Thursday, September 10, 2009

League of Legends is stealing my life.

Thanks a lot, Ixobelle.

There are a lot of WoW-related, and Champions-related topics that I'd like to write about, such as my Cataclysm impressions (still haven't gotten to that...short answer is I think Cataclysm is exactly what's needed, but I am still leery that they will half-ass the execution) or the recent shenanigans I've experienced from Champions Online (sudden nerfs, accounts arbitrarily unlinked from their product keys, and various other annoyances, all answered by kind and efficient customer service and a large patch of fixes, leaving me with a bittersweet taste in my mouth).

But I can't bring myself to write at length about any of that, because I'd much rather spend my downtime thinking about League of Legends. Dammit.

LoL is an RTS-style "Massively Online Battle Arena (MOBA)" game based on an insanely popular Warcraft 3 mod knowns as Defense of the Ancients. In both games, you control only a single hero unit from a list of about 40. Throughout the 30-60 minute battle, you and a team of 5 heroes will vie for control of the map against an opposing team of players, assisted by waves of footsoldiers who mindlessly throw themselves down a trio of turret-lined "lanes" that lead to the enemy base. Over the course of the match, you gather xp and gold (to buy items) to upgrade your Champion's stats, 3 special abilities, and "Ultimate" spell. All heroes in each match start as unequipped level 1's, so the game becomes a tug-of-war to outlevel and outgear the other team while killing their champs and avoiding death yourself, all the while trying to assist your foot soldiers at tearing down the opponent's towers and eventually their base on the opposite corner of the map.

The original Defense of the Ancients (DotA) map for WC3 is extremely complex, offering 95 characters, dozens of items, and a nice steaming pile of lingo and strategic standards and rules that are not apparent to a new user. And since dying keeps you from gathering XP while "feeding" gold and xp to the other team for killing you, new players can be a devastating albatross to their team. This has led to an insular community that will drive away all but the most determined and competitive prospective players. In fact, DotA's community has a reputation as one of the most repulsively belligerent and trolling groups of people in the entire internet. I experienced it myself when I tried the DotA map a few years ago, but soon gave up on it because of it's impenetrability and reliance on "advanced" strategies such as killing your own troops to deny your opponent xp and gold (fittingly known as "denying").

Enter LoL
The guy who refined the original DotA idea into the "All-stars" map that is in favor today, and was it's caretaker for many years, goes by the handle "Guinsoo". A few years back, he handed over care of the mod and disappeared from the scene, only to reemerge recently as one of the founders of Riot games, a game development company creating a stand-alone spiritual successor to DotA. Free from the restrictions of the WC3 engine, a lot about the game was changed in its LoL incarnation.

And for someone like me who was very interested in a game in the style of DotA, but found the mod too impenetrable, LoL hits all the right notes. I've played it literally every day since Ixo gave me a beta key a little over a week ago.

The beta NDA allows me to talk about the game as much as I want, but I can't post any of my own screenshots or videos. So all screenshots in this post are stolen from Gamespy's coverage of the game, written by the excellent Ryan Scott of the legendary, but sadly now-defunct, Computer Gaming World/Games for Windows magazine and GFW Radio (aka 97.5 The Brodeo).

What LoL does right:
1) Accessibility: Compared to DotA, matches are shorter and faster-paced, there are fewer champions to learn and they are easier to tell apart, stats are simplified, and effort is made throughout the game and the interface to help you along, including suggesting items for you and (promised but not yet implemented) robust matchmaking to prevent a noobie from being dropped into their first game with a group of angry veterans. Some of the less intuitive tactics, particularly creep denying, have been removed. Overall, it's just easy to pick up and play and to learn, but still very challenging. Expect to fail really hard for your first 10 matches or so, especially if you are learning on your own.

2) Atmosphere: The art direction is great, and well-executed. The maps are vibrant and colorful, while the Champions are distinctive and full of personality and humor. How could I not fall in love with a game where an eskimo boy riding a Yeti battles a crying baby mummy and a guy wielding a lamppost faces off with a little girl and her giant, flaming teddy bear named "Mr. Tibbers"? The game definitely takes after the "Blizzard touch" of personality and color, while making it all its own.

3) Playability: the game is quite responsive, the UI is good, the hotkeys are laid out intelligently, and there are a lot of Quality of Life improvements such as stat tracking and the ability to rejoin a game if you get disconnected.

4) Fun: the game is fast-paced and exciting, pretty to look at, and enjoyably competitive.

