Image via Riot Games

League of Legends goes bullet heaven with Swarm, and its roster might be its greatest strength

Come on, shoot faster.

The League of Legends universe has grown well beyond the bounds of its MOBA origins. Its characters have shifted over to other genres and game types, ranging from auto-chess and fighting games to turn-based RPGs and Netflix shows. So in that respect, Riot putting its champions into the bullet heaven genre with League‘s Swarm mode shouldn’t be a surprise.

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Officially announced today, Swarm is the new PvE game mode arriving as part of this summer’s event. The full name is Swarm | Operation: Anima Squad, and as the name implies, it’s not just themed around League of Legends, but specifically the Anima Squad line of skins. For those who don’t play League of Legends, that might be confusing, so I’ll simplify it a bit: these are multiversal versions of characters, like the different Spiders of the Spider-Verse.

In this alt-universe, the Anima Squad is a cybernetic and animal-themed team fighting against the Primordians to save humanity. You’ll still see names you recognize, between old standards like Yasuo and Jinx, and newer faces like Aurora. The entire event takes place inside the League client, much like Teamfight Tactics. But while the format looks familiar, Swarm will feel quite different, whether you’ve been a long-time League player or just starting out.

We got the chance to go hands-on with the new game mode at a preview event amid Summer Game Fest. I’ve spent quite a bit of time with Vampire Survivors and the many, many games inspired by it, so I was curious to see what Riot was doing in the space. My first surprise was that Riot was building this inside the League client, rather than making it standalone.

In a Q+A with the developers of the mode, it was made there because the original prototype was built there. But also, building within the League environment offered some speed. Champions, animations, and other assets are already in the client. Teamfight Tactics was, according to them, easier to make faster within the client than without. And since this is a League event, Riot likes keeping it within that ecosystem.

Image via Riot Games

Legendary survivors

In Swarm, you pick from the roster of League of Legends champions and enter the arena, where you then start walking around and fending off encroaching hordes of foes. You don’t fire (most) of those skills yourself, though. They auto-fire, as you simply steer your champion around the map. And, for a League first, you utilize WASD for movement, while opting to either control the direction of your fire with your cursor or default to auto-aim.

Over time, the enemies get more durable and dangerous, eventually spawning special varieties of dangerous foes and even bosses. To combat this, you can pick up experience orbs that drop upon an enemy’s death, choosing new abilities or boosting existing ones with a pick-three system every time you level up. If you’ve played Vampire Survivors, you know exactly how this plays.

Honestly, this familiarity isn’t inherently bad. There’s a reason many other games, not just Swarm, utilize concepts from Vampire Survivors for their own bullet heavens; the ideas are just that synergistic with the mode. Core concepts like picking up orbital projectiles to push back enemies, increasing your movement speed or fire rate, and “evolving” abilities into stronger versions based on attack-attribute synergies all work as well here as they’ve worked elsewhere. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Image via Riot Games

One neat idea are “events” that can happen in the arena, where characters like Yuumi can pop up and kick off mini-games for rewards. They can be pretty difficult, at times, and sometimes involve complicated mechanics to complete while avoiding waves of enemies, like kicking soccer balls into goals. They’re worth it, though, for the upgrades if you can manage them.

Where Swarm feels notably different is how its individual champions move, attack, and operate. More than most other games I’ve played in this genre, champions have core mechanics that define the way they survive in-game. Jinx is your prototypical bullet heaven character, whose machine-gun attacks and hype-up passive mean she gets the zoomies the more she kills, and shoots faster the more zoomy she is. Shoot fast, kill faster, rinse and repeat.

Image via Riot Games

Swap over to Riven, though, and you’re playing something completely different. The broken sword-wielder does a hop-slam attack, metered off how much she has moved. So above all, keep moving. Her abilities encourage this further, giving you shields and scaling well with Armor, so you can get into the thick of the horde and still emerge alive.

Yasuo became a fast-favorite for several people at the preview event, I think. He loves increased odds to critically strike, and can start to really output damage the higher his crit chance gets. Add in his Wind Wall, which can create a barrier and hold the waves of foes at bay for ranged attackers, and he’s a surprisingly effective mix of utility and damage.

Champion identity might be the silver bullet for League of Legends‘ Swarm mode, as each character can function in different ways. The mode is also co-op, allowing up to four players to team up and fight back against the Primordians, and there’s plenty of meta-progression to unlock too, between permanent upgrades to stats, new maps, and more characters.

Getting animated

Riot’s vision for the game mode is also noticeably more colorful and cheerful than the more grim iterations of this genre. Rather than bats and zombies, you’re fending off aliens in bright locales. During our preview period, dangerous projectiles manifested as beach balls that would menacingly roll towards us. I’m not sure if that’s staying in, but I hope it does. There was nothing quite like hearing someone yell out “not another damn beach ball” amidst the rows of PCs.

There were times where the screen got a little hard to read, thanks to how many enemies and colors were on the screen. Contrast could be a little higher, in my opinion. But for the most part, I knew where my character was, and where the enemies were. Following some of the shots and projectiles were a little harder, but it worked out okay.

Image via Riot Games

The character and color extends to the bosses of Swarm, too. Boss fights aren’t necessarily new for the genre either, but Riot makes use of its recognizable roster once again to construct massive, active boss battles. We got to challenge the Primordian version of Rek’sai, which meant taking out tunnels and dodging underground strikes. By the time we got there, our squad was fairly overpowered, but it felt good to fell such a massive titan and do some light raid mechanics, dodging AoEs and focusing targets.

Swarm will no doubt benefit from the built-in audience of League of Legends, and probably appeal to anyone that loves those characters and their Anima Squad skins. As for bullet heaven genre fans, I do think there’s enough here to merit downloading the client and trying it for the low, low price of free. While some core concepts will feel familiar, the way that champion toolkits have been integrated into the characters’ actions works really well.

If anything, I’m curious to see whether it sticks around the way TFT has. The Anima Squad event kicks off on July 17 and runs through August 19, which leaves a short window for Swarm players to dig into all that’s here. Riot made it sound like they’d watch the numbers, when it comes to whether this mode could ever come back. But I wouldn’t mind seeing Riot continue to tinker with this idea. It’s a good one so far, and could get even better given time.

League of Legends‘ Swarm mode goes live on July 17.

Travel accommodations for this preview were provided by Riot Games.


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Eric Van Allen
Senior Editor - While Eric's been writing about games since 2014, he's been playing them for a lot longer. Usually found grinding RPG battles, digging into an indie gem, or hanging out around the Limsa Aethryte.