League of Legends Review: Free, Addictive, Worthy

What started as a modification of Warcraft III by a group of fans has turned into an ambitious free-to-play PC strategy title packed with a surprising amount of tactics in an easy to pick-up-and-play package.

In League of Legends you take on the role of a summoner, calling forth a champion that you control in Warcraft-esque skirmishes as you work to tear down defensive positions and destroy the enemy nexus. Working with other player-controlled champions, the game is based on cooperation and collaboration, with all of the micro-managing thrown out the window.

As with its mod-inspiration Defense of the Ancients, League of Legends won't cost you a dime to play, but is it good enough to convince you to shell out cash to upgrade and excel?

Loved
Simplified Strategy: Built on the core of Warcraft III, League of Legends strips away the need to micro-manage, or manage at all. Defense towers exist when a match starts, minions spawn automatically and course through a map's paths on pre-determined routes, stopping to attack the first foes they encounter or to try and level enemy defense towers. You have no control over any of that. What you do have control over is your single champion, his or her ability to impact the lines of minions, and the champion's growing power, which can be used in battles to shift the tide of war. Of course you also have to look out for the other champions on the map looking to take you out or clear a path to your nexus home base.

Cornucopia of Champions: In many ways, League of Legends plays like a straight-up action role-playing title. The character you level up over the course of a match is selected from a growing number of champions, each with their own abilities, spells, attack styles and look. As you play through a match your champion earns experience and levels up, unlocking skills and spells that only last until the match ends. The game launches with 40 of these characters with a steady stream promised from the developers. Mastering the game is one challenge, but learning the ins and outs of each champion is the sort of enjoyable task that could takes months to complete.

Mastering Masteries: While the champion you summon and control is drawn from the same ever-expanding pool all of the other players draw from, the summoner (that's you) levels up over time, earning mastery points which can be applied to three different fields: Offense, defense and utility. The way you spend these points impacts whatever champion you decide to use in a match giving them stronger attacks, better defense, improving their magic or even tweaking the spells they can cast. This summoner leveling adds another level of complexity to the already cleverly constructed game.

Items and Spells: Champions all start out as level one at the beginning of a map, but as you gain experience they level up, letting you assign points to their abilities and spells. The fact that you have some choice means that even if two of the same champions meet in battle, there's a good chance they won't play the same. On top of that, you can spend the gold your champion earns in battle to buy magical items that augment attack and defense abilities, spells and give your character new skills.

Stealth: While the maps can get a little old over time, the fact that there are creatures stalking the marsh and woods between paths can make things interesting. Better still, certain areas of the map allow you to hide from other characters, making it possible for you to slip behind them during battle and pull off a stealth attack.

Anime Warcraft: The selection of champions include a wide variety of art styles, from large-eyed, big-headed anime-ish characters, to characters that would fit in as heroes in Warcraft III. The look, as much as the abilities, of these champions are the biggest reason you may want to take the time to master one.

Free Forever: While it's probably worth dropping $30 to pick up the collector's pack, and score special runes, items and a champion, you can actually play this game for absolutely nothing. The better you are at it, the more points you earn to use in the online store to purchase new champions and other power-up items. And the game always gives you access to 10 of the 40 champions. If you're not good, or you're impatient, you can also spend cash to buy items, champions or new skins. It's a serious win-win.

Hated
Need More Maps: With the game already out for more than a week, there's really only one map to play on and earn experience. A snow version of the map is said to exist, but I could never find a match with one. A third, smaller map, is in beta right now. As much as I love the game, and I borderline can't stop playing love it, the lack of maps is a serious issue. Riot Games' biggest push right now should be on rolling out more maps so the current one doesn't go so stale no one will ever want to play it again.

Slow Matchmaking: Matchmaking in League of Legends is a surprisingly long affair. I've waited as long as 15 minutes to find a match, though waits of closer to a few minutes is closer to the norm. While it's hard to directly control, I also found a high percentage of whiney, insular gamers in the matches I played. They complained about tactics, about losing, about experience points. Maybe creating different rooms or leagues could help cut down on the player in-fighting because it's a real turnoff.

As a long-time fan of real-time strategy games, I approached League of Legends with more than a little doubt that it could provide the sort of engagement and intellectual stimulation I'm used to from my RTS gaming sessions. But it only took a couple of matches to prove me wrong.

My biggest concern with League of Legends is not whether it's worth playing, but whether it can survive under the creative micro-transaction pricing system that Riot Games has established to financially support the title.

League of Legends was developed by and published by Riot Games for the PC on Oct. 27. The game is free to play, though you can spend cash on upgrades. The collector's edition sells for $29.99. A copy of the collector's edition and a $10 gift card for in-game item purchases were given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played through training mode and dozens of matches with 20 of the 40 champions.

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