The original League of Legends demands a mouse and keyboard. In Wild Rift, though, everything is handled by touchscreen controls. (For now, there’s no option to play with a wireless controller.) Movement is handled with a digital nub on the bottom left corner of the screen. The opposite side, meanwhile, is littered with icons that let you launch basic attacks and a range of special abilities that differ depending on the character, or ‘champion,’ that you’ve chosen to play during the match.
I normally despise this kind of control scheme. They’re awkward, take up precious pixels, and easy to lose because there’s nothing physical — the edge of an analog stick, for instance, or the rounded surface of a face button — underneath your fingers. But to my great surprise, Wild Rift doesn’t have this problem. That’s partly because the action moves a little slower than the average third and first-person shooter. There’s no verticality, either. So unlike Fortnite, you don’t have to worry about timed jumps or constructing the perfect timber tower. The raised camera angle also makes it easier to prepare an ambush or plot a safe route through the game’s fictional arena.
Attacking is just as simple. Tapping the large button once will automatically target the nearest champion or, if multiple enemies are within range, the one with the lowest health. You can also select targets manually by dragging your thumb across the attack button. When you do this, the button becomes a digital nub that moves a yellow on-screen reticle. I expected this system, which exaggerates your thumb’s tiny movements, to be infuriating. After all, my hands are shaky enough when I’m using a mouse with low sensitivity.
But somehow it works. The reticule glides smoothly across the map and highlights whatever enemy is closest. That means you can release your thumb before the reticule is actually hovering over the desired target. It sounds small, but this system gives back a few precious seconds over the course of a 10 to 20-minute match.
Somehow it works.
There are times when you need more precision, though. You might be tackling a tower, for instance, and then find yourself swarmed by an enemy champion and computer-controlled minions, which you can quickly dispatch to level up and buy items that slowly make your character stronger. Fortunately, the attack button is flanked by two smaller buttons that force your champion to prioritize minions or turrets. They add to the game’s on-screen clutter but ensure that you’re never stuck targeting the wrong enemy type.
Managing abilities is a little more complicated. At the start of the game, you’re given a single skill point that unlocks one of three basic abilities. If you’re successful in combat, your champion will level up and slowly accrue more skill points, which can be spent on new abilities or improving ones you’ve already unlocked. A fourth ‘ultimate’ ability will also become available partway through the match. Some of these skills are passive and don’t require any digital button presses. Others fire in a straight line or deal damage to enemies standing inside a small area.
Complicated, for better and worse
And this is where Wild Rift gets complicated. To be successful, you have to memorize every ability and understand when it’s best to use them. Ahri’s Charm, for instance, deals a moderate amount of damage and forces the target to briefly walk towards you. It also makes them more vulnerable to Ahri’s other abilities for five seconds. Clearly, it works best as a ‘knock up’ before unleashing everything else in the champion’s arsenal. Other champions aren’t so straight forward, though. To master even a handful of characters, you’ll need to spend a bunch of time practicing in the game’s various training modes, which include a couple of co-op versus AI options.
On top of that, each champion has a couple of spells. Flash lets you teleport a short distance, for example, while Ignite burns your opponent for a short period, leaving them with wounds that make healing items and spells less effective.
Finally, there’s gold, which you earn by destroying towers and killing everything in your path, such as champions, minions and special monsters which include the Blue Sentinel and Red Brambleback. Every time you return to the fountain — a safe area tucked behind your base’s nexus — you can buy items from the shop. Wild Rift will present the items you can currently afford as small squares on screen. That means you can quickly mash through purchases before heading back out into the field. Alternatively, you can long-press on each of the items to see their exact benefits and, if you’re a beginner like me, immediately forget them and choose whatever is most expensive.
Even more complexity lurks under the game’s cartoonish surface. Outside of the matches, you can dive into the champion’s profile page and create custom loadouts. These include the character’s basic spells, some runes which affect their core attributes and play-style, and which items are offered in the store. For longtime League fans, all of these concepts and options will be familiar. And it’s this complexity, combined with the massive selection of champions, that makes the game so interesting and infinitely repayable for veterans.
But for a newcomer, it’s a bit much.
Wild Rift has a series of tutorials that do a great job explaining the basics, though. Every champion has a couple of premade loadouts, too, including a default which will never put you at a severe disadvantage. I’ve rummaged through the menus a bit, but prefer to spend my free time playing matches, rather than tweaking custom builds.
I thought I would be better
Playing competitive matches for the first time has been an eye-opening experience. I’ve watched enough games from the LCS (US), LEC (EU), LPL (China) and LCK (LCK) to have some idea of how the game should be played. I understand the basics of the laning phase — the where players typically stick to a single path on the map — and when it’s important to deviate and tackle an elemental drake, which gives your team a permanent buff, or rift herald, which makes it easier to knock down towers. I also have a basic understanding of the champions and how they should be played. I’ve seen Lee Sin dominate the jungle, for instance, and watched plenty of games where Vayne carries his team to victory.
And yet, I suck at Wild Rift.
Even with a simplified control scheme, there’s so much to keep track of. Does the nearest champion have a ranged attack? And when did they last use Flash? If they head back to their team’s fountain, should I keep pushing this tower? Or retreat myself and buy more items from the store? Maybe my team should be pushing for a Rift Herald instead? But do we know where the enemy jungler is? These are just a handful of the questions that your brain has to answer every 15 to 30 seconds.