What LoL does wrong:
1) "Summoner" levelling: Unlike DotA and other spiritual successors, LoL adds a dash of MMO to the RTS mix in the form of the Summoner, which is a meta-avatar for the player which levels up from match to match, unlocking talent points and glyphs-oh, I'm sorry, I meant "masteries" and "runes". These give minor in-game benefits to your champion's stats and unlock Summoner Spells, which are abilities on long cooldowns that you can use regardless of which champion you picked. There are over a dozen summoner spells, but you can only pick 2 per match. On it's face, this seems like a nice idea. In practice, it means that you have to grind through about 40 practice games to power-level you summoner in order to be competitive in actual games. If you boot up the game and jump into a public match, the champions played by maxed-out level 30 summoners will wipe the floor with you. The bonuses for each level are small and far from game-breaking, but they add up. In such a skill-based game, it really sucks to lose to a worse player because they have bonus stats. Hopefully matchmaking in the live game will keep you facing off against those of similar summoner levels while you level up, which will help a lot with my unhappiness with the system. My solution in beta was just to grind up to 30 as quickly as possible.

2) Still not enough training: I really have to rely on the forums to train myself in the game. There's no tutorial (yet) and there no way for me to see the exact specs of powers and items without entering a game, so planning ahead of time is a challenge.

3) Retains some of my least favorite design choices from DotA. For instance, the death penalty is too high, since it not only takes you out of the fight for a while, but it also keeps you from gathering xp or money during that time while also giving a hefty reward to whoever killed you. This encourages over-cautious play and is extremely unfriendly to noobies, and leads to the notoriously goofy and counter-intuitive "run in, ok run out, now run back in-omg run out again" gameplay that DotA is known for, which tends to turn a lot of people off (though that fades in mid- and late-game, it's just the first few minutes that are like that really). I'm also not a big fan of "last-hitting": the mechanic where you get extra gold if you happen to be the player who got the killing blow to a creep or player. This mechanic encourages teammates to play against each other, rather than cooperate, as they compete for killing blows. Damage done overall becomes undervalued, because all that really matters is that last hit.

4) Lacking features: the most glaring of these is replays.

The game is clearly torn as it tries to strike a balance between the skill-based (and highly skill-differentiated) play of DotA and greater accessibility. It's true that denying, last-hitting, and the death penalty all add an element of skill and strategy to the game, and thus aren't categorically "bad". They just aren't to my taste. That doesn't keep the game from being, as a whole, a joy to play, but it does sully the experience for me, personally.

Come LoL with me!
Hahahahaah c wut i did thar?!1

No seriously. LoL is a team-based game. I am teamless. Public games ("pub" games have exactly the same reputation as WoW "pugs" - dumb as a brick and twice as hard to swallow) are just not going to cut it forever.

You can get beta keys in seemingly a million ways:
-daily LoL forum beta key giveaway
-outside contests
-find a friend with invites to give out
-just beg for one on their forums (I can't believe this works...and what you get is an entire general forum where every single thread is "can I please have a beta key?")
-the game is free-to-play, but you can get quick unlocks, extra perks, and a beta key by pre-ordering the special edition package

Hope to see you there! I got the name Hatch in the beta, so add me as a friend if you aren't creepy or gross!


Dougan said...

I really wanna see a comparison of LoL and HoN...

Don't suppose you know of one out there on the interwebs?

Hatch said...

Well, I haven't played HoN, but I've been reading a lot about it. Apparently it is a copy of DotA down to the individual heroes and their abilities, and the items. Just the visuals are updated and slightly changed, and the names are changed. The visual style is dark and low on color (apparently made by people who think diablo 3 is not dark enough).

LoL aims to be a bit more accessible, with bright colors, smaller maps, some mechanics such as creep denying gone, and all the heroes and items are new (though they have some similarities with some parts of dota).

So what I hear is that HoN is for more hardcore people and especially those who already play dota. LoL is for people like me who would enjoy dota if it were more accessible, brighter, and less hardcore. YMMV.

Shopshopshop said...

HoN is basically standalone DotA. It plays almost exactly the same way, but the one (large) reason I'll never switch to a DotA clone is the same reason you are not wanting to start playing the first DotA: I don't want to re-learn everything I already know, just like you don't want to learn everything about DotA.

Hatch said...

Hm, that sounds enlightening. I don't know much about HoN. As a long-time Dota player, do you think HoN isn't a big enough improvement or is too different, or what? I was under the impression they were so similar all you'd have to do was relearn names of things, but admittedly I don't know that much about this. Interesting to me nonetheless.

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