There’s a genre that you might never have heard of. It’s small, with roots in PC gaming, and was born of a free, custom map in Warcraft III called Defense of the Ancients. It goes by many names, but it appears that “Multiplayer Online Battle Arena” is the most accepted, with several developers scrambling to put together the first successful package to force people to pay for what started out as free. If it worked for the tower defense genre, you’d think that surely the MOBA isn’t far behind, especially considering how hot multiplayer gaming is.
Last year, Steam Powered Games released Demigod, which took the idea of a MOBA and scaled it down, vying for an experience that felt like a combination of DotA and Team Fortress 2, focusing on a few balanced characters instead of trying for several dozen. Another MOBA, Heroes of Newerth, has also been released, looking to essentially emulate and monetize the DotA experience by creating a near clone, but taking advantage of the fact that it isn’t restrained by the Warcraft III engine. League of Legends straddles the line between these two games, refusing to be a clone but also being much closer to the source than Demigod. It still has dozens of different heroes to choose from, which helps to keep things varied, but it doesn't go character for character and create clones.
MOBA isn’t as easy to describe as, say, a first-person shooter. Usually, it has a control scheme and camera similar to the one found in real-time strategy games, pulled back to display large chunks of the battlefield. Combat, too, is a lot like an RTS, save for the fact that the player is usually only controlling a single unit that plays like an avatar in a standard MMORPG. Where MOBAs start to branch out is in the gameplay, which is different than standard team-deathmatch of capture the flag. Think of it like this: there’s a war going on and it’s at a stalemate. Two armies are attempting to destroy each other’s bases, consistently meeting in the middle of the battlefield to exchange blows. Once one group is victorious, usually by only a small margin, it will push on only to be wiped out by defensive towers. This will go on forever. The only way for the battle to be won is for it to be influenced by an outside force. You are that outside force, controlling a character that can take down individual enemies effortlessly. The problem (and hook) is, you’re not alone, and there are several other outside forces fighting with and against you, each as powerful as you.
In order to ease players into playing a MOBA beyond DotA, Riot Games has decided to do several things. Firstly, they've made it free-to-play, a silly phrase applied to games with a limited amount of free content and a massive number of micro-transactions. In this case, however, it actually makes some sense, and seems like a great way to introduce fans of the genre to the concept of spending some money. Second, as opposed to making a title that feels like a copy or an offshoot, Riot has created something that appears to be an evolution of Defense of the Ancients instead of a mere copy. Instead of replicating every element of DotA, they've taken what works and expanded upon it, while abandoning aspects that, while popular, aren't really all that conducive for competitive, balanced play.
Removing the ability to kill allied units to deny enemies of experience, for instance, gave an unfair advantage of ranged heroes early game, so it was completely removed. Runes, too, were taken out, and replaced with bonuses for killing neutral units scattered in the forests. It takes advantage of being free from Warcraft III by adding an impressive matchmaking system and a persistent "Summoner" element, which lets players customize a load-out that will apply to any champion they choose to play. The idea is that players are actually in control of Summoners who, in turn, summon Champions to fight in their name in the League of Legends. Convoluted? Maybe, but it works well to create an excuse for some persistence, which cuts down on the amount of people quitting games that go sour for them - one of the largest issues in the genre.
Matchmaking and the Summoner system would have been completely impossible without turning away from Warcraft III, and help make LoL feel like its own game. The same can be said about the addition of brush, which is strategically placed foliage around the board that will hide any players that step inside. While on the subject of benefits made possible because of the new engine, the game has many other elements that should make it much more accessible to even those who haven't already spent a few dozen hours calling opponents' mothers whores in DotA. In the past, getting into any game in the genre assumed player's knowledge of its roots, which left most players disillusioned. LoL lays out everything in completely sensible ways, from building items to leveling up, which should make easing a player into the game much easier. While there's no singleplayer story, it offers an insightful tutorial and the ability to play against AI - two elements which should also help transition RTS players into League of Legends. The AI still has room to grow, as noted by the only difficulty settings currently being "noob" and "easy" (since they're only really feed-bots so far), but it's better than nothing.
Visuals, too, are worth commending, using a playful style that absolutely fits the nonsense that is the genre. The idea of a Yeti battling against a giant robot while a witch casts a lightning spell on them is simply too silly to contain in reality, so giving everything borders and making it look like it's ripped out of a Saturday Morning cartoon is a good idea. Not only that, but the style looks simply wonderful on computers that can handle it, a glimpse into what might be if the developers find a way to bring it over to consoles anytime soon. It doesn't call for the most intense PCs ever crafted, so pretty much anyone with Windows and a computer made in the last few years should be able to enjoy the title without too much of a problem.
When it comes to actually playing the game, something that's obviously very important, LoL provides an addictive experience that should feel reminiscent of any other game in the genre. Though a match lasts upwards of an hour, it's nearly impossible to stop at one, and the persistent Summoner system, which brings experience and leveling outside of individual matches, adds another hook to make sure no one can quit after just one game. After finishing, you'll find that you always have another match in you, even if you've spent the past three hours saying that. The champions are well-varied and interesting, and there are enough that it takes a long time before the game grows old.
That is, if you spend some money, since only a few come for free, and the rest can either be purchased after dozens of hours spent earning in-game money or with some real-world currency. The shop's prices actually might be one of the worst elements of LoL, with certain champions costing more than others - which goes against the idea of a balanced game in every way. Luckily, this isn't Riot's goal, and should end up being balanced over time. The ability to buy a retail copy, which comes with a large number of Champions and a handfull of Riot Points, stops this from being too much of a problem, and it's easier to treat the free-to-play section of the game as more of an expanded demo than the actual game itself.
While there's no doubt the hardcore Defense of the Ancients community will embrace Heroes of Newerth over League of Legends, that might actually be a good thing. DotA players might be some of the most unfriendly gamers out there, so if the most vocal of them go to another game that's no problem at all. In fact, it might help the community, and there's something to be said about opening up the genre to newcomers. That area, more than any other, is where the game shines, and LoL's ability to turn the MOBA from an imposing beast into something anyone can play is commendable, and should do much more for the genre than an unabashed DotA clone made for people who want to play the Warcraft III map with a matchmaking system. For those looking for something a little different, however, and a way to bring friends into the competitive PVP wonderland that is the multiplayer online battle arena, there's no better choice than LoL. It's free, so there's no reason not to try it out, and there's a good chance you'll find yourself still playing after a few weeks, eager to pick up the full version.