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‘League of Legends: Wild Rift’ North American Beta First Impressions: Unbelievably Good

Oh, hi. It’s me again. Jared hit me up to ask if I would be interested in covering the League of Legends: Wild Rift beta that TouchArcade got invited to, knowing full well I am a true degenerate when it comes to anything to do with League of Legends and it would be impossible to for me to say no. I’ve been playing the “full version" of this god forsaken game on my PC and Mac since the earliest days of the beta, well over a decade ago. I’ve spent quite literally thousands of dollars in it, thousands of hours in it, and have smashed thousands of keyboards in the process. (OK, that last part isn’t true, but the rest is.)

If you’ve never played League of Legends, it’s a MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena) game which at its core is not that different from Dota 2, Heroes of the Storm, Smite, and many others. In its main game mode, players face off in a 5v5 battle controlling characters with unique roles and abilities, in attempt to push across a multi-lane map to destroy the enemy base. It can be a lot of fun, or super frustrating, and often success is entirely dependent on how well your team is working together.

League of Legends on mobile has had somewhat of an amusing history, with Riot insisting that the game could not be replicated on smartphones for years anytime anyone asked them about it. Making this even more silly was the runaway success of Honor of Kings and Arena of Valor, which basically just were League of Legends, operated by Riot’s parent company Tencent. I was majorly into Arena of Valor, but eventually just churned out because it just felt too much like off-brand LoL.

When League of Legends: Wild Rift was first announced in October of 2019, I joined the chorus of people who all at once said to themselves: “About damn time." I’ve actually spent a stupid amount of time playing the Wild Rift alphas which were available in various Asian territories, involving a cat and mouse game of staying ahead of Riot’s VPN detection systems. Because of that, it seems weird to call this a “first impressions" piece when we could just slap “review" in the title and give it five stars, but, whatever.

Wild Rift is an unbelievably good, extremely full-featured redux of the PC version of the game. It’s so good in fact, I have no idea how it doesn’t end up just really pissing off the PC players of the game as Riot has inadvertently stumbled into this weird no-win situation with hardcore LoL players. I’ll explain-

Over the years, the spaghetti code that makes up the PC League of Legends has become somewhat of a meme in League communities. Summoner’s Rift, the map the main game mode takes place on, has been remade several times, but it’s hard to imagine the amount of technical debt a game as old as LoL and as complicated as LoL has accrued over the years.

Wild Rift breaks from all that with an entirely new game that Riot started from scratch on. All the characters models are new, all the animations are new, the menus are new, and so on. With these new character models, Wild Rift, oddly enough, looks better on my iPhone 12 Pro than the “full" game does on my totally tricked out gaming PC. They use these new weirdly high resolution character models for all kinds of things in game, making the whole menu experience feel so much more alive than the “real" League launcher that those same functions live in on the PC.

In the Q&A I did with Riot, they repeatedly reiterated that no only is this a totally new game, but it’s also going to have new exclusive content which includes both mobile-exclusive skins and mobile-exclusive playable champion characters. The first time a cool piece of mobile exclusive content launches, r/leagueoflegends is absolutely going to lose their minds as Riot finds themselves in the epicenter of PC Real Gamers who see mobile getting something cool that the “real" version is not.

By now you might be thinking, “Well, so what, they’re the same game, so everything just transfers over, right?" That’s where you’d be wrong. Because there isn’t content parity between Wild Rift and League proper, they’re their own independent game economies with unlocks tied to each. This is kind of a big deal, as the way LoL monetizes is by paying (or playing) to unlock champion characters or paying to unlock skins. There isn’t really any kind of meaningful funny money in the League economy, instead, you’re just buying permanent unlocks.

Riot is putting what sounds like a fairly small band-aid on this situation with a program they’re calling Rift-to-Rift Rewards. Basically, they’re planning on giving two different rewards: One for play time on the PC and one for how much you’ve spent on the PC. It’ll be really interesting to see how this all shakes out, as the way Riot is wording everything really makes it sound like these are going to be small token rewards and not, “Oh so you’ve literally bought every character in game and tons of skins, let’s just unlock all that junk for you in Wild Rift."

It seems like there’s major, major drama potential in the mobile game looking better, being new code, getting new stuff, and there’s no way they’ll ever satisfy long-time PC players with their cross-game rewards. On the up-side, you do unlock a pretty silly amount of champions just by playing through the mobile tutorials. In the Asian betas, I was never able to ever actually buy anything but I had pretty much everything I cared about unlocked pretty quickly just by playing. The same appears to be true for the North American beta.

Thankfully, I’m not sure there’s a company on the planet that’s more capable of dealing with massive amounts of player drama than Riot, so I’m sure they’ll be fine. Nevertheless, it seems like an odd decision to not be overly generous with unlocks. PC gamers are incredibly skeptical and derisive about anything to do with mobile. There’s going to be a lot of hardcore League players who refuse to play Wild Rift. It’s hard to think of a better way to win people over than being like, “Hey all that stuff you’ve worked for over the years in game is just on your phone now too, check it out sometime." But, hey, whatever.

As far as the gameplay itself is concerned, it’s hard to think of many new things to say about Wild Rift that we haven’t already said about Arena of Valor over the years. All of the innovations of bringing League over to smartphones (and consoles) were already made by Tencent in AoV. The keyboard and mouse controls have been converted to a dual stick-ish scheme, with a virtual joystick on the left to move your character around and an array of multi-function buttons on the right to control your champion’s abilities.

These buttons are highly context sensitive depending on the abilities of your champion, with some that you just tap to execute a move and others that you need to drag to either target an area on the ground or a specific direction a ability should be fired. Much like AoV, this all works very well. Unlike “full" PC LoL games which can take upwards of 45 minutes, Wild Rift has been sped up so games rarely last more than 15 minutes. It’s a long session time for a mobile game, but providing what feels like a “real" MOBA experience inside of 15 minutes has always felt kind of magical for both Wild Rift and Arena of Valor.

It’s a little hard to believe how faithfully executed of a port (if it’s even fair to call it that, since the game was made from scratch) Wild Rift is. Wild Rift is League of Legends with as few concessions as possible to just make it playable on a touch screen and inside of a reasonable mobile session length. I’ve played each of the five roles you can play in the game and they all work just as well with touch screen controls as they do on mobile. Things can get a bit dicey in team fights, but the game logic for automatic targeting and the three buttons for attacking, attacking players specifically, and attacking towards specifically work surprisingly well. (Again, just like AoV.)

I’m really excited to see where Riot takes Wild Rift, it sounds like they’re planning on rapidly releasing champions until Wild Rift has a similarly sized pool of playable characters and they’re even adding the All Random All Mid (ARAM) game mode next month. Allegedly it’s getting added temporary, but there’s no way it won’t be a regular thing in the game.

Overall, I really just can’t say enough good things about Wild Rift. I wish Riot was handling the unlocks differently between the PC and mobile versions of the game, as that has come up in every single conversation I’ve had with League friends I’ve encouraged to check out the game. I guess it’s possible that Riot is expecting such a massive influx of new mobile players that they don’t care if skeptical PC players write off ever trying it because they don’t want to buy everything all over again? I guess we’ll see!

The North American beta should be available soon for everyone to play. If you’d like to add me so we can play together, my summoner name is PoolPartyHarambe. I’m notoriously bad at the game, so we’ll probably lose, but at least we’ll be able to enjoy the time honored tradition of blaming the rest of our team for our loss together. I mean, for real, where was our jungler?