League of Legends is also a team game, and on mobile, nobody seems interested in using their phone or tablet’s included microphone. Wild Rift supports text chat, but that’s hard to pull off when you’re also trying to dodge enemy attacks. Thankfully, the game has a three-button ping system. The first shortcut signals that you’d like to group up and attack something specific. The second denotes danger, while the third explains where you’re headed next on the map. If you tap and hold these buttons, an enlarged minimap will appear below your finger, allowing you to carefully place a marker. Your teammates will then see this pin on their own minimap, along with a helpful message like “I’m on my way.”
It works, though sometimes you want to give more specific instructions. At the start of one match, for instance, my bottom lane partner randomly wandered off. I used the ‘attack’ ping to signal that we should regroup and farm enemy minions together. The simplistic message caught the attention of my jungler instead, who wandered over and was equally confused about the missing ADC player. Situations like this happen all the time, unfortunately. If you want to make real progress, I highly recommend that you find some like-minded players and chat over Discord.
You can’t queue up for a particular role.
In some ways, Wild Rift is reportedly better than the standard League of Legends game. The mobile-optimized game has detailed models of each champion, for instance, that you can rotate and generally admire while you’re selecting a loadout and waiting for your fellow teammates to pick their champions. (From what I understand, the regular game just has static character artwork.) I’ve heard that minions spawn a little faster at the start of the game, too, ensuring that you spend less time standing around or jockeying with the opposition in lane. (Professionals use this time to set up early ‘invades’ on the map, but it’s virtually impossible to execute in a casual setting.)
It’s not all positive, though. You can’t queue up for a particular role, for instance. When you join a match, you simply have to pray that your teammates aren’t all fixated on playing ADC or jungle. In the champion select screen, there are some handy shortcuts that let you say “I’ll go top” or “we need a marksman.” But there are still occasions where everyone blindly picks their favorite champion, which leads to awfully unbalanced team compositions. A role queue system would obviously help to avoid disagreements and, in the worst-case scenario, five stubborn players charging down the exact same lane.
Wild Rift is also missing some champions. At the time of writing, the game has 50 playable characters, which is roughly a third of the roster available on Mac and PC. But I don’t mind the smaller selection. Yes, it reduces the game’s complexity. I’m a novice, though, that is barely proficient with a couple of characters. I would need months — years, even — to become competent with all 50 champions. There’s also a good mixture of old and new faces, such as Ezreal, Twisted Fate and Seraphine.
It’s hard to complain, though, when the game is free-to-play. You can unlock a handful of champions by playing matches and leveling up your Wild Rift account. (If you’ve played traditional League of Legends, you’ll be rewarded with your digital goodies. Otherwise, none of your purchases carry over to Wild Rift.) If you want the full set, you’ll need to spend a combination of Blue Motes and Wild Cores. The former can be obtained through battle, while the latter requires real-world cash. Like most free-to-play games, there’s also a bunch of cosmetics, such as skins and recall animations, that can only be unlocked with your bank account.
It’s perfectly possible to play and enjoy the game without paying a cent, though. There’s also a bunch of timed events that offer digital awards in exchange for completing in-game missions. At the time of writing, for instance, there’s an event called Wukong’s Challenge that eventually unlocks the titular champion. The first mission is to deal 50,000 damage, while the second gives you a choice: win three matches, or play three matches with at least one champion from the game’s fictional Ionia region. Clearly, these events are designed to encourage daily logins and, once you’re addicted to the MOBA formula, further purchases in the store. Even so, I’m grateful for the events, as they keep the game fresh and give casual players something to work towards.
Wild Rift isn’t the first mobile-friendly MOBA. There’s Vainglory, which started on mobile but is now playable on PC and MacOS, Mobile Legends: Bang Bang, and Arena of Valor, an international version of the Chinese MOBA Honor of Kings. One of my former colleagues tried the latter when it was released for Nintendo Switch in 2018. He called it “a shameless carbon copy” of League, but praised the balance it struck between pace and complexity.
So why bother with Wild Rift? For me, it all comes down to the brand and characters. I’ve spent countless hours watching League of Legends pros pilot champions like Vayne and Ashe to perfection. Arena of Valor has an esports scene, but it’s nowhere near as large or exciting. I’ve also become a fan of Riot’s fictional bands, including K/DA, which features alternate versions of League heroes Ahri, Akali, Evelynn and Kai’Sa. Together, these initiatives make Wild Rift seem infinitely more appealing than Vainglory and Mobile Legends.
Of course, I’ll never be able to play like Martin “Rekkles” Larsson, Yu “JackeyLove” Wen-Bo, or any of the other professionals that competed at the last League of Legends World Championship. With Wild Rift, though, I finally know what it feels like to play a game of League. At least partially, anyway. Playing the mobile-optimized MOBA will also give me a better understanding the next time a shoutcaster mentions an Infinity Edge or Hextech Alternator.
I’ve enjoyed playing the Wild Rift beta, but suspect I’ll invest more hours once the game is available on consoles. Riot Games has done a great job with the mobile version’s touch controls — which shouldn’t surprise, given how competently it ported League spin-offs Teamfight Tactics and Legends of Runeterra earlier this year. But I’ve always been more comfortable with a controller nestled between my hands. I also hope that the larger screen on my living room TV, along with a slightly decluttered interface (the console version shouldn’t require on-screen buttons) will help me land a few more Mystic Shots with Ezreal.
It won’t happen, but one can dream.