MOBAs, or Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas, are the new plateau of the the PC evangelists. Like the Action RPGs of old, anyone who is a primarily PC player probably also is a moderate League of Legends or DOTA participant. The quick-thinking, tactical decision making, steep-yet-rewarding learning curve, and vast room for exploration in the way you prepare and play your characters are just stand outs of a long list of reasons these sorts of games shouldn’t be distilled down for a mobile platform. It seems Super Evil Megacorp never read this list.
Doing their best Blizzard impression, SEM strips the MOBA down to its fundamental parts in hopes to encapsulate the elemental appeal of the popular genre faithfully without the use of mouse and keyboard. Vainglory may be the best attempt at doing what few have even attempted in the past, but it’s not a perfect result. As every aspect of this game is built with solid parts, there is room for improvement—both great and small—throughout.
The most conspicuous adjustments to the basic formula are the 3v3 team sizes and the single lonely lane across the top of a massive jungle. The lane still has turrets that still need to be destroyed with the help of AI minions in order to reach the enemy base, but it’s never really been about the destination, right? And in Vainglory’s case, the focus on making the journey towards the base exciting, in creating various gameplay hooks to force action and keep players with their hands full of tactical options, is design well-executed.
The jungle isn’t just a place a hang out and more safely gain experience, gold, and buffs—at least not for the full course of what will, on average, be a 30 minute game. After the fourth minute, mines activate on each side of the field, guarded by minions who are tougher than the average creep, but not by that much. Slaying him gains your team control of that mine, and starts a slow ramping of the strength and toughness of your team’s minions. Controlling both mines makes your minions that much more effective, while losing mines instantly depowers your minions and forces them to start from the bottom of the power ramp once more. In the center sits a gold mine, guarded by an even tougher jungle monster who, when defeated, will gain gold on at a slow and steady rate, granting a big payout when its full. If it’s stolen at anytime during the gold gaining process, the attacking team gets whatever gold was collected as reward.
As soon as these mines appear is when the game turns from average MOBA to truly ingenious. Other games provide mini objectives to claim or special monsters to slay in order to gain buffs for a small period of time, but it’s not always a useful tactic, and tends to be something you do when you’re not in a team fight. These jungle objectives are not the case. Perhaps its the very small window of time after the mines are captured before they become available for recapture, or the way that constant defense of their buff on your minions can be a deciding factor of any teams victory. The Gold Mine can especially become a hotly contested point of the map, thanks to the significant boost in gold (and eventually equipment) it can provide. The gold mine eventually collapses and is replaced by a huge beastie called The Kraken who, if defeated by your team, will trundle down the lane, bashing turrets in your name.
Almost as a pat-on-its-own-back, the jungle also offers a secondary shop in the middle of it, because the jungle is such an interesting place to be, you almost don’t want to leave.
Moment-to-moment skirmishes with other players are pretty exciting, and often rather decisive. That’s not to say that these characters aren’t balanced, the mismatches are very much apparent when certain characters face off and, without proper teamwork, defeat is a commonplace.
This all highlights one of the biggest issues with Vainglory: there is no communication suite to speak of. No voice chat, no text chat. Just three beacons that tell everyone on your team where you’re going, and where they shouldn’t go. And even then, you can’t single any one of your allies out with these pings. I want the tank to follow me down a lane, or I want to warn the squishy assassin to stay out of the jungle, I just have to hope they know what I mean. Even though the act of fighting—hitting your abilities in flashy sequences, and juking in and out of range for narrow escapes or super clutch ganks—are rewarding and enjoyable, you often feel like three people with similar goals, and not really a finely tuned team.
The character’s themselves are pretty intuitive and play their designated roles impressively. They’re aren’t many of them, but they each feel unique for the most part. SAW and Ringo are both men with guns, but SAW is a heavy armored stationary machine gun to Ringo’s light and agile revolver. Far too many of these characters seem very straightforward, though. In bigger MOBAs (with bigger rosters), characters have several different ways to be geared up and played, and these variances are usually very different from each other. Far too often with Vainglory’s cast, I felt there was a right way and a wrong way to play someone, and the game isn’t incredibly clear on how to do it correctly. Also, for all of their color and animations, the character’s themselves are pretty underwhelming, conceptually. Cat girl with claws? Check. Stoic soldier lady? Check. Are their boobs out? Check. Character design might be the only thing not attempting to change any status quo in this game.
And even though I would say that the status quo is safe for now, Vainglory is definitely on the right track. The average game may take longer than your normal round of any other mobile app you have in rotation, but Super Evil Megacorp has successfully brought the MOBA to your phones and tablets. In its current form, it won’t replace League or DOTA. Without anyway to strategize with teammates who aren’t sitting in the room, there’s no way to really elevate this game past casual play. But damned if that casual play isn’t fun.