Version tested: PC
"Carrots?" I ask the phone pinned between my head and my shoulder. I'm not sure what it means. It's annoying, having a phone cradled on your shoulder and telling you things when you're trying to play League of Legends.
The voice in the phone (my friend?) repeats that the only thing she needs (a woman!) for our stir-fry tonight is carrots. Stir-fry! Of course! We'd arranged to meet for dinner tonight. I should have already left the house, but the online match I'd signed up for was dragging on.
This was about six hours ago. So, League of Legends clearly passes the first test of any addictive, free online game, the greasy business of managing to hypnotise you utterly and take fat bites out of your free time. The question became whether it would pass the second test - whether I would abandon my team by dropping out of the game to head out the door, or tell my friend I'd be late and keep playing.
I hesitated. If I quit I'd lose all the XP and IP for the match, and most likely my four team-mates would lose half of theirs as, outnumbered, they suffered a defeat. It was raining out. And, y'know, carrots...
League of Legends is the first of several games in development (including the upcoming Heroes of Newerth and whatever it is Valve's cooking up) to have a crack at turning the Defence of the Ancients Warcraft III mod into a standalone product. Actually, Demigod was technically the first, but I'm not sure anybody cares about Demigod any more so let's move on.
Here's how Defence of the Ancients works: It's like a tower defence game, except instead of one player building any towers (which are already in place) two teams of 2-5 players micromanage heroes in a Diablo stylee, inamongst the cannon-fodder "minions" which both team's bases continually spawn.
The emphasis is on levelling up your heroes as fast as possible by killing enemy minions and heroes, all while launching assaults on enemy towers and, ultimately, the enemy base. Eventually one team will have knocked down enough defences to clear a path to the 'Ancient' in the enemy base, and if they destroy the Ancient too they're declared the winners. Dry to describe, but tense and completely riveting to play.
League of Legends takes this framework and does its best to refine it. The big addition it makes is the Summoner System, a persistent frontend for the game that makes DOTA more than just a competitive game. It pulls the setting back a bit. That hero you're controlling? Well, you now have a Summoner who brought him into the world, and every match you play whether you win or lose you gain XP for your Summoner.
Level up your Summoner and you unlock different spells you can cast within matches, as well as Mastery Points that can be spent advancing along three different skill trees, which all buff your hero and spells, and finally Rune slots in which you can place Runes. Runes can provide any minor buff you can imagine and are purchased with Influence Points, which you also gain for winning matches (still with me?).
Finally, Influence Points also let you purchase new Champions, which is League of Legends' name for Heroes. A shortcut to Influence Points is to simply buy Riot Points with real money, which explains where the developers intend to get at least part of their income, but it's honestly not necessary.
In general the Summoner System is a really smart addition. It is, in fact, so smart that it's a little fearsome that Riot Games is still putting League of Legends out for free. After being passed from talented modder to talented modder and enjoying iterative design for six years, polishing Defence of the Ancients was always going to be like trying to sharpen a cut diamond. The Summoner System has let Riot Games build on DOTA without upsetting its patented secret formula.
Not that League of Legends doesn't alter the game. It does, but quietly. Shh! Teamplay is encouraged by things like assisted kills earning you more XP, action is given a shot in the arm by having a lower average ability cooldown time, and slower, more tedious defensive play is hampered by removing the ability to kill your side's minions (therefore denying the other team the XP). League of Legends also adds Brush, which is tall, grassy terrain that blocks line of sight and opens up new avenues for cunning play.
Finally there's a host of practical and cosmetic changes. There's a great automated matchmaking system for dropping into games, an improved mini-map and interface, fantastic audio in both the game's music and the voice acting for each Champion, and a lovely Warcraft-inspired yet slightly cel-shaded art style.
But maybe you never played Defence of the Ancients. Maybe you just want to know, right now, what this game is like to play. And I will tell you this: It is like riding a toboggan down a hill covered in not snow, but numbers. It is joy. And it's infinitely more tactical and tense than you would think ordering a single unit around could ever be, because it's basically a race.
Any enemy champion who's three or four levels above you will have very little trouble grinding you into the dirt, and if it's a particularly aggressive Champion (there are currently 38 to choose from and they all have wildly different skills) you might not even be able to run away. So while actually winning the game is a matter of joining a charge of minions and knocking down the towers that lead to the enemy base, you're always hunting for easy experience.
The thing is, every time you die it takes you an increasingly long time to respawn, soon reaching the agonising heights of 60+ seconds where you can do nothing but think of the XP you just gifted your killer, and when you're dead you can't be gaining experience. Born out of this is an utterly brilliant risk-reward mechanic. Do you go limping around the map with half health and keep fighting, knowing you're an easy target, or do you return to base where you can quickly regenerate your health and mana? Enemy heroes lurk around every corner, and in LOL they're in every patch of grass, too.
And this is before you've added the wealth of tactical factors that being a team game adds into the equation. Working in pairs, threes, fours, launching ambushes and then retreating, all of you pushing a single 'Lane' of towers and minions simultaneously before returning to your posts, and how to react when the other team tries any of this.
You've also got the consistently fun experimentation of not just playing different Champions (which might range from an archer to a tank to someone who specialises in turrets or time or poison or healing) but seeing how different Champions work with other Champions. And all of it is executed with such incredible polish and attention to balance. To say League of Legends stands up to high-level play is to say fire is, perhaps, hot.
All this said, that incident with the stir-fry and the rain? I did quit the match. I abandoned my team and all that XP. Because while League of Legends is free, and brilliant, and really fun, it's still a touch disposable.
Because Riot Games doesn't want to give too much of an advantage to veteran players, the Summoner System only ever lets you tinker with tiny percentile buffs. The difference between a level-1 Summoner's Champion and that of a level-15 might be visible, but the difference between whatever level you are and the next level is not. Also, Riot Games' supreme vision of DOTA is somewhat unfinished right now. Plans for many different maps and support for clans and tournaments are currently just plans.
Finally, and DOTA fans won't like to hear this, there are still a few problems with this game. Screwing up early in a match doesn't just cost you that match, it can often render the remaining 15-20 minutes of it utterly miserable. Higher-level heroes can not only kick your ass, but because they don't have to hide they have an easier time gathering experience, making it almost impossible for you to close the gap.
This sad inevitability is just as bad when it's your whole team that's even slightly outclassed by the opposition. Thanks to all those rock-hard towers the other team have to break down, few games offer so slow a defeat as DOTA. LOL tries a few things to fix this, like giving you the chance to initiate a vote for team surrender when all is absolutely lost, but use of it is highly restricted.
But there's not much room for negativity here. More time, heart and money has gone into this than any other free game I can remember playing, and I think Riot Games is going to make good on its promise of post-release development. Until further notice, this is the DOTA game you should be playing.
8 / 10
You can play League of Legends now, for free, at the League of Legends website.