too foreboding to new players and in general.  So they removed them.  Gold loss on death, denying enemies creep experience and gold, teleportation items, buy back from death, dynamic brush, and other mechanics that were deemed “anti-fun” were replaced with less harsh ones. Furthermore the persistent summoner profile that every player gains experience for contains summoner spells and runes that can be used to directly affect in-game stats and abilities.  Beyond these rather drastic changes the basic MOBA gameplay remains intact with a few less radical changes (which include a sub-boss and neutral monster buffs).  Ten players still compete to destroy the enemy defensive structures and cripple the enemy nexus to gain victory. 

Outside of each match there exists tutorials and bot matches for new players to ease into the combat along with custom games to have some light-hearted fun in.  The new game mode, Dominion, introduces a capture and hold style map that has players attempting to hold the majority of five points to make the enemy nexus lose health until it reaches zero.  While this concept is hardly new to the world or the genre Riot claims this is the first time it has been fully and competently implemented in a serious fashion within the genre.  The reality of this hectic new mode is that many lack-luster champions on the original map have found new life and usefulness and vice versa for champions who were powerhouses before.  Another goal is to diminish the reliance on passive farming gameplay and create a head-to-head environment which the Crystal Scar handily accomplishes.  However this presents a new problem for game balance.

This game was clearly meant to be viewed from an isometric viewpoint only!

League of Legends believes in balancing the game around not only the casual or competitive player, but both.  Moreover the game already suffers from an MMO-like balance pendulum that has champions dominating one week and floundering in competitive play the next.  While the developers should be lauded for being proactive in their efforts the game lacks and will likely always lack a steadfast sense of balance (of which the bi-weekly champion additions are also a culprit).  Compounding these concerns is the influence the basic alterations to the classic gameplay have on competitive play.  It is a largely accepted fact that professional level play results in a majority of the match being spent farming while everyone does their best not to die.  While Riot acknowledges this problem those fundamental change have a largely irrevocable effect on the classic map’s play style.

Despite the fluidity of game balance and the constant x-factors being introduced into the system the game definitely accomplishes the goal of being an utterly fun and intoxicating PvP experience.  You’ll be queuing up for your next match without even realizing it.

Can you tell whats going on in this picture? Details!

Innovation – 10

Riot’s track record of innovative business practices is a monster.  From a gameplay aspect they took a radically different approach to the then standard MOBA structure that DOTA inspired by removing many gameplay elements that the design team termed “anti-fun” (which were mentioned in the gameplay section above).  These alterations alone would be enough to garner a positive score for this section, but Riot isn’t just shaking up the gameplay of the genre.  League of Legends was the first MOBA to use the free-to-play payment model, the first with such aggressive marketing, and the first to have success anywhere near the scale they’ve accomplished so far.  Riot isn’t even stopping there though; they've dedicated themselves to redefining customer support as we know it with an aim to make it true "player support." 

However everyone knows that innovation alone does not produce a prosperous product, execution of said innovation is vital.  On these fronts League of Legends has dramatically prospered.  League of Legends sets a gameplay model that new MOBAs draw influence from or outright copy be it through their free-to-play model or accommodating players new to the genre with open arms.  Customer support is also superb.  A week cannot pass without a multitude of inspired forum threads begging for a few extra Riot Points (real money currency) to buy a champion or skin in exchange for a funny drawing or some such thing. 

You know something is wrong when you sell boots for a third Phantom Dancer...

Likewise customer support gets back to players surprisingly quick be it via forum response of through emails about a variety of topics.  Every time I’ve posted about a problem patching or with a question about a purchase I’ve gotten replies from Riot within hours, often sooner on the forums, helping me solve my issue.  The amount of care and energy the League of Legends team puts into helping the players oozes from the employees be it in written or video form and the fruits of this effort is plain to any player who wanted to play a game for a special occasion with Rioter or needed a couple more Riot Points for a purchase.

League of Legends’ presence will undoubtedly be felt on the genre and industry for years to come.

8.2 Great
  • Accessible game play
  • Enormous player base
  • Free to play
  • Large number of Champions
  • Scales to almost any PC
  • Fluctuating balance issues
  • Lacking critical competitive systems
  • Questionable eSports presence
  • Some unpolished elements remain

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Joseph Sanicky