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League of Legends is getting a Vampire Survivors-style PvE mode, Swarm - and it's a zen kind of carnage

Wave expectations.

LoL Swarm mode official screenshot showing gameplay with Leona and a lot of heavy enemies and visual effects
Image credit: Riot Games

Somehow, a combination of League of Legends and Vampire Survivors has produced something strangely relaxing. The infamously intense MOBA is getting a new mode this summer - just temporarily, at least for now - called Swarm, taking characters from League and design elements of the recently formed "bullet heaven" wave survival genre. But the big twist is that for all the on-screen carnage - and there is a lot of on-screen carnage - the result is something strangely chilled out.

Like all things League of Legends these days, Swarm has been fleshed out with reams of worldbuilding backstory. The mode is set within the alternate universe world of Anima Squad - for those understandably not in the know, Riot Games themes its many of its paid-for character skins in League of Legends around alternate realities or short fictional stories, like the cyberpunk-themed PROJEKT skin line, or the K/DA skins that tied champions to Riot's virtual pop group of the same name.

The vibe with Anima Squad is a kind of peppy, futuristic anime-sci-fi, where a group of heroes - with animal-enhanced abilities - defend the remnants of earth from an alien invasion. For the new mode, Riot has built out that universe further, with a range of enemy types introduced from the invading Primordians - purple, shark-like grunts and their bosses of various sizes, who believe themselves to be the "white blood cells" wiping out the virus of humanity - and the mode's various maps set in different parts of a post-apocalyptic Runeterra.

LoL Swarm mode official screenshot showing additional gameplay with Jinx
LoL Swarm mode official screenshot showing gameplay with Jinx
LoL Swarm mode official screenshot showing a Rek'Sai boss fight moment in front of futuristic buildings
Image credit: Riot Games

Lore is fun, but naturally the magic of course is in the gameplay with Swarm. The basics work the same as any other roguelite wave survival game. You begin, after choosing your character, as a bit of a weakling, before gradually gaining power and fending off greater and greater numbers of enemies, until your screen is not just full but comically full of the giant, armoured automatons you were terrified off just a few minutes earlier. Where Swarm stands out however is in Riot's signature ability to vary playstyles within the confines of a single game.

Maps, for instance, require different strategies. The first I played - with three others in a four-player co-op squad, though you can viably play alone if you wish - had a large circle in the middle that periodically activated, allowing you to charge it up for a burst of healing to your entire squad, with optional objectives like boss fights and quests appearing around the edges. The next had a roaming Miss Fortune (another LoL champion) controlled by the AI and periodically using her ultimate - a massive burst of damage in a cone - which you ideally needed to lure enemies into in order to survive longer term.

Much more variance comes from your own choice of champion. A handful were available from the off, including Riven, Seraphine, Leona, Jinx, Illaoi, Yasuo, and freshly-announced mage Aurora. Each plays like a slightly simplified, refined version of themselves from the main game, with fewer abilities and more of them acting passively, and so some knowledge might help you learn them faster but is far from essential here (this is a casual game mode anyway, after all). Jinx, for instance, is still a fragile, glass cannon carry who uses a minigun with rapid attack speed and has a big, high-damage rocket for an ultimate. Leona, a very tanky support in the main game, is still a tanky supporting option here based around shielding abilities - and works well when sticking close to Jinx.

LoL Swarm mode official screenshot showing Leona in a boss fight with Rek'Sai
LoL Swarm mode official screenshot showing more hectic Seraphine gameplay
LoL Swarm mode official screenshot showing Seraphine gameplay
LoL Swarm mode official screenshot showing a Rek'Sai boss fight with Seraphine
Image credit: Riot Games

Switch to Riven, and the identity from the main game again is clear - all about low-cooldown flips, dashes, minor shields and a damage-buffing ultimate - but that translates to a dramatically different playstyle. While with Jinx you'll be constantly kiting enemies and trying to keep them at range, Riven requires an almost unnatural bravery, balancing automatic abilities that trigger after a certain amount of movement, indicated by a gradually-filling cooldown bar. And crucially, all of them tap into the one thing that makes this genre so compelling: a miraculously absorbing kind of zen.

Developers from Riot, including well-known champion designer August Browning, who's been working on Swarm mode temporarily ahead of its launch, spoke of their desire for this to be a casual mode to be played between more intense rounds of League. It's run from within the LoL launcher, like Teamfight Tactics for instance, as opposed to a distinct Riot game like Valorant, and it features a simple form of meta-progression alongside it. As you complete each map you'll unlock the next, and with each game you'll get some currency to spend towards upgrades to things like damage and health. Complete all of the maps and you'll then be able to play them at a higher difficulty. The mode is entirely free, with monetisation not a central goal, Riot said. Instead, it feels like a play for engagement and retention: rather than leave League of Legends to wind down after a few games before bed, why not stay in the client and play a bit of Swarm instead?

LoL Swarm mode official screenshot showing an Aatrox bossfight
Image credit: Riot Games

I can see the appeal - and can see the world in which fans of this kind of zen chaos come to Swarm for the first time, and stay to try their luck at League of Legends. Regardless of the strategy behind it though, the point is that it's just simply very good. Riot Games, as it's shown through the years, does not do new games or modes half-heartedly. There is a signature obsession with canny design decisions here. And now I've got yet another thing to keep idle hands busy when I've got a few minutes spare. As if shaking my League habit wasn't already hard enough.

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