It's interesting how free to play MOBA games on PC cause little discontent, while on mobile the model is a morass of misery. Vainglory is aiming to turn the tables by bringing the genre to your sticky palm.
MOBA's not a genre that's supposed to run well on mobile. They're seen as the preserve of hardcore gamers, needing fine-tuned controls, big maps, and complex decision trees. It's all anathema to what we've been conditioned to expect from a mobile experience.
But developer Super Evil Megacorp have thought hard about the right places to trim and tighten the play. Rather than many lanes of attack, there's just one. Plus a jungle area where you can hunt for gold, capture miners to strengthen your position, and sneak a flank attack on the enemy.Upskilling
Characters only have a choice of three skills. They use the same technology tree, although different ones will benefit from different purchases. It's not too hard to wrap your head around, although the tutorial is pretty basic. MOBA veterans should find it easy going.
After all that judicious pruning, there's still a smart and challenging game at the center of Vainglory. It's a bit like capture the flag.
You're aiming to destroy the enemy crystal and protect yours. Along the way there's a series of super-tough turrets you'll need to destroy. You'll only do that with the help of both team-mates and your AI controlled minions.
Action in the jungle helps the maps feel bigger than they are. At the beginning it's the only safe way to rack up experience. As the game progresses, capturing miners to bolster gold and minions becomes a fascinating sideshow to the main event.
The real depth in the game is learning how to handle the characters and their different abilities.
There's a typical mix on offer from slow but heavy-hitting tanks, to helpful support staff, through to those who prefer to summon help and stay out of direct action. Success requires a good understanding of what skills and equipment to purchase.Up itself
How new players can learn this is not obvious. Other gamers, more seasoned MOBA players than me, kept handing me my buttocks on a plate, even though the game is still fresh on the app store. At first, I had little idea why. When it comes to certain character matchups, I still have little idea why.
Possibly, they're just communicating better. A lot of the subtlety in MOBA games comes from planning, co-ordinating moves and setting traps for the opposition.
To do that, it helps to be able to talk to them. On PC, VOIP makes that a doddle. But Vainglory has no such feature. You're left staring at the avatars of your team mates as they bustle around, wondering what they're scheming.
Beginners are going to die a lot. And because of that steep and impenetrable learning curve, that phase is going to last a long time.
So it's unfortunate that Vainglory penalises dead players with an increasing wait timer to rejoin the game. Of course there has to be a downside to throwing your life away, but as the times ramp up, frustration sets in.
There's a similar result to one-sided matches which, again, you'll probably see a lot of at the start. Games run a minimum of 15 minutes before you can even think of surrendering.
That's a lot of time to watch your team getting wiped off the board by more experienced opposition. Closer matches can run as long as a half hour, a big chunk by mobile standards.Uplifting
You can while away some of the downtime enjoying the scenery, because it's a drop-dead gorgeous game. It ran like butter on my iPad 4 and the controls felt tight and responsive. I doubt it'd hold up so well on older devices.
In many respects, Vainglory is an impressive achievement. It cuts all the right corners in terms of getting the game to mobile. The result is a demanding, thrilling game that feels suited to the hardware while retaining the soul of the MOBA experience.
It's just a shame that it couldn't squeeze that important plank of a genuinely great mobile game, accessibility, into the mix too.