There’s been a recent resurgence of sorts in RPG/RTS hybrids popularised by Warcraft III mod Defence of the Ancients. First there was Demigod, a worthy Stardock title released back in May. Now Riot Games have entered the arena with League of Legends (otherwise known as LoL, much to the amusement of twelve-year-olds), which is completely free to download and play. Now, when a game is available without the required exchange of legal tender, huge alarm bells may immediately begin to ring. Is the game too goddamn awful to charge for? Is it a broken, leaky mess, like a cracked vase full of porridge? Well, as some famous philosopher probably once said, ‘don’t knock the cheese ‘til you’ve tasted it’.
For those new to games such as DoTA and Demigod, they’re an interesting slant on standard real-time strategy. In League of Legends, the player is a mighty summoner whose task is to invade an enemy base and destroy their nexus (basically a sinister glowing structure). However, your control is limited to a single unit known as a champion. At the start of each match you choose your champion and their extended abilities, then kit them out at a store before they storm towards the enemy with a collection of computer-controller minions. No placement of defensive structures or building of armies required - your base is defended by a number of pre-set turrets, while the minions are automatically generated at the heart of your base every minute or so.
Of course, life isn’t as simple as just marching into their base. You’ll have to contend with enemy turrets as well as their minions and champions, which basically results in a heated battle to control the middle-ground. This may sound like an all-out brawl, but tactics play a vital role. For instance, while your minions are basically cannon fodder, they can be used very effectively to draw a turret’s fire while your champion pounds it to bits. Your own turrets can also be used as cover when your champion takes a beating. There’s no place for pride in League of Legends, as a lot of the time you’ll find yourself legging it with just a few bars of health remaining.
Beginners shouldn’t worry if this sounds confusing, because a handy tutorial mode is included that teaches the basics. There’s also an excellent amount of community support, but more on that later. Once you’ve worked through the tutorial there’s an option to play some practice matches against bots or other newbies, before you launch into the proper online games. All matches take a PvP form, with an players split into two equal teams and commanding a single champion each. Teamwork is therefore essential to guarantee victory, especially since there’s multiple paths on each of the maps (currently only two available, but more coming soon). If the champions charge off in different directions, they’ll be cut down by an organised team in moments and generally humiliated. League of Legends ain’t a game for loners - anyone who likes to charge off ahead will soon get sick of the grey screen of death and a countdown clock that signals their impending resurrection.
Currently there are 40 different champions to choose from, and the variety on offer is impressive. No two characters look the same and each one comes with their own set of skills and spells, as well as tips for play and a bizarre backstory. You have your typical brutes/tanks, such as Alistar the minotaur and Nunu, a kid who rides on the back of a brutish yeti. Then there’s the mages, like Janna and Evelynn, who of course are scantily clad and impressively well-endowed. We’re talking breasts that would be lifesavers in a man-overboard situation, as they could easily be used as an eight-man floatation device. Then there’s a smattering of more unusual characters, such as Gangplank the pirate and a creepy scarecrow called Fiddlesticks. Each one has their own health, attack, defence and difficulty ratings, so choosing one to stick with shouldn’t be too difficult.
Champions have their own individual magic abilities which add a new layer to the tactical gameplay. These abilities are strengthened throughout a match by earning experience, and each level-up gives you points to spend on select spells. Sadly this experience does not carry over between matches - you’ll have to build up your champion all over again when you start a new game. However, you as the summoner earn your own experience points based on your game performance, which can then be used to build up three separate skill trees. The depth is quite impressive, with a large number of skills to unlock and runes to earn, which gives your champion yet more abilities. You can reset your skills at any time, so players aren’t punished if they accidentally follow an unsuitable path - something that has to be deeply commended.
League of Legends may be new but it already has a dedicated online community, something which is clearly evident through the game’s forums (accessible via the main menu). The discussion threads contain tons of great advice for newbies, including which champions to select and how to avoid a vicious beating. My advice would be to use these forums to find a compatible group to play with, or get a group of friends to try the game out with you. League of Legends only works if the team does, and otherwise quickly becomes an exercise in frustration. Thankfully I only experienced one case of lag during online play, when I suddenly noticed that enemy turrets weren’t dealing any damage to my minions. Thirty seconds later, everything sped up like a demented Benny Hill sketch, and ended with us all lying in a pool of our own claret and bowels. A very rare case, so nothing to worry about providing your connection’s decent.
As far as hardware’s concerned, League of Legends’ system requirements specify a Pentium 3 with at least a gig of RAM. This should serve you nicely, and the game’s lush cartoony graphics are pleasant even with a fairly standard modern graphics card.