No matter how good a MOBA player you are individually, the team that knows where to be and when will usually come out on top. In Vainglory, a mostly excellent iOS MOBA, the key to victory is to play in the same physical room with your two teammates. As good as it is at distilling the fast-paced, skill-heavy action of the genre into a mobile format with 10 strong heroes and a great three-lane map, coordinating with an online team is a tremendous challenge.
Vainglory isn’t an attempt to approximate genre giants League of Legends and Dota 2 on an iPad — it’s a strong, carefully constructed MOBA that exists on its own terms, and welcomes newcomers with open arms. It’s scaled down, rather than scaled back, and that’s a crucial misstep in most other MOBAs on the platform.
Developer Super Evil Megacorp has done a marvelous job with Vainglory’s map design, which leverages a superb jungle to give its simplistic design interesting layers. When working with my LAN team, we dominated nearly every game, usually because we refused to give up that place of opportunity. Capturing jungle control points increases your gold and minion strength, giving you more of an advantage as matches progress. Controlling those points is imperative – equally important to lane dominance – because it can turn the tide of a game.
Additionally, the 10 compelling heroes stand out. All are entertaining to play, and have fun relationships in combat. SAW, the lumbering machine-gunner, dominates in lane, but is too slow to jungle effectively. As such, laning with Petal and her three damage-dealing pets almost assures lane control, and she can dip into the jungle so a stronger SAW can kill on his own. Their designs are fun, too — Joule with her mech suit, Krul with a glowing sword planted through his chest, and Ringo with his monk garb and gargantuan guns.
It’s difficult to comment on balance, however, because my team’s ability to verbally call for assistance or to plan out our attacks was always an enormous advantage. Allowing players to coordinate the strategy necessary to outplay another team, and without text or voice chat, multiplayer loses the nuance and effectiveness. Also concerning, Vainglory often pops up with messages like “Ally has been killed,” or “Enemy has been killed,” but not which has been killed. This makes it difficult to know who’s still in play to support or slaughter you. But sitting side by side, my team could set up huge plays, recover from bad ones, keep each other alive, and roam the dense jungle beneath the main lane hunting for easy kills. We almost felt bad about it – even first-timers will feel powerful playing this way.
This is simultaneously satisfying and concerning. Vainglory matches last around 20 minutes, typically because one team snowballs out of control and becomes too powerful for the enemy team to gain an inch. If one side takes an early lead based on quick kills and jungle control, they’ll have the advantage at the 15 minute mark, when the enormous, game-ending Kraken creature spawns. Capture the Kraken, and it’ll flatten enemy turrets. If you’re lucky, you can turn around a losing battle by gaining control of Kraken — the monster absorbs massive amounts of damage, allowing you to wipe out distracted opponents — but it was rare in my experience, because the game is effectively decided by that point.
Frequent lopsided battles may indicate balance issues in Vainglory, though like most MOBAs it’s frequently patched. But in a game prone to one team already running away with it 15 minutes in, unleashing a Kraken seems like an excessive addition of insult to injury.
In a mediocre MOBA, these wouldn’t be notable issues. But, because Vainglory succeeds handily in translating the best of MOBAs onto phones and tablets, it drew my attention toward finer details. Vainglory is commendable in this way — its characters, map, and general design are so good that I think about how it’s balanced, rather than how it failed to accomplish the fundamentals.
Vainglory’s touch controls work beautifully on an iPad, which has enough real estate to effectively scroll across the map, navigate your hero, and have a skill-based ability hit its mark. On iPhone, even on the large iPhone 6 Plus, Vainglory feels cramped, and alerting teammates with visual pings, attacking specific enemies, and keeping track of the action can be challenging.
I’m hoping to see more added to Vainglory. With 10 heroes, many matches see similar team compositions based on which characters are free that week – which, to be fair, is generally more than half the roster. On the other hand, some are arbitrarily, prohibitively expensive to buy permanently, to the point that purchasing premium currency seems the only option. It’s inoffensive, but inconsistent, and therefore annoying – but I’ve been completely satisfied playing free heroes.